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Roadside PEZ: Chasing Milan-Sanremo 2011

When the television tells the name of the winner the silence comes into the Poggio. The tifosi are very upset. Another year without an Italian winner. And most of the people are asking who this Goss is. They cannot believe that such a great race was won by such a ‘small’ name. The Poggio turns to the quietness in a moment, and I feel so strange now that everything is finished. The first thought is how far this passion has led me from home. The second one is the time I will need to get back. But how did I arrive here?

Six o’clock and the wake up call has not yet sounded. There the race of the dream and it will sound just at six thirty. Italy is still dark, but it is quite clear that it is not cloudy. The silver of the early morning penetrates through the window and I just think that last year was more or less the same.

The starting point for every Sanremo for the PEZ-crew.

The departure of the Milano Sanremo is in the middle of Milano, at Castello Sforzesco. A coffee waits for me at the local Pez-headquarters at Bar Castello. Unfortunately I am alone, because Jered has not yet come. He and Ashley are coming from a 29 hour journey, and I think they are much more passionate than I am to do so.

The openness of the bus area makes for an enjoyable experience at the start.

The team bus area is crowded and everybody is excited to be there. This year, everything is turning to the good side. The main Teams parked all together and I have not to walk up and down to watch Boonen while Cancellara is just a further two hundred meters away.

Into the crowd I recognize Jered. I had never met him before, but I know what he looks like. We will meet before the departure in order to anticipate the race.

The World Champion.

The departure is always a very important moment. You can watch the protagonists in the eyes and it is nice to make predictions just wondering how they look like.

Ale updating on the race, as we anxiously wait in the subway.

When it is time to go, there is a moment of panic, because I cannot find Jered and Ashley and they cannot find me. But experience is on our side and we succeed to watch the first passage in Binasco after just 10 kilometres. We are so lucky to watch the first attempt of the day. Three riders plus one breaking away.

The break begins to form.

Three riders at the front, with one more about to join – the day’s break.

Hurrying back to the car.

The second passage is more quiet and we have the time to buy a foccaccia in Pontecurone. Ashley is curious to know what the difference is from a pizza and a focaccia (Ashley: I know they sound different, but in the shop, they looked really similar!). The difference, when you are Italian, is big. But when you have to tell to an American, well, it becomes difficult. I try to explain that the focaccia has nothing on it, she responds: ‘yes, but the one that you just bought has olives on it.“ True. So what is the difference?

Better come back to the race: The four leaders have fifteen minutes on the bunch which is still rolling fast. All the big teams are working, therefore the four guys ahead have a very little chance to succeed.

The four leaders.

We head to Ovada, but we have the time to watch an exciting passage from the highway crossing the road below. That is a new entry also for me. It worries me greatly when I realize that Jered has crossed to the other side of the highway to watch the group from another angle. Knowing how we Italian drive, I beseech him not to do that again. (Jered: Sorry for the scare, Ale!)

Ale mentioned that he never seems to find Oscar Freire in the group – well, we got him on Saturday. Unfortunately, he would not be a factor in the finale.

The sun is warm in Ovada, when usually it is quite chilly. But today seems to be really in the Primavera. The four are still leading, but the gap is ten minutes. The lost already five minutes and they are not yet half way.

The bunch begins the long ascent of the Turchino. The Riviera awaits.

The change in terrain from the flat plains outside of Milano to the hills, forests, and mountains right before the coast is spectacular.

We drive to the Riviera and we keep the chance to eat our pizza-focaccia. On the other side of the Turchino the weather changes, as usual. But this time in Riviera we find the winter back. It also starts to rain. It is not cold but it is rain anyway! The leaders gap is about five minutes. They are finishing kilometre after kilometre.

Ale is an absolute wizard at finding his way to great points along the route to Sanremo. This was one of many unlikely approaches.

Autostrada parking lot, behind a gas station, down a hill, through a tunnel, and then…the race!

Back to the car!

Jered is very excited to watch the Manie climb, our next passage. Ashley already had to call it quits after the Riviera passage and is fast asleep in the car. Not Jered, he is tired the same way, or even more, but he stands up thanks to a mix of excitement and sense of the duty.

The break struggles by towards the top of the Manie. Their time out front would soon be over.

Shortcut after shortcut we are at the Manie. A very cool passage. And over there we have the first surprise: Thor Hushovd is suffering. What happened? He is one of the favourites. Maybe THE FAVOURITE. But he is back, quite back. And his face is not good.

Hushovd’s crash right before the start of the Manie climb put paid to his Sanremo chances in 2011.

In front of the peloton the Liquigas is now making the pace. Is it for Sagan or for Nibali?

Then, when the leaders pass, our focus is drawn to the faces of the riders suffering at the back, trying to get over the climb and to Sanremo.

When we come in Andora, it is a surprise for me to meet an ex rider. Celestino. He is living there and he is working with kids. A bike school for kids that dream to ride, one day, the Milano Sanremo.

Mirko Celestino.

Celestino comes to see the race and he is excited as we are. He is now on the Tifosi side, after being a good rider, second in the Sanremo 2003 but winner at Lombardia 1999.

Here they come!

The 40 rider split was led by a hard working Katusha team, pushing the pace in hopes of getting their leader, Filippo Pozzato, a second Primavera victory.

Behind, Rabobank chased hard to close the gap, but it wasn’t to be.

In Andora there is a group of forty on the attack. Inside the group, I can recognize Pozzato and Cancellara. It is the good one, I think. They have more than a minute.

Ale’s super top secret approach to the Poggio was impressive, not only in its perfection, but its steepness.

Last run and last shortcut. We are at the foot of the Poggio. There is a very hard climb to walk (to run) to come in time on the top. Ashley and Jered stop where the hard point starts. I go to the same place I go to every time. The Tifosi are there and a small PC is showing in streaming the race. But the race is also in front of us.

Everyone was surprised to see Greg Van Avermaet leading the way on the Poggio.

Van Avermaet was followed by a strong Stuart O’Grady.

Then came one of Italy’s biggest stars: Vincenzo Nibali gave it everything.

It is exciting to see Nibali attacking hard. And to see Van Avermaet trying to resist. They are few ahead and the people on the road are very excited. It has been years since we have seen such an interesting race.

A kilometer or so further along the course, and eventual winner Matthew Goss is digging deep to close the gap over the top of the Poggio.

Boonen didn’t have it on the Poggio.

The second group heads for the finish line in Sanremo.

Then the name of the winner, and the silence.

To me, Jered and Ashley remain the good memory of a very strange day together. They will now witness all the northern campaigns but I hope they will leave on the Poggio road, or somewhere else, a piece of their heart stolen by the Sanremo.

Another year it passes there is another Pez crew member dreaming to be here. I barely remember the editions I was alone.

Jered and Ashley: A huge thanks to Ale for allowing us to tag along with him on Saturday. Last week, we wondered whether it was worth it to make the trip down to Italy for the Milano-Sanremo…looking back, there was no question: the race was wonderful, we made a new friend, and well, I have to concede, we felt the magic of La Primavera, and that was all thanks to Ale. Grazie mille!

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