“Milan-San Remo Smile” — Part 2

The sheer distance of the Milan-San Remo boggles the mind, and it’s truly a test of patience, endurance, and strength. In Part 1, we covered the start and the first climb — Passo del Turchino. Now, we move to the coast and the punchy climbs that often decide the race.

Missed Part 1? Read it here, first >

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.


The problem with the coast — if you consider long stretches of gorgeous coastline a problem — is that it’s very much a hurry-up-and-wait section. The route hugs it almost all the way to the finish, ducking off twice to charge up the Cipressa and Poggio.

Each seaside town we pass through is completely quaint and Italian, with narrow streets and the beautiful architectural palette of Italy — the egg yellows, the oranges and soft pinks, — showcased in cracked and peeling facades. You are cuddling up to an intensely blue ocean, which is distracting for me, but the riders will barely have time to look. If a large group goes clear here, they’ll be trying to keep the break away for as long as possible.

Race day is on Saturday this year, and the streets will be cleared of cars and lined with people. But today, Sunday, it’s a madhouse of cars, scooters, and throngs of cyclists out for their morning ride. It’s a gorgeous day, so the coast is thick with them, dressed in all the colors of the gelato rainbow and noodling along in their ones and threes.

This scene repeats itself over and over again. Postcard pretty Italian coastal town. Houses are perched on hillsides in that artfully ramshackle way, which from a distance, look like scattered confetti or pastel jewels set in a landscape ring. People sit outside cafés smoking and sipping their coffees, and between each town, rolling hills with stiff little climbs and tight corners where Sunday cyclists test their legs in the bright sunshine. As you come around a bend, you’ll see a long stretch of coast curving around, snuggled against the crystalline sea with towns crowding in, and before long, you’re down there rolling through, up again, round a bend, and BOOM — the exact same scene rolls out before you. You will say “pretty” every time.

If the peloton had time to look at this, to admire, to dream, they might just smile. But there is no time for that. No time to look. No time to stop at a geletaria and browse the choices, admire kites flying, or comment on massive yachts in harbors. As I complete another long stretch, I look behind me at the coast curving back. Looking back. That’s something they definitely won’t have the luxury to do.

Anticipation. This is the time to be smart in the race. If a rider holds hopes of winning, they are like a wind-up toy still held by the winder. Winding, winding the motor. It will soon be time to be put down and let go of. To unleash what they have in their legs and hearts.

When you watch this race on TV or via the Internet, these aerial shots show the peloton flowing like liquid mercury through the Italian Riviera. They are smooth and flawless, ramping up the pace and zooming through tunnels. But the road — the Aurelia — is constantly twisting and curving, rising and falling. The capos are coming. The capos. Opportunists will be chumming the water to see who bites. The tempo will be high, but sprinters teams will try and keep a lid on things.

The three Capos — Mele, Cervo, and Berta — are like short instrumental breaks in this long song of a race. They’re a little punchy and pass in a sort of rat-a-tat fashion, fast and in quick succession. It’s a twisty rise and fall section that starts around 245km and is done by 258, and considering how far you’ve already come, that has to sting a little.

Now, mix that sting with first gentle waft of a finish breeze from San Remo. Those smile muscles in the face might already be twitching, but hold it, sprinters. You still have to get over the Cipressa and Poggio, and there are plenty of men in this peloton who’ll gladly sacrifice a smile to see you shattered into a million tiny pieces on those climbs.


The Cipressa and Poggio. These are the iconic climbs that can break the race apart. Welcome to pain.

You know when people try to leave a theater all at the same time through one door? That’s what it feels like to turn right at a pinkish building and onto the Cipressa. From a wide road to a less wide road at high speed, and then the climb begins. When it’s just you on the road, it feels roomy enough as you meander up and through the olive groves with all the time in the world. But to think about an entire peloton getting here at the same time, it’s a nervous squeeze for sure. It is wider than the Poggio, sure, but narrower at the top. On the day we make our way up, there isn’t much traffic — the occasional car or flower truck — and we gently climb past greenhouses with tattered gauze flapping in the breeze, and regal Olive trees perched on ancient old rock terraces. It’s peaceful and lovely.

