What's Cool In Road Cycling

Seeking San Remo: The Duel To Via Roma

PEZ’s Nick O’Brien was live and in-color at the 96th la Primavera – Milan-Sanremo 2005.  Now over 100 years old, the race has changed with modern times, but as Nick discovered while riding the final “capi”, dueling mano-a-mano for sprint-line glory with a roadside adversary never gets old.

It’s Spring and at this time of year every hot blooded Italian has only one thing on his mind… getting down to San Remo ahead of anyone else. Or that’s the way it seemed last Friday as I drove down the Ligurian coast fighting for space on the Autostrada with hundreds of Fiat driving maniacs all doing what is one of Italy’s most popular national pastimes – making sure you’re first in line for everything, regardless of what it is – perhaps that’s where Signor Cipollini gets it from.

San Remo Here We Come
The atmosphere in and around this famous Seaside resort is electric as thousands of fans descend on it for ” la Primavera”. The 96th Milano – San Remo is coming to town and I’m gonna’ be there. I’ve already got a result second only to winning on the Via Roma itself, not only have I been asked to cover the race for PezCycling, but I’ll be riding a new De Rosa King Xlight for a Mediterranean road test – talk about double whammy, I haven’t felt this good since Roger Hammond took third in last years Paris Roubaix – us Brits don’t have many results to celebrate! (Ed: How times have changed Nick! Wiggins, Cav, Froome…)

sanremo 2005
Nick set out to discover the connection between the past and present at the 96th edition of Milan-San Remo.

Appreciating the Past
Things are looking good as I sit here sipping my cappuccino, The bike’s getting lots of attention and a general sense of anticipation for the arrival of the season’s opening classic is beginning to spread around the early morning customers in the cafes and bars on the beach front. Italians have a great sense of tradition, and having married into an Italian family I’ve realized that this is based on the misconception that everything was always better in the good old days, not least the world of bike racing, as I’m constantly reminded by my Father in law.

In “his” day (anywhere from 1920 to 1970) races were longer, riders were tougher, hills steeper, bikes heavier etc. etc… yet some how things were always a lot better, especially when it came to the golden era of Coppi and Bartoli. Now far be it for me to dispute these non-scientifically proven, rose tinted views held by the older generation, but on a day like today with the race expected to arrive in about 7 hours and the current golden era of Italian cycling spearheaded by Petacchi, Bettini, (and even Basso and Cunego for the Grand Tours) on its way, I can’t help but think with all due respect, these old guys just don’t know what the F@ck they’re talking about. But that’s the point in Italy – everyone’s got a view on this race and that’s why I’ve always wanted to get under the skin of this legendary classic and find out why it means so much to have a win at San Remo on your palmares.

It’s said that if you win San Remo you’ll never have to pay for a drink in an Italian bar for the rest of your life. But what’s not said too often is that with all the bar room philosophers around you’ll wish you’d done as Zabel did last year, and put your hands up a bit earlier to avoid dying of boredom. All of the greats have won here Coppi, Merckx, Gimondi, Kelly, Marc Gomez (I know, it was 1982 a bit freaky, but somewhere an Italian will have a view on him – ).

Sanremo 2005
Nick’s in-family racing historian – his wife’s father Signor Rizzi – a big fan of the 1964 San Remo who knows what’s cool in pro cycling.

The race is steeped in history with climbs like the Turchino Pass and the Poggio forming the back drop to some truly heroic rides, it’s this pedigree combined with my father-in-laws insistence that the greatest ever San Remo was in 1964. He just happened to be there to witness Tom Simpson’s win – which if you talk to any tifosi – was due in no small part to the help he got from the Italians, even though he was actually riding for a French trade team – don’t you just love their patriotic imagination!

That inspired me to drive 14 hours solid across Europe together with my pregnant wife and inlaws to see for myself the magic of this eternal Cassic.

My Leadout Banana
My plan today is to ride the coast road down to the town of Imperia and then climb the “Capi” back, prior to the race, with the intention of watching the riders on the Poggio and then following back down into San Remo for the post finish action and presentation and Press conference. In principal this is all achievable. In practice, however, as I order my third morning coffee and the waiter starts giving me his prediction for a Petacchi win this afternoon whilst illustrating the Fasso Bartolo lead out tactics with 4 bread rolls and a banana, I realise I better get going or else my leisurely paced ride of about 70km might need its own banana lead out train to get me back in time.

