MILAN-SAN REMO SMILE

The sheer distance of the Milan-San Remo boggles the mind, and it's truly a test of patience, endurance, and strength. This MSR preview is route-minus-race, highlighting the key moments, and showing you how the longest one day race on the UCI ProTour calendar is also the longest lead out for a 1,000-gigawatt smile you’ll get all year.

ROUTE SCOUT: MILAN-SAN REMO

MILAN-SAN REMO SMILE

Fun fact: Did you know that it’s the law in Milan to smile in public? You didn’t? Doesn’t matter, the locals have never heard of it either. And we know because we asked them. But in the course of asking locals if they knew of this law, a strange thing happened. As these non-smiling Milanese stood patiently, listening to the absurdity of the question, their faces would transform. We’d watch, as slowly the corners of their eyes would crinkle, cheeks would begin to shift upwards, there’d be the beginnings of a mouth twitch, and then the most genuine and broad smile would emerge.

Every time. A smile, earned gradually, but delivered in blinding, full-beam intensity.

Just like La Primavera, Milan-San Remo. No, really.

Think about it. It’s the longest warm up to sprint ever (it’s rare that it’s not decided with a sprint). Riders are subjected to seven or eight hours of slow, grinding anticipation just to see who’s going to get the honor of flashing their 1,000-megawatt smile as they cross the line first in San Remo. 291 miles of holding it back, on the off chance you’ll be the one to turn that frown upside down on the via Roma.

But here’s the kicker—there are a few hiccups along the way. Things with the potential to tickle a smile’s armpit so it launches an attack too early. Like on the Passo del Turchino, and that only works if you’re someone like Fausto Coppi (but man, wouldn’t that be awesome?)

In this story, we’ll attempt to highlight all the places on the route where a smile would be inappropriate, right up until the via Roma in San Remo. It’s route minus race. About a week prior to race day, we’ve traveled the entire length of the route for you, noting the spots that may be crucial on race day, while also getting a sense of these locations and the flavor of the scene without the race. Because in its own way, even without the pros racing bikes, the route has a sort of secret smile of its own. You just have to know where to find it.

THE START: “STRAIGHTFACED”

The start of Milan-San Remo occurs in two places. There’s the pretty, neutral roll out place which looks great on television, and the…not so pretty, 0km ,“let’s start racing” place, just out of town. On a typical Milan morning the pretty place, in the area of Castello Sforzesco down by the Peace Arch, is eerily calm. A dog barks. Trams rumble politely by.

At first glance, this is the complete opposite of what it will feel like on Saturday, March 19 at the start of Milan-San Remo.

On race day, there’ll be a phalanx of team buses, with riders warming up behind cordoned-off areas. Fans will pass by, attempting to encounter their cycling idols while ogling shiny team bicycles. Today, the only ogling going on is by tourists snagging their Milano-selfies by the castle.

But at second glance, there are actually a good deal of similarities. The Milanese people simply have their game faces on. They’re heading to work, pedaling their capable bicycles with both style and purpose. Of course, they have no time to smile—this is serious business. Just as preparing for the longest one-day race on the pro road racing calendar is deadly serious. And just like the Milan locals, when asked if they’ve ever heard this story about a law requiring them to smile, there is suspicion, followed by relaxation, followed by understanding of the matter at hand and then, only then, a smile.

Everything in its right place. In the right order.

So let’s say goodbye to the good citizens of Milan—who will also totally smile if you try out your Italian on them—and roll out of the neutral start in a rental car. With the route programed into our GPS, we are going the distance, and already, there's insanity. No wonder this section is neutral. The tram tracks are eager to gobble up something the exact width of a bike tire.

Milan traffic is very like a nervous and jittery peloton. I try to fit into gaps and go with the flow, but scooters, and more scooters, are nudging in and parting a vehicular sea. Merging into a lane I attempt to get on the wheel of my photographers, the Grubers, who are ahead of me in a small van. I am not so great at it.

“I did not even see that gap, and you’re fitting yourself in there! Bravo!”

Remember: you must always close gaps if you want to stay in contact with the group.