There is no time to admire the groves in the race, though, nor time to admire the houses on the hill or the sparkling sea below. No time to wonder, hmm, “what’s in all those greenhouses?” There is no time for anything but go, go, go or hang on for dear life. The road meanders up, but on race day, it’ll be less gentle and more like a hose left on full blast and flopping around on the lawn. Urgent and untamed, the riders will charge — it’s their first chance to really attack. This is war.

This is a charge of cavalry as everyone tries to get up there as fast as possible and shake off those sprinters who are like fleas on this dog called Peloton. Sprinters who’ve not made it up with the group have a chance to jump back on after the Cipressa, and the key will be not to panic and prematurely pack your finish smile away for another year. There is still time, and it’s typical that a long-range move on the Cipressa will get caught before the Poggio — but not before those brave puncheurs get their TV screen time.

Next up, the Poggio. To get on the Poggio, you just sort of melt into it right off via Aurelia. Sort of just swerve your bike into it really. And then BOOM! you’re climbing. It’s a Monday when we head up this iconic climb, and I’m disappointed to not see a single cyclist out there To be expected on a work day, I guess. But come Saturday, this road will be alive with riders, eager to crush and destroy each other’s dreams on the way to the finish. To snatch the hope of a smile right from their gaping mouths as they gasp for breath on this climb.

It’s not a particularly difficult climb if you’re riding at a human pace. In fact it’s kind of pleasant, but you can’t help but imagine the speed they must charge up this. These hairpin bends taken at speed going uphill in a group must be a bitch.

And then of course there are the lies. Scrawled freehand on the road in spray paint, there’s a 500 meters indicator. But wait, farther up, there’s another 500 meters indicator sprayed on the road. Cruel. But before long, you will be above it all, looking down on the greenhouses and preparing to get the hell off the Poggio. But the Poggio doesn’t believe in making it easy. You have to be fearlessly adept at handling quite a technical descent.

That first switchback is a doozy — it must be hell in the wet — but the Poggio descent does not let you off after that first one. Twisting its way down, these hairpins will keep coming, (five in all) but just hang on — the sprint is coming. Tension is rising. Anticipation building. Not long now.

Hairpin, hairpin, you’re just getting down and almost to the bottom. At this point, the Winning Smile foreman has sent a memo to the floor crew — stoke the smile fire for… that guy. But we don’t know who has been anointed yet. A twitch in the lip. Hold it hold it, just get into the town. Right at the bottom of the Poggio, and those who are left together just roll right on in to San Remo.

Again, at speed.

All wind-up toys are ready to go. And if the Milan-San Remo is following its usual “select group” sprint script, a fistful of them are about to be released at the exact same time.


San Remo, finally. The finish on via Roma (the traditional endpoint which made its way back to the route last year after a long absence) is not exactly right there after the Poggio. Still a few kilometers to go and some turns thrown in to make it interesting. If there’s been a break, or a solo flyer gone, perhaps still a little time to catch or perhaps it’s all over? But for most editions of this race, spectators are on the edge of their seats and braced to watch a full gas, brute force sprint. Lead-outs and line lungers, here we go!

Via Roma on a weekday — on the route without the race — has a frenzy all its own with bumper to bumper to scooter to bumper traffic, all culminating in one spot, which coincidentally is where the race finishes. Unlike the start, which was subdued and mellow with tourists and bike commuters, the finish on a weekday in San Remo is hectic and intense. It’s fitting that it’s like this, as come Saturday, it’s going to be much the same, but with a bike race instead of traffic.

As the riders enter this straight, the energy pot will be boiling over and splashing on the pavement. Commentators’ voices will be barely reined in, preparing to be bolt for the finish. The crowds, crammed behind barriers, will be cheering, and in the center of it all, the sprint. Will it be a cement block of raw power hammering down, or a smaller group duking it out? A sprint after 291km of racing is tiring to watch, let alone be part of. Who wants that smile more?

Bodies will rise from saddles, and sprinters will begin grinding watts from their legs in brutal, blades-sharpening fashion. Sparks will fly. The group will be like a tremor of motion, rippling along in those last 50 meters. And then, in one glorious moment of perfect timing and muscles ignited, one rider’s arms will rise and we will be rewarded with what we have all be waiting for all day: That Milan-San Remo smile.

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]



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