Besides often being one of the most thrilling races on the calendar, Milan-San Remo is also one of the most picturesque as it heads from south from Milan across the Ticino and Po rivers and over the mountains to the Ligurian coast, where the climbs that so often prove decisive await.
The tale of a memorable day for Simon Gerrans, a frustrating one for Fabian Cancellara and Vincenzo Nibali in which the big prize just eluded them, and one to forget for pre-race favourite Mark Cavendish, is compellingly captured in this set of pictures from Daniele Badolato of LaPresse, supplied courtesy of organisers RCS Sport.
Before the ceremonial start outside Milan’s imposing Castello Sforzesco, there’s a sombre note as the peloton, Belgian riders including national champion Philippe Gilbert to the fore, holds a minute’s silence in memory of the children and other victims of the week’s coach crash in Switzerland.
As the race heads out of Milan along the Naviglio Pavese, Cancellara’s fans use the vantage point of a canal bridge to cheer on their hero. The RadioShack-Nissan man would be one of the day’s chief protagonists, but would narrowly miss out on winning the race for the second time.
With 20km gone and 278 still to ride, the peloton as it crosses the Ticino at Pavia, home of one of Europe’s oldest universities. The Ponte Coperto, or covered bridge, in the background is a near-exact copy of the 14th Century one destroyed by Allied bombing in World War II.
Another medieval bridge, the stone one at Campo Ligure as the riders head up towards the Passo del Turchino, provides the background for perhaps the signature photo of Milan-San Remo. First to be caught in the obligatory fisheye shot are the nine strong escape group.
Behind them, the peloton passes the same point having already taken back nearly half of what had earlier been a lead of 14 minutes. The last escapee would be caught with a little over 70 kilometres to go, but there would be plenty of drama before that happened.
Peter Sagan heeds team orders to follow Cancellara’s wheel a little too literally as the Slovak and Swiss riders join others for a comfort stop during what is the longest race on the calendar. Maybe the Slovak needs reminding that you follow instructions to the letter T, not the P?
Vincezo Nibali and Liquigas team mates force the pace on the way up to Le Manie, the climb introduced in 2008 to toughen up the race, the Sicilian looking behind to check who’s following them. One rider he won’t see is Mark Cavendish. If the plan was to put the rainbow jersey and pre-race favourite in trouble, it’s worked.
The main field, including BMC Racing’s former World Champion Alessandro Ballan, sweeps down the descent form Le Manie back towards the coast and the resort of Finale Ligure. The gap back to Cavendish is now measured in minutes, not seconds.
Cavendish passes the same point, but he’s already been well distanced by the peloton. He and his Team Sky colleagues will lead a desperate chase to get back on, getting within 40 seconds of the front group, but with 50km to go the margin will widen again and the Manxman’s dreams of winning the race in the rainbow jersey over.
The peloton sweeps along the Via Aurelia on the Ligurian coast, the choppy sea resulting from the wind that will buffet the Riviera throughout the afternoon.
That strong sea breeze will alternate between a tailwind and cross tailwind as the riders head west, resulting in a fast race ridden at an average of nearly 44kph with the winner coming home just under 7 hours after leaving Milan.
Johnny Hoogerland of Vacansoleil-DCM leads Utensil Nord-Named’s Francisco Vila up the Cipressa after countering the Spaniard’s attack. The pair will be caught on the way back down, while behind them Gilbert, last year’s third placed rider, will have had his chances of improving on that dashed by a crash that leaves him out of contention.
The whole of the cycling world expected Nibali to attack on the Poggio; the whole of Italy knew he would. The 2010 Vuelta winner’s attack sees him swiftly catch and overtake Movistar’s Angel Madrazo. Only Simon Gerrans, top left, and Cancellara will be able to counter the Sicilian’s move.
The trio have an advantage of just 5 seconds as they crest the Poggio, but Cancellara and Nibali are two of the best descenders in the sport and will add a further 7 seconds by the time they hit the bottom with Katusha, working for three-time winner Oscar Freire, leading the chase.
Cancellara will lead his two rivals from the top of the Poggio to within 50 metres of the line in San Remo, apart from one turn from Gerrans on the front. The Swiss rider is now fighting two races – one against his two rivals for the overall win, the other against his pursuers who threaten a guaranteed podium place. With 1 kilometre left, the lead is down to just 5 seconds again.
Cancellara digs deep, but Gerrans passes him metres from the line to win the 103rd edition of La Classicissima di Primavera to give Australia its second successive victory in the race, succeeding Matt Goss, his team mate at new ProTeam outfit GreenEdge. A spent Nibali comes third.
Gerrans, Cancellara and Nibali, the men who led the race over the Poggio, are on the podium on the Lungomare Italo Calvino in San Remo. Cancellara will later say he never thought of sitting up, that it was better to finish second than 20th. It’s better than his second position the previous year, he says, because this time it had been entirely down to his own work.
Gerrans, one of a select group of current riders to have won stages in the Tour, Giro and Vuelta, is asked whether the craftiest rider beat the strongest. He explains the team strategy was for him to follow the attack, as he did when Nibali went on the Poggio. He says if he’d been Cancellara, he’d have ridden the race the same way, but adds that the RadioShack Nissan man had perhaps underestimated him, and had been made to pay for it.
All pictures provided by RCS Sport and © Daniele Badolato, LaPresse
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.