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Sanremo’s Best: The Top Six

In the spirit of preparing for the year’s first Classic, we’re going to take a look back before we look forward. For me, it’s my fortieth year of celebrating the Primavera, here are six of my favourites; indulge me on three from the 70’s – I’m an old guy, remember? As a special addition, Alessandro Federico weighs in with the Italian perspective on each of these six memorable editions of Milano-Sanremo.

1970: Dancelli
It’s 1970, good news if you’re a fan of muscle cars and soul music, but bad news if you’re an Italian bike racing fan; those damned foreigners have won the Primavera for the last 16 years. The route was more or less the same – but without the ascent of La Manie, just west of Genoa – the Turchino, the Capi and the Poggio were all there.

The race was different back then, early breaks did go – and stick. There were nearly 200 K to go when 18 slipped off the front; many of the big hitters were there; the De Vlaeminck brothers, Gerben Karstens, Walter Godefroot, Eric Leman – but for once, Merckx had missed the boat. And a classy Italian called Michele Dancelli; the man from Brescia had been Italian amateur and pro road champion, won stages in the Giro, was a strong chrono man and could even get round a six day race.

Original photo credit CyclingWeekly.co.uk

There were 70 K to go when he attacked the group to go for a prime; he looked back, saw the gap and put his head down. Hesitation went his way and by the time De Vlaeminck, then Leman tried to bridge, it was too late – despite labouring over the Capi, it was Dancelli who lit up the Via Roma in solitary splendour.

Mad man Dutch sprinter Gerben Karstens hadn’t realised that Dancelli had slipped away and threw his arms high – but by that time, the tears were already streaming down Dancelli’s face.

The Italian Take On Dancelli’s Win
The win of Dancelli in Sanremo 1970 represents the deep essence of the Italian national feeling. Our country has not a strong common National feeling. At least not like the USA or Russian can have; this is mostly due to the Middle Age domination by very different countries (at least 4: German in north east / French in north west / Spanish in south and Church in centre). Sometimes, in this strange country, we find a reason to feel on the same side. The Dancelli win in 1970 was for sure one of those occasions. The Sanremo was won by foreigners for several years and there was no end to that tunnel. That year, Michele Dancelli decided to win and stop that black list with a long break. That afternoon the fear to see Dancelli caught by the bunch and see another stranger on the top again, put the Italians on the same side. This feeling was so strong that many babies were called Michele in honour of that event (one example? Michele Bartoli!) If you ask today to an Italian 60-70 years old who is not interested in cycling, he can tell you anyway about that afternoon when Dancelli got back the Primavera.

1974: Gimondi
The next three years went North; to Merckx (twice) and De Vlaeminck – hard to argue with those names. In 1974, to the joy of a young Scottish bike fan, we had live snippets of the Primavera on the ‘box’ in the corner of the living room, courtesy of ‘Eurovision’ and ITV.

I hadn’t really forgiven Felice Gimondi for beating Merckx to the Worlds in Barcelona in 1973, but when the TV announcer told us that we were; ‘leaving the wrestling to go to the Italian Riviera’ I can still remember the excitement.

There he was, a super cool, super stylish, running in to the Poggio – alone, the rainbow jersey looking so bright it was as if it was illuminated from within. As he rode past, the TV camera lingered on people throwing themselves down on to their hands and knees in order to kiss the tarmac that the great man had ridden over – I was beginning to realise that there was more to this sport than just guys pedalling bikes.

Original photo credit CyclingWeekly.co.uk

Felice had slipped a break, which contained De Vlaeminck at 22 to go and disposed of passengers Huysmans and De Meyer; the only two to go with him – until the coup de grace came on the flat coast road before the Poggio.

The Via Roma was his, nearly two minutes passed before Eric Leman bulldozed to second spot.

Study the victory picture, there’s no hard-shell or glasses to obscure the man from Bergamo’s smiling, handsome face; the bike is one colour, Bianchi ‘Celeste’ with no ‘splatters,’ stripes or ‘fades’ Campagnolo Super Record equipped – and the race director’s car is a gorgeous Pininfarina Fiat 130 coupe – things just don’t get any classier.

The Italian Take On Gimondi’s Win
These were the years when the Belgians were dominating the races and, especially, the Milano Sanremo. Merckx and De Vlaeminck were always beating the Italians and Gimondi was almost a symbol of this challenge. The human against the beast! We Italians like a lot this part where they we the David and we have to challenge Goliath. I always thought we like it because this gives us a good excuse to justify a loss! But, anyway, the challenge against Merckx was really tough. So the 1974 Gimondi win wearing the World’s symbol was enjoyed in Italy as it was seven!