The glorious thing about Italians is they all have a contact and where Sports are concerned, they’re the masters, even my taxi driver in Milan, once he realized he’s taking me to the pre race press registration, decided to tell me who’s going to win. Having been told by some leading authority he was actually putting 100 euros on Valverde and preceded to pull a list of betting odds out of his glove box whilst negotiating the Milano rush hour!

Anyways…the ride along the coast on a warm, if a little cloudy day, is stunning. And although in recent times the route has been criticized for being too easy, I really admire any “sprinter” who after riding 250km from Milan is still in the action over the final 50 kilometres because this coast road twists and turns over several headlands that apart from being steep little buggers, also expose you to the winds off the Mediterranean – so I for one reckon anyone who’s there at the finish deserves maximum respect! There are no easy wins at this level.

Sanremo 2005
Like the cherry on top – what’s more Italian than a bright red Ferrari – lovingly adorned with Mrs. O’Brien and the future baby O’Brien.

It’s still early but the towns along the route are getting ready for the few seconds of madness when the race flies through, flags and bunting are everywhere and the roads are already getting chalked up, with an equal number of Rebellin’s to Bettini’s – whilst from a non-Italian point of view the only “Stranieri” or foreigners to get a regular mention on the tarmac are Boonen and O’Grady – perhaps Oscar Freire’s win last year and his subsequent world champs title mean he has had way too much encouragement from the locals already.

Die! Die!
Talking of encouragement I’m in need of a bit myself as I struggle over a short climb into a headwind a group of teenagers propping up vespas shout at me “Die, Die” which is bang out of order since I’ve got my best “this isn’t hurting a bit ” expression on… it’s not until later when I’m berating the state of Italy’s yobs that I realize they were in fact pleasantly shouting “Dai, Dai” which translates as “Go, Go, give it some…” Still, I bet they added you fat B*****d once I got out of sight.

The race itself has already started out from Milan this morning (no doubt cheered off by designer clad locals in what has got to be one of the few remaining Classics that actually starts in the centre of the town from which it takes its name) so as I’m riding along I can see small clusters of people gathered round TVs and radios catching the action as the race travels across the Lombard plain towards the first real test of the day. The “Turchino Pass” takes the riders over the Appenines and drops them down into the western suburbs of Genoa before turning west along the coast through the seaside towns that in a couple of weeks will start filling up with holidaying families from Turin & Milan.

Full sprint or Track Stand? – it’s such a fine line on the Cipressa.

Tackling the Cipressa
Just before Imperia, I turn off the main road and I’m straight onto the infamous Cipressa – a climb that I’ve heard is sprinted up by anyone with any notion of being involved at the finish, because if you’re not in the top twenty over the top you’ll miss the cut on the descent, which is notorius for crashes. It’s not long before I’m out of the saddle too, in a kind of a sprint that perhaps more closely resembles a “track stand”. As this 10% lung burster meanders through olive terraces I comfort myself with the discussion I’d had earlier with my waiter, who insisted the course had got easier of late because of better road surfaces etc. – yeah right – like he knows what he’s talking about (he is actually right of course the road up has been recently tarmaced BUT it still hurts).

Qui E PEZ?
It’s amazing to be riding the same slopes that later today will be swallowed up by the pro’s and by my reckoning I’ve just about held my own with most of the locals riding up at the same time. Plus earlier in the morning I’d driven up the same slopes to partake in the time honoured tradition of chalking the afore-mentioned new tarmac with a few PEZ’s so I had something to aim for! Although as I painted, the crowd that gathered from the F.Sacchi Fan Club were scratching their heads a bit as they checked their Gazzetta dello Sports for a rider called Pez!

After about 5km of pain I reach the top and try and compose myself as I pass even more club riders, all looking uber cool, fully colour co-ordinated and carboned up coming towards me. The descent is as imagined, absolutely mental and even without a screaming bunch on my wheel or a TV motorbike getting in my way, it’s easy to see how you could come a cropper on any of the many hairpins back down to the coast.

But to be fair the De Rosa makes it a pleasure doing everything I ask – both into and out of the corners my confidence is sky high as I’m riding back towards San Remo. It takes about 20mins to get to the capo Verde and after a short run along the main road I swing right to start to climb the Poggio. The roads are filling with more and more riders and the crowds along the route are getting thicker.