Finally, we near the 0km official start. It is pure fast and flowing traffic—there will be no stopping to look at the start, and the race won’t stop here either. From out of the open sunroof of his official vehicle, the commissaire will wave his flag somewhere in the vicinity of a small walking bridge that spans a canal, and then get the hell out of the way. They’ll be off. Just like that. It's an industrial and grey scene, with straight road stretching out ahead. It looks kind of dull now when it’s filled with flowing traffic. On race day, devoid of this traffic, the scene must look a little endless. Of course, riders consider forming a break immediately—come on guys, let’s get this bit over as quickly as possible.

But nothing is really going to happen until maybe the Passo del Turchino, and even then, it won’t be anything resembling a smile. Seriously, this is about conserving energy. There's a long way to go.

We're heading south across the plains of Lombardia, now. I’ve always wondered why broadcast coverage of this race only ever shows a tiny little bit of the route between Milan and the pass. Having now driven it, I think I know why. If you like straight roads with a dose of straight roads, followed by a slight curve of a roundabout, followed by straight roads, this is for you. Canals by the road lead into small, industrial-looking areas, and the people there aren’t smiling either. But it’s pretty cold. Maybe on race day, they too will crack one as the peloton goes by?

Now, just because it’s straight for long periods doesn’t mean it’s all sitting on wheels and rehearsing your victory salute in your head. There is still a race going on. Mechanicals still happen. Inattentive crashes happen. Opportunists try to make an impression.

For most, though, it’s sit-in and bide your time. In that sense, it’s the perfect route for doing that. It’s as patient and calm as the riders need to be at this stage of the race. Too excitable, and who knows what might happen. Too beautiful, and maybe the scenery would distract (the sweeping hills covered with vineyards are to the edges of your field of vision). No, these ploughed fields are perfect. The broken down barns and roadside signs are a blessing. The sculptures of ladies in roundabouts holding shields, barely noticed.

Save your energy. That’s why you, the fan watching from home, don’t need to see these early miles on the telecast either. You’ll need to conserve your yell-at-the-TV watts for the finish.

TURCHINO PASS: “SMIRK”

Finally, things are looking up. It becomes apparent that we have been slowly gaining elevation. There is snow shoveled up in dirty piles in the small villages we’re passing through and the air is getting a sharper, crisper edge to it. As we come through Campe Ligure, we are rising, rising, slowly rising and making our way towards Passo del Turchino.

Driving the route, the appearance of this snow is the first indication that the Turchino is getting close, but riders on race day will have been feeling the gentle rise in the legs already. If the weather is bad come race day, there might also be a slight sense of rising urgency in the peloton. The best place to be when you go through the iconic tunnel at the top is reasonably near the front in wet weather, so best to jostle and sneer your way there. The weather always seems to want to have a say in the Milan-San Remo. The sky is closing in. The breeze is picking up. Even though there is snow everywhere, it’s the twisting turning chill of it that nags.

It’s generally accepted that the race won’t be won on the Passo del Turchino [tur-keen-o], but who knows, it has been done before. In 1946, Coppi launched his race-winning move from the slopes, and for someone to do so on Saturday, and hold until the end, would be a rare treat indeed. But more often than not, any breakaway that gets away here will be caught, eventually. Again, riders must be patient and vigilant. Again, there’s still a long way to go.

The Turchino climb is the first real test of the legs for the peloton, and the arrival at the top is the first thing that most spectators will recognize as signifying that some sort of progress has been made in the race.

“They’re at the tunnel.”

It’s a symbol of hope. The've left the inner, foggy plains, and at the end of this dark tunnel, just as their eyes adjust, they'll emerge into the bright light and know that they're not far from the coast, now. All they have to do is survive a sketchy descent and they’ll be rubbing shoulders with the Ligurian Sea. Every step closer is a step towards one of them nabbing that smile and the glory.

Oddly enough, the old tunnel is above the new one (which has been used since 2010), and we parked and walked through it. It’s cold and narrow and very dark, and pops you out at a restaurant that must be hit hard by the absence of traffic. This old tunnel holds so much race history. The romantic in me misses its presence in the race.

The descent is bad enough in a car—technical, twisty, curvy—and that’s when it’s dry. Towards the bottom, it has all the roughness of a hastily patched road, but on we press. At Volri, near Genoa, I, like the peloton, will take a right turn. Then we will go west.