1976: Merckx
No article on the ‘classic of all classics’ can be complete without mention of Eddy Merckx; he was in the saddle for 7 hours 40 minutes to win in 1975 but 1976 looked bleak for the big man.

Choosing to ride Tirreno-Adriatico rather than his habitual Paris-Nice as preparation, Roger De Vlaeminck had beaten him by almost a minute on GC – ramming home his superiority by inflicting a rare time trial victory on the man from Molteni.

But a wounded Merckx was a dangerous beast to confront and when his final attack came at the foot of the Poggio – an unspectacular stretch of road that is for one afternoon each year the centre of world cycling – De Vlaeminck and Maertens looked at each other and it was precocious talent Jean Luc Vandenbroucke (uncle of the late and sadly missed Frank) who responded to the raw power of the six time winner.

On the Via Roma, the young Peugeot rider would be left two seconds in arrears as Eddy punched the air in joy to celebrate his seventh win.

Original photo credit CyclingWeekly.co.uk

That was his last win in the ‘The City of Flowers’ but De Vlaeminck was back to win ’78 and ’79 – Raas having won in ’77.

The 80’s started with a win by Pierino Gavazzi – don’t say ‘who?’ he was a quality rider who also won Paris-Brussel, two Italian pro road titles and numerous Italian semi-classics.

Super smooth Fons De Wolf was fastest in ’81; but ’82 was an unusual one, as classy pursuiter Alain Bondue of France dropped his Motobecane on the decent of the Poggio, leaving long term breakaway companion and fellow countryman Marc Gomez to win a gossip worthy if not great Primavera.

The great names picked up the torch for the following years; Saronni ’83, Moser ’84, Kuiper ’85, Kelly ’86 – more on the Irishman, later.

Maechler of Switzerland gave us a preview of the form that would see him hold the maillot jaune in that year’s Tour to win the 1987 race.

The greats picked up the baton in ’88 with Fignon winning and repeating the trick in ’89; Bugno brought the 90’s in and Chiappucci treated us to an epic in ’91.

The Italian Take On Merckx’s Win
Merckx is loved by the Italians. He speaks Italian, and I believe he loves Italy too. But he was Belgian anyway and his seven Sanremo titles remain a nightmare for the Italian supporters. He probably has set a record for the ages, but, as it happens for Zabel nowadays, he’s now considered “one of their city”: in Milan and in Sanremo as well. It’s strange to see that this race has granted no more than 2 consecutive wins in the story to the same raider. Also the great Merckx had to follow this unwritten, but strong law. You have to pay, after two successful editions, to her will.

1992: Kelly
Sean Kelly was supposed to be ‘winding down’ in 1992 – his glory days behind him. Eurosport had arrived and John and I had settled down on the sofa with the girls, a bottle of wine and some nibbles to watch the race. When dapper former world and multiple Ardennes winner, Moreno Argentin tumbled off the top of the Poggio with a lead of 15 seconds, it looked all over – the lead would have been bigger but his early attack on the Poggio was baulked by motor bikes – but no one had told Kelly.

Argentin had just won three stages at Tirreno and was hot favourite, but again, no one had told the Irishman – whose descent of the Poggio can only be described as manic: brushing walls, kicking a massive gear out of every hair pin, the Irish Wolf Hound caught his prey inside the last K. Argentin was startled and annoyed when Kelly appeared and added insult to injury by refusing to come through as the chasing bunch hurtled through the streets of San Remo like crazed demons.

Kelly wasn’t playing poker, merely wasted from the chase (he told journalists, later) but as with all good sprinters, the tiredness slipped his mind when he saw the finish banner and Kelly’s sponsors, Festina watches, had the year off to a fine start.

We could only shake our heads in admiration.

The decade rolled on, Fondriest in ’93, Furlan ’94 (wasn’t he with Gewiss? Yes!) Jalabert ’95, Colombo ’96 – not a big name but classy and born to ride a racing bicycle – Zabel ’97 and ’98 then Tchmil with a late purge in ’99.

Zabel opened the millennium and then again in ’01.

Over the winter of 2001 one of the ‘I’m too sexy for my word processor’ post modern ironic English cycling press informed us that Cipollini wouldn’t get over the Cipressa with the leaders – how wrong he was.

