“Milan-San Remo Smile” — Part 1
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 to a 1,000 gigawatt smile you’ll get all year.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story originally appeared on specialized.com prior to the 2016 edition of MSR. Since the course never really changes, we’ve dragged it out of the vault to serve as a primer to the route.
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 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, 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 from tourists snagging 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 plowed 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. They’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 the 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.
Words by: Janeen McCrae
Photos by: Gruber Images
Originally appeared as part of the Route Scout Series on Specialized.com, Thursday March 17, 2016 [Archived]