Again the climb is as steep as ever, 9% in places so by the time I’m halfway up I’m beginning to feel it big time, but I struggle on with words of encouragement from all angles. As I near the top I find a little tempo & relax into the pace of some of the riders around me (the older guys with hairy legs and beer bellies) so rather than pull in at the top to watch the race pass as planned – I find myself elbow to elbow with a local careering over the crest and beginning the descent into town.

I look over at the guy, who’s got his poker face on, he’s probably about my age and looks pretty clued in so I just sit on his wheel as we take the first hairpin. Instantly I’ve lost a couple of metres as I see him sprinting out of the bend, that little devil inside me says “have it” and I sling my bike round the next bend and sprinting down the straight to get back on his wheel.

Sanremo 2005
Atop the Poggio, wiley weekend warriors chat pleasantly while waiting to half-wheel some unsuspecting sod into a death-defying descent.

Each time he brakes a bit later for the bends and I catch him glimpse over his shoulder to see if I’m still there – amazingly I am. I’ve never really had the bottle for full on descents, but even with my responsibility as a father to be, somehow I’ve got caught up in the moment (Sean Kelly’s legendary dash after Moreno Argentin in 1992 doesn’t even get close).

This is war, if he thinks all my winter training – 2 turbo sessions and a reliability trial – are going to waste then he’s only kidding himself, because as we come out of the last bend and onto the, (luckily, already closed off) streets of San Remo I’m stuck to his wheel like Blair to Bush and both of us know it’s a fight to the death. Although nobody is even batting an eyelid I’m imagining the crowds are here for us and as we fly towards the finish line I “graciously” refuse to go through as he swings over.

Sanremo 2005
Thar she blows – San Remo in the distance.

Not for me the etiquette of the road, so he’s done a turn, big deal, where was he on the Cipressa? I’m here to win whatever the consequence. Something’s mumbled under his breath and to be fair he does have a point as he’s been at the front for the last 6km. I reluctantly ride through without even a glance, the tension mounting and the shear competitive instinct is almost tangible – he only slots in, right back on my wheel – disgusting behaviour, who does he think he is?

We fly along for another couple of hundred yards and suddenly see a paddle waving policeman trying to direct us down a side turn, “no way Jose!”. We sweep by him on both sides (like a traffic island on a Tdf stage) and continue our battle as he whistles and shouts after us. We turn onto the Via Roma skillfully avoiding a “Esta The” banner being fixed to a barrier.

Descending the Cipressa. Note the guy sans-lid in back.

I swear I hear cheers (or cries of disbelief?) as suddenly the slimey continental drops a gear and jumps me on the inside. I think my legs are going to explode but I manage to get out of the saddle and pull him back so that the two of us are now hurtling side by side down the centre of the road. The only problem being we’re a good 500metres from the line and he’s in as poor a state as me… Both of us slow dramatically, our heads flapping around as we both gasp for air I think we simultaneously realize the absurdity of what we’re doing.

But with a large crowd clustered at the finish we felt duty bound to continue and so I find myself making one last effort and a final lunge for the line. I reckon I got it, he’d definitely say he did (he’s Italian after all) but either way we both sat up grinning from cheek to cheek and even got a bit of applause! Anyway he actually was quite friendly once we’d crossed the line and I’ve certainly got him to thank for a truly memorable introduction into La Classicisma – the Classic of Classics as well as a criminal record with the San Remo Traffic Police.

Sanremo 2005
Nick and his partner-in-crime come newest cycling buddy. Funny how the shortest distance between two points is just two wheels.

I crawl back to my Hotel for a quick change and 30 minutes later I’m pushing my way through the crowds back to the Via Roma to await the finish (and see how it’s really done). The race is live on big screens on either side of the Podium and as I get there Bettini is attacking over the Cipressa – past my grafitti perhaps? (no doubt without a blink). Twenty minutes later my waiter from the morning is proven right, as the crowd go wild for local boy (born in La Spezia just down the coast) Petacchi thunders past to collect his first San Remo win and so conclude my first San Remo experience proving my theory correct, that La Primavera is still as special as it ever was.

Sanremo 2005
Via Roma after the battle.

• For more from Nick, check out his website full of fine Italian bikes at https://www.grupettoitalia.co.uk/

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