What's Cool In Road Cycling

Seeking Sanremo: One Step & 300km Closer

My journey to see my first Milan-San Remo started by crossing the Lombard plain and the coastal mountains, then smelling the sea-salt air of the Mediterranean for the first time is an amazing experience – hard to put into words, but impossible to forget.

Milan-SanRemo Primer: One Step & 300km Closer
My original theme for this story was “what makes this great race so great”, written on the eve of my first trip to San Remo to view La Primavera live. It was a spiritual journey, and this report was my humble attempt to put that into pictures and words.

It all starts with Milan-San Remo – the pro cycling season proper, at least for me it does. Long on my list of iconic races to be experienced live and in person, I finally made it to San Remo in 2010, but getting there is as much a journey as the 300km the riders face to the finish on the Ligurian coast.

Sailboats, sunshine, and azure blue waters… it’s gonna be good.

The first few hours of any Euro-adventure really take some getting used to. It goes like this – you hop into a time and space traveling tunnel (ie: the airplane) – and in a weirdly short amount of time pop out on the other end in a strange land, and even stranger daze. Add in some sleep deprivation and general torture that is today’s flying experience, and there’s no way to avoid thinking just how weird it all seems: one minute I’m pining away at the map on my wall, wondering what seeking San Remo is really gonna be like, and the next, I’m dodging muffler-challenged mopeds on Corso Buenos Aires in downtown Milan.

Crossing the Alps enroute to Milano… we are definitely not in Kansas any more.

My journey over went amazingly without incident, with everything working out as it should – from the car being ready, to the bike showing up, and me even checking into the hotel by 330PM – a new personal record. After an online check-in with the PEZ-Crew, I had time to source my first (of what will be many) celebratory negronis.

I popped into a tiny bar, and was impressed as the bar-keep prepped what may be the largest negroni I’d ever seen. He filled that glass with ice, then kept pouring the booze till it reached the top. My guess is there’s a good 6-7 ounces of gin, campari, and cinzano in this bad-boy. They shoulda tried one of these on King Kong.

I will report (and I’m still not sure if I’m actually proud of this, but in the interest of full disclosure…) I did not finish this one. Yes, it was too much negroni for me…. But gimme a day or two to get settled.

Even more astounding was the fact that not only the bar-keep, but also his waiter, claimed they had no idea what “Milan-Sanremo” actually is. I’m not making this up – both these guys just looked at me with blank stares when I asked who they liked for the podium… File that under ‘amazing but true’.

And After Good Night’s Sleep…
Driving from Milan to Sanremo the next day, the weather looked sketchy so I figured a quick detour up the Passo Turchino would be a good call. This 12km climb used to be a dirt road, and back in Coppi’s day was often a race-maker or breaker. Pavement and technology have pretty much nullified its impact on the race, but there’s a lot of history here.

Just past the start of the climb proper I came across this… So imagine you’ve just ridden 123km in two and a half hours, when you look up and see this little reminder of just where you are. That’s gotta suck.

The climb pretty much follows a river that winds and meanders down from the higher mountains, which still have snow on ‘em. The temp was around 9C degrees, and it was raining lightly – pretty much what the forecast said for that year’s edition – (see previous photo for added ‘suck’ perspective).

Then about half way up the climb this little gem pops out as I round a curve – the town of Campo Ligure – complete with ancient stone bridge.

I stopped in for a look, but you can bet the sight-seeing will be the last thing on riders’ minds. (Then again, given sketchy weather and 300km, I can think of worse places to call it a day.)

If this town seems deserted, it’s just ‘cuz everyone was down at the local farmers’ market – every Friday – right here and in towns all over Italy.

The tunnel entrance of the Passo Turchino – the Mediterranean is just though that hole.

In touching back on my ‘tunnel’ theme from the start, it is truly a wondrous thing how one can pass through this elongated portal, and trade total crap, cold weather for the kind that screams “pour me a negroni!”.  Alessandro told me the weather would be fine on the coast (he was born in Genoa, so he’s got some cred here…) but I still didn’t believe it till I saw it with my own eyes.

Here’s the view east from the entrance of the Turchino tunnel. It’s easy to see why Spring doesn’t start until tomorrow in Italy, although based on the lack of leaves, greenery, and sunshine… it seems so much farther away.

So I back-tracked down the Turchino to jump back to the autostrada, and coaxed my rental car up to 140kmh, with the afternoon ride at the front of my mind… right behind those growing thoughts of lunch.

I duck and dive though countless tunnels as I head west (and by countless, I mean 54 – I counted them on the map), and finally locate a suitable roadside lunch stop. Check this out…

Grilled veggies with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar, a roll to soak up the excess, lasagna bolognese, a little red wine… Yes, it was as good as it looks. Mrs. Pez hates it when I eat this way though… without her here to enjoy it with me.

Within minutes of completing my lunch the sun breaks through the clouds and just starts shining brighter the closer I get to Sanremo. Like my 4 year old daughter likes to say on a car trip (please note actual amount of time in the car has no bearing here): “It’s taking too long/ when are we gonna be there/ drive faster daddy.” If I wasn’t driving the car, I’da been right there in the back seat bugging me to hurry the f up too. There’s riding to be done…!

By 3PM I was rolling outta the hotel in search of the Cipressa and Poggio. My words here will be far too brief to do this experience justice, but suffice to say I was about to ride these climbs for the very first time.

And it was amazing. You gotta do it. Seriously.

Just like in the race videos, olive trees pretty much cover the Cipressa climb.

The final turn on the Cipressa spits you onto the front side of the hill – and here’s the view looking toward San Remo. It doesn’t get much better than this… and I can confirm the moment was spiritual.

I’ve learned over the years that a key ingredient of any truly epic day is making new friends. Even more points if they don’t speak your native tongue. I popped into a bike shop to ask directions, and Charlie here was the recipient of my query. He was already on a ride and offered to show me the way to the Poggio (don’t ask why I needed directions to the Poggio…). I quickly recruited him as my back-up photog, and like any good fan will do, we had to stop for the obligatory self-snapped proof that we (I) was indeed, about to pedal on to cycling holy ground.

Like I do when I first ride any hallowed place in cycling – I took my time and tried to soak in the experience to the fullest. It’s impossible to not think – ‘here’s where (insert any animator from last Primavera’s in memory) attacked as you ride past the green houses, olive trees, and through the switchbacks.

After a very enjoyable and tourist-inspired climb, it was time for one more photo-opp before soaking in the famous Poggio descent. How many times have we see this famous turn that marks the quick transition from the Poggio climb to descent? For the race, it’s almost like turning the page of a thrilling book that you just don’t know how it’s gonna end… A touch of the brakes, shift the wait back, and jam as close as you dare to the sign-post and phone booth – then it’s big-ring mania as the next 3km go warp speed.

The descent is truly scary – I took it easy, (so I wasn’t scared, no way), but at every bend, switchback, and off camber drop, I thought about bombing this thing at 50-60kph with death or glory separated by just a feather’s touch of the brake pads.

What did I learn from today? It’s impossible to say – it’s gonna be a while before it really sinks in and I find a way to process it all.

And then there’s race day. But that’ll be another story.



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