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From Inside Peloton: Chasing San Remo

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Like a lot of people, I have always looked forward to Milan-San Remo, not so much for its greatness, but for what it signifies: the start of the real cycling season and the fact that my beloved cobbled classics are just a couple weeks away.

On a sometimes sunny, cloudy, warm, cool, rainy Saturday in March, Milan-San Remo took on a different place in my heart. It was thanks to the passion of one Italian who grew up in the area and knows no other law but a love for cycling, and above all, a love for the race that every hot-blooded Italian boy grows up dreaming about: Milan-San Remo. Alessandro Federico now lives in Fano, in the Marche region of Italy, on the Adriatic Coast. His heart, I’d dare say has never left the Appennines, the mountain range that forms a spine down the length of most of Italy, and the mountain range the race crosses en route to the sea.

Words: Jered Gruber
Images: Gruber Images

The year’s first monument, and Italy’s most important and illustrious one-day race, is known by a number of names, chief among them La Primavera and La Classicissima. Each year, on a typically cool March Saturday morning, the race leaves the thriving center of Italian finance and fashion on the Lombard plain, Milan, and finishes nearly 300 kilometers later in the sunny Ligurian coastal town of San-Remo, just a few kilometers from the French border. It’s a race of different worlds, different terrains, a race that could not be placed any more perfectly on the year’s calendar. It’s the race of spring; it’s a rite of passage into the new year.

After a 29-hour expedition to get from Louisiana to Milan, which included a stop in Heidelberg to pick up our red jalopy, followed by a lengthy drive, we arrived just hours before the start of the race. A few restless hours of sleep later, and it was time to go see what all the fuss about this point-to-point expedition was all about. Two hundred and ninety-eight kilometers? It boggles the mind.

We met Alessandro for the first time in the starting area. It’s a great moment to immediately recognize a person you’ve never met face to face. Just as it’s a great feeling to recognize them, it’s almost disconcerting to shake the hand of a friend for the first time ever, years after making their acquaintance and rapidly becoming friends through the Internet and a shared love for cycling.

There was no time for niceties though, and with the handshake, the chase began. We’d be in some sort of state of hurry for the next nearly seven hours, as we fought to stay a step ahead of the ever-quickening race.

The ensuing gallop was wild. It’s at this point, that it would seem normal to describe the day as a blur, but each location where we stopped had its own distinctive feel, flavor, memory. I can close my eyes and the eight stops come back.

One. A busy suburb just outside of Milan, fans gathered along the roadside waiting for their ten seconds of race appreciation, the field emerges from the distance, four riders struggling just ahead of the mass of colors, the break forms. It’s a sight I’ve never witnessed in a bike race before, a raw moment that left a secret with all but those involved and the few fortunate fans that line that particular point in the route.

Two. A stop at a bakery, getting to know Ale, then the open farmland that precedes the Appenines. A warm, pleasant haze settled down on the spring-bathed area. We made friends with a veteran of many years, the lack of a language in common lost amid smiles, nods, and wild gesticulations. He proved that you don’t need to be a drunken hooligan to be a lover of the race. You don’t need a flag, you don’t need a hoarse voice; the break passed, heads down, 15 minutes on a still, hard-working field led by two engines sentenced to 150+ kilometers of yanking the field along and keeping the leash reasonably short: HTC-Highroad’s Bert Grabsch and Garmin-Cervelo’s Travis Meyer.

Three. An Autostrada overpass. We pulled to the side of the highway, jumped out, and witnessed the field emerge from the haze. The idea of an easy first part of the day was cast aside, as the greater portion of the group was lined out, hands firmly set in the drops, only 200 kilometers to go. I caused poor Ale an amusing fright when I crossed the Autostrada to see the race disappear into the distance: “Jered, the Italian drivers … you’re crazy!”

Four. Ale points out familiar places along the way, roads to ride, his family’s house, as we rolled onward to Ovada, the base of the legendary but often unwisely dismissed climb of the Turchino. The thought occurs to me, “He’s no tourist, this is home.” These weren’t random houses flashing by and quickly forgotten, they were a friend’s homeland, and that’s all it took to cross over from a boring interlude to a place that I’d very much like to return to someday. As the race proceeds, a break is still comfortably ahead, but beginning to show the signs of wear. A cop yells, screaming at me, chases me, after I climb a railway tower for a view of the rail line, the road, and a beautiful green-blue river in the canyon below. I run off, picture snapped, smiling.

Five. Ale informs us of a spring law of the land: if it’s sunny and warm on the Milan side of the Turchino, the Ligurian coast will be under clouds, dark, gloomy, cool, and likely wet. I laugh at the idea—there’s no way—then we arrive out of the tunnel—and raindrops greet us. A seemingly random stop at an Autogrill means gas. Wrong. We jump out of the car, dash around the back side of the gas station, through a gate and tunnel, and emerge on to the Riviera road and the struggling break files past on a winding, hilly road with glimpses of the sea opening up every so often through this thickly forested section of the race. The field rolls by, led, as always, by Grabsch and Meyer.

Six. Ale’s homework becomes more and more apparent as we hurtle around mountain roads en route to the recently added climb of Le Manie. We arrive with time to spare to the village of Voze and its beautiful church. In the bushes atop an ancient wall, I watch the break in its death throes, willed onward by a passionate crowd. I jump down and sprint to a switchback half a kilometer up the road to see the field. The business of winning was on the minds of some; survival was on the minds of more. The fast-finishing favorites were on their heels on the ascent, while a crash would bring them to their knees on the descent. The decisive split formed.

Seven. The sun returns as we head in the direction of San Remo and France. The seaside town of Andora, launching point for the race’s final phase—the three huge hills: the capi (Capo Mele, Capo Cervo, Capo Berta), the Cipressa, the Poggio and San Remo. Two groups form a desperate pursuit match, the leading forty filled to the brim with the attackers and a few sprinters blast by, as the chasing bunch filled with hopeful sprinters grimly sets about their task of closing the gap. It comes down, down, down, steadies, then it’s over—the chasers give up, the leading group’s gap explodes, the winner will come from the front forty, and the race’s two main obstacles are before them: the Cipressa and the Poggio.

Eight. When the groups, defined by strained faces and rocking shoulders, pass Andora, we start our final chase to the Poggio. Even after seven spots, and seven different vantage points, Ale continued to surprise. We stopped in a forgotten parking lot and pointed our walk at a forgotten road, a wall. There’s no way we were going to go up that? Of course we did. Five minutes later, we were on the upper reaches of the Poggio, and it wasn’t long before the riders came to life.

I saw a gasping Greg Van Avermaet, pursued by a few chasers, then a spit-smeared Vincenzo Nibali followed by a scream-faced Steve Chainel doing everything he could to hold onto the Vuelta champion’s wheel. The favorites came soon after, led by Michele Scarponi, head down, straining to bring the escapees back into the fold for his teammate and former winner, Alessandro Petacchi.

When they passed, it was the turn of the broken to soak up the cheers and encouragement. Each solo rider the focus of each fan’s sole attention.

The clouds parted around the time the leaders left sight, with the passing of a struggling Matt Goss, already at the back of the group, doing everything he could to eke out another kilometer. The sun broke over nearby San Remo just a few minutes later, and it was in the late afternoon warmth of a mild spring day that the Australian broke through to take an astounding victory.

For us, it was a day that I’ll never forget. One man’s passion, one man’s lifelong quest to better chase the race of his dreams, gave us a glimpse into a race that deserves its spot amongst the sport’s greatest. It’s a race worthy of its legend.

We’ll be back. I can only hope we can return with Ale.

From Issue 04.