Saturday 21st March 2020
The Milan - San Remo Spring Classic; even the name arouses thoughts of chilly mornings which are then burned away by a March sun in its azure sky, cloudless, giving a small taste of the summer days to come. You can almost see yourself driving along a coastal road, top down but wrapped up, mountains in the rear view mirror. It’s a small piece of heaven; it’s the first of the Monuments.
You could then be almost excused for forgetting that it is also the stage on which the longest of all professional cycling races if fought on. From 1907 it’s a 298km assault on those early season legs, a race considered to be one for the sprinters but still manages to contain mountains. The Milan - San Remo is predictable in its unpredictability. First man over the Poggio wins! Get to the Via Roma before anyone else and it’s in the bag! Well that’s all well and good provided you’re not Marino Argentin and you’re not being pursued by Sean Kelly.
Argentin was far from being a slouch on the bike. A man with a long list of classic wins behind him as well as being a former world champion not to mention that he was on home soil and only Italians are allowed to win in Italy. Italian wins in la Primavera total 50 and way back in second place are the Belgians with 20 victories, 7 of those belonging to one man, Eddy Merckx. It’s an Italian race after all, and that’s how it’s supposed to work. But on the 21st of March 1992, “King” Kelly had other ideas.
Kelly was on the wrong side of the kilo marker by this stage in his career, but he was and still is the epitome of the hard man cyclist. From humble beginnings to the top of the sporting world, a true working class hero, racing all year round, all races, in all weathers. But this edition of Milan – San Remo gave us a finale that is still has to be seen to be believed. Argentin must have thought he had the race won. He was already spending the winnings in his head, but unfortunately for him he looked over his shoulder and saw one of the most terrifying sights in professional cycling. Sean Kelly. The Festina shirted Kelly went after Argentin like a hawk in a dive towards its prey. He descended the Poggio as if his life depended on it; it’s probably what he was thinking at the time. No one had a prayer. He caught Argentin after a 3km decent that left some of the world’s best in his wake, a white knuckle ride. There was a beauty to it, but a beauty like watching a Great White glide effortlessly towards yet another hapless victim. Dangerous, powerful, efficient, nothing wasted.
From the Piazza del Duomo in Milan on the Italian Riviera to the Via Roma in San Remo, would witness the once hopeful Tifosi’s dreams of a home win evaporate, there was only going to be one Caesar on this Saturday afternoon. Kelly took the sprint after a little showboating and raised his arms in his customary winners salute. Argentin could only think of what might have been in the second place Kelly gave him and in third was the heir the Kelly throne, Johan Museeuw. It was a classic edition of La Classicissima but this race throws up many similar stories of what might have been and that’s what makes this contest so fascinating.
This year’s edition, if it goes ahead with the shadow of the Coronavirus looming large over the Italian race calendar, could bear witness to cycling history. The Belgian superstar Philippe Gilbert would be the first man since Roger De Vlamnenick to win all 5 monuments. Eddy Merckx, Rik Van Looy and De Vlamnenick have been the only men in the history of the sport to take all of the 5 “big” Classics and it comes as no surprise that they are all Belgian. This bodes well for Gilbert, a rider who’s “Strive for Five” mantra must be reverberating in the riders head since he bagged Paris – Roubaix in 2019. The 37 year old could complete the set, something that even the mighty Sean Kelly couldn’t manage.
It is a race which can deliver finales like no other. It is these conclusions which makes Milan - San Remo the race it is, from Andrei Tchmil making a late break from the bunch in 1999 to steal it from under the noses of the sprinters to Mark Cavendish winning on his first attempt, in the 100th edition, pipping Heinrich Haussler in the “Millimetre Race”. And then there’s Eric Zabel, well losing it, after raising his arms in victory a little too early only to see the much underrated Oscar Freire lunge his bike over the line and take the top step. The duels between Coppi and Bartoli in the 1940’s gave the Italian public something to hang on to during the post war years. It’s more than a race for them; it’s a Fellini movie, an aria, a poem, a chance live out dreams, an opportunity for redemption.
Sport is cruel but it is surreal to witness such cruelty in such an environment. The pain and the beauty the sun and the snow, to watch hearts break in such a romantic setting. Italian races give us all of these things, from the snow coated mountains to warm inviting beaches, but Milan –San Remo presents them with such style, a style which is truly Monumental.