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A Day in the Life: Milan–San Remo

From issue 12 (July 2012) • Words by Colin O'Brien with images from Antonio Bigarini

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As the sport’s biggest names begin the slog from Milan’s Castello Sforzesco, excited cycling fans are breathing life into the sleepy hills of Liguria 180 miles to the west. And queen of them all, the Poggio, is preparing to do what it does best: decide the winner of the year’s first great bicycle race: Milan-San Remo.

A small town perched on a hillside just above dénouement, Poggio is one of road racing’s most famous and most reliable points of climax. Taken out of context, the gentle slopes are nothing to write home about, but as the dénouement of one of the truly great races—the culmination of months of preparation and likely years of dreams—they mean everything. But all of that is to come. Right now, they’re home to wandering crowds and traveling fans awaking in RVs, to expectant locals and to barbecue smoke.

Even for a country such as Italy, famous for its road-racing heritage, there are few places that can match San Remo and Poggio for two-wheeled enthusiasm. At every turn, there are riders of all ages sprinting, climbing, getting out of the saddle for the final effort.

In one direction, the great blue canvas of the Ligurian Sea. In the other, seemingly endless rolls of hills dotted with the greenhouses and the blooms for which this part of the world is famous. La Cittá dei Fiori—the city of flowers, as San Remo is known—is just minutes down along the coast, and across a shallow valley, the ruinous town of Bussana Vecchia. Abandoned after an earthquake in the 19th century and now home to a commune of artists who live without power, plumbing or official permission, the ancient dwellings and their curious inhabitants sit in an uneasy juxtaposition with the modern steel-and-glass hothouses—as well as in opposition to the frantic, high-tech race for which its surrounds are so famous.

Valeria di Buftalmais’s café is in full swing already, feeding hungry fans who’ve come early to get the best spots, right on the precipice of the sharp, cambered bend on the town’s main street where the mad descent begins.

Across the street, Tommaso Palmitesta is busy selling the wine his family produces in the surrounding countryside. As he fills bottles from curious wine pumps—they’re made to resemble the ones you’d find at a gas station—all the talk is about the price of petrol. Right now, it’s more expensive than a fine red. Only in Italy. The large, spotless windows that front the store serve as perfect frames for the colorful riders dashing past in their droves. Young and old, the local riders are keen to test themselves on the Poggio before the road is closed off for the pros.

It’s not yet midday, but the party has started. Because in this corner of Liguria, stretched out along the edge of the Mediterranean’s azure expanse, they take cycling seriously. Almost everyone you meet here rides, or used to. But few ever did it as well as Flavio Ginestra, who we’re sharing a beer with.

A native of the town, Flavio still lives there with his wife, Sandra, and son, Matteo. Twice an amateur world champion, the Italian still has the physique of someone who might pull on the rainbow jersey, and he still flies up those hills. Every day.

First added back in 1960 to spice up the final kilometres, Poggio has been a feature of the Milan-San Remo ever since. Compared to the punishing mountain passes that epitomize the Giro d’Italia, the Via Duca d’Aosta isn’t exactly daunting. Neither as steep as many of Italy’s roads—averaging out at around a 4% gradient, compared to say Monte Zoncolan which is more like 12% or so—nor as rough and remote, the nature of its challenge lays primarily in the not-insignificant fact that it comes after more than 280 km of racing. It is for this that the Poggio, Milan-San Remo’s final climb, is both famous and feared.

A ramp off the main road into the town signals the beginning of the end for the riders, and leads them up and over the race’s final obstacle. Riders can hit the ascent at full-speed, and it seems as if they don’t slow down until safely over the finish line—probably because they don’t. Narrow and well surfaced, the road up can get crowded, and very fast. And because of the gentle gradient, racing lines and momentum are key to a successful climb, making it the perfect place for an attack. In many ways, it’s the perfect place to end a race, because it’s such a wildcard. Not really suited to climbers or to the sprinters, Poggio is just there to ensure a mad, frenzied dash to the finish line.

That manic charge to the end just happens to pass by the front door of the house of Flavio’s parents. And there, with a large flat-screen TV broadcasting the latest from the race, the kitchen is a hive of activity. The table is set for 20 or more diners, who’ve come from all over Italy and from across the border in France to break bread and watch the Classicissima unfold. His father, Oliviero, pulls the cork on a bottle of vino and the feasting has begun. It won’t stop until Simon Gerrans is long past the home straight. Another keen cyclist like his son, he knew success in his youth. His most remarkable achievement, however, is looking two decades younger than his 82 years.

Beside him is a namesake 65 years his junior, Oliviero Troia. The young Italian is tipped for great things, and it’s clear that his relationship with Flavio, his trainer, is a friendly one. He’ll race the amateur Paris-Roubaix this year for the first time, and his coach will be with him, sharing that Sunday in the Hell of the North.

As familiar images of nearby streets flicker on screen, the distant beat of the TV chopper becomes a little louder, more frequent. They’re close by. We rush outside to claim a spot of tarmac—team cars pass at double the normal speed limit, within inches of spectators—and then we wait.

A distant cheer, and then loud applause from the great gathering in front of Valeria’s café mean they’re just seconds away. A black blur, followed by a white one and another in green. Fabian Cancellara, Simon Gerrans and Vincenzo Nibali are out in front, and as they rocket to the finish they know how close they are to glory. Less than four miles to the line, they’re just minutes away from the pages of history.

As ever, it’s the great Swiss who drives hardest. “Like a motorbike,” Gerrans will later call his rival. “Uncatchable.” All you can do against a force like that is wait for it to run out of steam, and that’s just what the Australian did. Just hold on, and let cycling’s Spartacus do the hard work.

Nibali’s premature attack on the Poggio drained the Italian of the power he had left, so it’s Gerrans arriving freshest and most focused. The Australian trains locally and is extremely comfortable with the finer details of the descent. That might be key to understanding how he was able to keep up with the formidable Swiss, because on a stretch like that with the bit between his teeth, Cancellara is without peer. But he burned too much, too quickly, and is pipped by the wily Gerrans at the death.

It’s over. Cloudy for much of the day, the evening sky has now cleared and shines an orange and ruby hue over the bay. Nibali’s failure has left some of the locals a little downhearted. Or maybe they’ve just had too much wine. But there’s still a glass more to be had, and much to talk about. And on the Poggio, there’s always next year.

From issue 12. Buy it here.