The Italian Take On Kelly’s Win
This is remembered here as Argentin’s Sanremo. It was his race already before the race even started because he had been able to show a great physical condition during the Tirreno Adriatico well above the contenders. Italian tifosi were sleeping a quiet night before the race: Argentin was going to win with a spectacular attack on the Poggio.

But that day everything went wrong for the Venetian; the final kilometres with that unbelievable successful pursuit of Kelly is just the result of a series of events that took place since the start. Argentin was so strong that all the bunch decided to leave him the race responsibility.

That day a solo man (Convalle) was able to keep over 20 minutes advantage on the bunch on the top of the Turchino just because the bunch was rolling too slow. The races started so late and the result was no selection at all since the Poggio. In that condition Argentin had to spend so many energies in his attacks that he found no more in the famous descent. Waking up for the Italians was a bad one the next day.

2002: Cipollini
I was at Viktor’s for the 2002 edition; we were off the sofa and scanning the bunch on the TV screen for him on the Cipressa, he was cool – and there he was in the string as the rainbow coloured waterfall of riders poured off the Poggio summit. Acqua & Sapone’s team work was special, inspired, perfect – study the finish shot, Cipollini’s long arms touch the sky his zebra skinned chest fills the frame, second placed Fred Rodriguez is bitterly disappointed, third placed Marcus Zberg wonders where the hell Rodriguez came from – but behind, arms high, yelling with joy, is the Lion King’s final lead out man, Giovanni Lombardi.

Us? Our smiles were as wide as Lombardi’s.

Bettini in ’03, Freire in ’04 (ouch! Erik) and ’07, Ale Jet in ’05, Pippo in ’06, Cancellara in ’08 – so there we were, last year in the bar at the top of the Poggio for the 2009 Primavera.

The Italian Take On Cipollini’s Win
Since the beginning of this race story, in the far 1907 the Sanremo was a race for the strangers. The first winner was a French (Petit Breton), and to see a local winner it took three editions. This was quite unusual for the beginning of the centuries when races were won by locals. The Sanremo showed since the beginning the will to be an international race. The 2002 edition was born under the need of the Italians to get back the win at home because the previous five edition were taken by foreigners. Cipollini was second in 2001 showing that he could win. So, all Italian expectation were sit on Super Mario shoulders. The race went perfect for him and the final sprint too. This was one of the two edition without the mythic Turchino. “Cipo” declared just behind the finish line that – yes, I’m happy but a Sanremo without Turchino is not a Sanremo – and that was the end of the short Bric Berton story.

2009: Cavendish
The drill is, watch the race on the TV, sprint out when you hear the lead motorbikes, watch it pass, take your pics but don’t leave it too long before you zoom back inside for the finale or you’ll lose your TV spot. The race hangs a tight left off the summit but if there’s one good thing about the Poggio, it doesn’t tease – the top is the top. And Cav’s there! Jeez!

The potential winner has to switch from ‘red zone’ pain and refusal to let a gap open on the climb, to total razor sharp bike handling and concentration on the descent – with seven hours in his legs. The peloton runs off the descent into San Remo like a virus under the microscope, moving motor vehicle fast, ebbing, flowing, splitting, merging – only a Cancellara at the top of his game could out run it.

Chopper shots – the finishing straight, a figure catapults from the bunch, ‘Howz-lerr!’ screams the speaker – it’s over, he has the gap, he timed it to perfection, there was the slightest of lulls and he exploded. But suddenly there’s another rider on the screen, small, compact, hunched over his front wheel like a six day man playing to the crowd, but this is a bigger game – it’s called ‘immortality.’ It’s Cav! Haussler isn’t dying, it’s just that Cav is flying, pummelling that 11 and still having the strength to KICK!

He’s done it!

The bar is quiet, the locals are disappointed, we’re stunned – the Primavera does that to you.

Get the Peroni’s in, print off the start sheet and sand bag the lounge – you have another 364 days to make it up to the family; but there’s only one Milan – San Remo in any year.

The Italian Take On Cavendish’s Win
Almost all Italians doesn’t know where the Man island is. Is Cavendish English? British? A lot of confusion for us! But all the Italian tifosi are well aware that Cavendish is the real heir of loved Mario Cipollini. This came true last year, on Sanremo finish when he was able to show one of the greatest physical exercise we have ever seen. The stronger is the stronger, no doubt. And the stronger is really respected by the tifosi, especially if he demonstrate this in Sanremo!

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