It’s time to sit pretty.

THE COAST: “GRIMMACE”

The problem with the coast—if you consider long stretches of gorgeous coastline a problem—is that it’s very much a hurry-up-and-wait section. The route hugs it almost all the way to the finish, ducking off twice to charge up the Cipressa and Poggio.

Each seaside town we pass through is completely quaint and Italian, with narrow streets and the beautiful architectural palette of Italy—the egg yellows, the oranges and soft pinks, —showcased in cracked and peeling facades. You are cuddling up to an intensely blue ocean, which is distracting for me, but the riders will barely have time to look. If a large group goes clear here, they’ll be trying to keep the break away for as long as possible.

Race day is on Saturday this year, and the streets will be cleared of cars and lined with people. But today, Sunday, it’s a madhouse of cars, scooters, and throngs of cyclists out for their morning ride. It’s a gorgeous day, so the coast is thick with them, dressed in all the colors of the gelato rainbow and noodling along in their ones and threes.

This scene repeats itself over and over again. Postcard pretty Italian coastal town. Houses are perched on hillsides in that artfully ramshackle way, which from a distance, look like scattered confetti or pastel jewels set in a landscape ring. People sit outside cafés smoking and sipping their coffees, and between each town, rolling hills with stiff little climbs and tight corners where Sunday cyclists test their legs in the bright sunshine. As you come around a bend, you’ll see a long stretch of coast curving around, snuggled against the crystalline sea with towns crowding in, and before long, you’re down there rolling through, up again, round a bend, and BOOM—the exact same scene rolls out before you. You will say "pretty" every time.

If the peloton had time to look at this, to admire, to dream, they might just smile. But there is no time for that. No time to look. No time to stop at a geletaria and browse the choices, admire kites flying, or comment on massive yachts in harbors. As I complete another long stretch, I look behind me at the coast curving back. Looking back. That’s something they definitely won’t have the luxury to do.

Anticipation. This is the time to be smart in the race. If a rider holds hopes of winning, they are like a wind-up toy still held by the winder. Winding, winding the motor. It will soon be time to be put down and let go of. To unleash what they have in their legs and hearts.

When you watch this race on TV or via the Internet, these aerial shots show the peloton flowing like liquid mercury through the Italian Riviera. They are smooth and flawless, ramping up the pace and zooming through tunnels. But the road—the Aurelia—is constantly twisting and curving, rising and falling. The capos are coming. The capos. Opportunists will be chumming the water to see who bites. The tempo will be high, but sprinters teams will try and keep a lid on things.

The three Capos—Mele, Cervo, and Berta—are like short instrumental breaks in this long song of a race. They’re a little punchy and pass in a sort of rat-a-tat fashion, fast and in quick succession. It’s a twisty rise and fall section that starts around 245km and is done by 258, and considering how far you’ve already come, that has to sting a little.

Now, mix that sting with first gentle waft of a finish breeze from San Remo. Those smile muscles in the face might already be twitching, but hold it, sprinters. You still have to get over the Cipressa and Poggio, and there are plenty of men in this peloton who’ll gladly sacrifice a smile to see you shattered into a million tiny pieces on those climbs.

THE CLIMBS: “SNEER”

The Cipressa and Poggio. These are the iconic climbs that can break the race apart. Welcome to pain.

You know when people try to leave a theater all at the same time through one door? That’s what it feels like to turn right at a pinkish building and onto the Cipressa. From a wide road to a less wide road at high speed, and then the climb begins. When it’s just you on the road, it feels roomy enough as you meander up and through the olive groves with all the time in the world. But to think about an entire peloton getting here at the same time, it’s a nervous squeeze for sure. It is wider than the Poggio, sure, but narrower at the top. On the day we make our way up, there isn't much traffic—the occasional car or flower truck—and we gently climb past greenhouses with tattered gauze flapping in the breeze, and regal Olive trees perched on ancient old rock terraces. It’s peaceful and lovely.

There is no time to admire the groves in the race, though, nor time to admire the houses on the hill or the sparkling sea below. No time to wonder, hmm, "what’s in all those greenhouses?" There is no time for anything but go, go, go or hang on for dear life. The road meanders up, but on race day, it'll be less gentle and more like a hose left on full blast and flopping around on the lawn. Urgent and untamed, the riders will charge—it's their first chance to really attack. This is war.

This is a charge of cavalry as everyone tries to get up there as fast as possible and shake off those sprinters who are like fleas on this dog called Peloton. Sprinters who’ve not made it up with the group have a chance to jump back on after the Cipressa, and the key will be not to panic and prematurely pack your finish smile away for another year. There is still time, and it’s typical that a long-range move on the Cipressa will get caught before the Poggio—but not before those brave puncheurs get their TV screen time.

Next up, the Poggio. To get on the Poggio, you just sort of melt into it right off via Aurelia. Sort of just swerve your bike into it really. And then BOOM! you’re climbing. It’s a Monday when we head up this iconic climb, and I’m disappointed to not see a single cyclist out there To be expected on a work day, I guess. But come Saturday, this road will be alive with riders, eager to crush and destroy each other’s dreams on the way to the finish. To snatch the hope of a smile right from their gaping mouths as they gasp for breath on this climb.

It’s not a particularly difficult climb if you’re riding at a human pace. In fact it’s kind of pleasant, but you can’t help but imagine the speed they must charge up this. These hairpin bends taken at speed going uphill in a group must be a bitch.

And then of course there are the lies. Scrawled freehand on the road in spray paint, there’s a 500 meters indicator. But wait, farther up, there’s another 500 meters indicator sprayed on the road. Cruel. But before long, you will be above it all, looking down on the greenhouses and preparing to get the hell off the Poggio. But the Poggio doesn’t believe in making it easy. You have to be fearlessly adept at handling quite a technical descent.

That first switchback is a doozy—it must be hell in the wet—but the Poggio descent does not let you off after that first one. Twisting its way down, these hairpins will keep coming, (five in all) but just hang on—the sprint is coming. Tension is rising. Anticipation building. Not long now.

Hairpin, hairpin, you’re just getting down and almost to the bottom. At this point, the Winning Smile foreman has sent a memo to the floor crew—stoke the smile fire for… that guy. But we don’t know who has been anointed yet. A twitch in the lip. Hold it hold it, just get into the town. Right at the bottom of the Poggio, and those who are left together just roll right on in to San Remo.

Again, at speed.

All wind-up toys are ready to go. And if the Milan-San Remo is following its usual “select group” sprint script, a fistful of them are about to be released at the exact same time.

THE FINALE: “1,000 MEGAWATTS OF MILAN-SAN REMO SMILE”

San Remo, finally. The finish on via Roma (the traditional endpoint which made its way back to the route last year after a long absence) is not exactly right there after the Poggio. Still a few kilometers to go and some turns thrown in to make it interesting. If there’s been a break, or a solo flyer gone, perhaps still a little time to catch or perhaps it’s all over? But for most editions of this race, spectators are on the edge of their seats and braced to watch a full gas, brute force sprint. Lead-outs and line lungers, here we go!

Via Roma on a weekday—on the route without the race—has a frenzy all its own with bumper to bumper to scooter to bumper traffic, all culminating in one spot, which coincidentally is where the race finishes. Unlike the start, which was subdued and mellow with tourists and bike commuters, the finish on a weekday in San Remo is hectic and intense. It’s fitting that it’s like this, as come Saturday, it’s going to be much the same, but with a bike race instead of traffic.

As the riders enter this straight, the energy pot will be boiling over and splashing on the pavement. Commentators’ voices will be barely reined in, preparing to be bolt for the finish. The crowds, crammed behind barriers, will be cheering, and in the center of it all, the sprint. Will it be a cement block of raw power hammering down, or a smaller group duking it out? A sprint after 291km of racing is tiring to watch, let alone be part of. Who wants that smile more?

Bodies will rise from saddles, and sprinters will begin grinding watts from their legs in brutal, blades-sharpening fashion. Sparks will fly. The group will be like a tremor of motion, rippling along in those last 50 meters. And then, in one glorious moment of perfect timing and muscles ignited, one rider’s arms will rise and we will be rewarded with what we have all be waiting for all day: That Milan-San Remo smile.

Credits

Written by Janeen McCrae
Photography by Jered and Ashley Gruber

Published

Thursday, March 17, 2016