Saturday sees the first big race of the year kick into action, and with it the Spring Classics. The professionals will depart the streets of Milan, Italy, as they begin the longest Monument in the calendar with the Milan-Sanremo (MSR), a nearly 300K route taking them to the palm trees and sparkling ocean of the Italian Riviera. David Millar, ex-professional cyclist and MSR veteran, talks you through his experiences of Milan-Sanremo—arguably the race with the biggest influence on his early years of road racing.
Mong Kok, Hong Kong. The most densely populated square kilometer on Earth. The over-population and enveloping buildings of Mong Kok generate a sensory overload. Here you’ll find Flying Ball Bicycles. Like the rest of Mong Kok, Flying Ball spilled onto the street like a dropped shopping bag and it was my local bike shop. Between the ages of 14 and 18, I was their resident loiterer. The patience of the owner, Mr. Lee, was astounding.
The shop notice board is where I found my first mountain bike race, that first mountain bike race is where I met my first road racers, those first road racers introduced me to the Tour de France. It was 1992, I spent a year devouring all I could find. In those days it didn’t take long to complete the oeuvre of professional cycling in the English language. I began to follow races, via the planked and chained South China Morning Post in the school library, through VHS tapes that surfaced and did the rounds, or the polythene wrapped Velonews that cost me too much in the cult/novelty newsagent of Mong Kok. I sold my mountain bike and bought a road bike. I wanted to road race.
In hindsight it was the best introduction—so much was left to the imagination, everything seemed so other-worldly yet familiar and old-fashioned. For a Hong Kong kid it was magical. There was an evergreen nostalgia to it all. The concept of Monuments and Grand Tours fascinated me, the foundation of the sport was made up of these eight events, each with its own history and character—they were the sport’s tectonic plates. I wondered how this treasure of a sport had remained hidden for so long.
Understanding and feeling part of this new world discovery, I loitered into Flying Ball one day to see something new in one of the few wall spaces. It was a SIDI promo-poster of Maurizio Fondriest winning the 1993 Milan-Sanremo. I knew what Milan-Sanremo was; I’d read everything I could about it, and in those formative years of learning I’d found it embodied so much of the madness inherent in the sport: a 300K race where everything happens in the final 20K. Fondriest winning the 1993 Sanremo was the first video I’d seen of a Monument being won. He did what I’d been told by books and commentators was supposed to happen. He’d attacked on the Poggio and left the field in his wake, he had won on his own. And he’d done it with panache, a word I had not known existed until being introduced to cycling. Fondriest was already an idol for me, I taught myself how to ride a road bike like him.
Now looking back, I see how weird it is that four years later I was a professional cyclist in France rooming with Maurizio Fondriest.
Rooming a neo-professional cyclist with an older pro was, and I hope still is, part of professional cycling. Of course, as everything in the journey of life, it comes down to luck. I was lucky enough to room with Maurizio Fondriest. I still remember the 1997 Tour de Luxembourg and turning up to race sign-on with my team/roommate Maurizio and following him like a spirit animal to the start village. He beelined for the table where Johan Musseuw and Gianni Bugno were sitting alone—both raced for Mapei at the time and were in their pomp. I was told to sit with them. Two Mapei riders and two Cofidis riders. Four years before I was the Flying Ball loiterer, now I was at a table with three world champions. Maurizio introduced me and said they should watch my future. I still find it head-exploding 22 years later.
Fondriest was the consummate pro. He was marginal gaining before gains became marginal. The tech geek in me loved the fact he’d had bespoke apparel made for the brutal mountain winters he endured. (He didn’t go to fairer climates, instead he got a thermal bodysuit with attached balaclava.) The point of me telling these things is that I got to know him well, and still do, yet I wonder if he remembers one of the evenings we lay in our adjacent single beds, him reading a book (rare for a pro cyclist in those days), while I repeatedly threw a coiled inner-tube up and down to the point where he stopped reading and asked me, in French (back then the lingua franca of the peloton was French), “Daveed, a quoi tu penses?” (What are you thinking about?)
My persistent annoying had worked. He was kind enough to give in to it. “I felt terrible all day today, then the final 20K I was okay. I don’t understand.” He didn’t answer immediately, then said something I’ll always remember, “David, that’s bike racing. It’s always going to be hard, it will always hurt, you only have to feel good at the end.” He went back to his book.
Beginner’s luck refers to the supposed phenomenon of novices experiencing disproportionate frequency of success or succeeding against an expert in a given activity. One would expect experts to outperform novices. When the opposite happens it is counterintuitive, hence the need for a term to describe this phenomenon.
Around 4 p.m. on March 22, 2003, I experienced the most amazing beginner’s luck. It was my first Milan-Sanremo, which may seem surprising considering it had been arguably the biggest influence on my early years of road racing. To put it into perspective, I’d already done three Tours de France and two Vueltas Espana, not to mention most of the other Monuments and Classics. It was a time of year that didn’t suit me. I’d always fall ill. (With hindsight it was allergies.)
Milan is an industrial city, not in an LS Lowry revolution way, more the fact that a lot of work goes on there. It’s industrious in a modern way. It has a very functional, and for an Italian city, modern architecture. None of this makes it a pretty place to be of a morning on a cold weekend in March—the streets are dead, the city feels soulless. Worst of all, for the racers, it seems so far from the palm trees and olive groves of Sanremo and the Italian Riviera. That’s why it’s special. We all know we’re about to start the longest race of the year.
A few things to understand about MSR:
- it’s the easiest Monument to finish
- it’s one of the hardest to win
- it’s the most tactical of all Monuments, yet the simplest race
- it has the longest and most dangerous neutral zone
- it has countdown KM signs at the side of the road from 275KM
- the crashes are random
- the downhills are more important than the uphills
To put it simply, it’s a mindfucker.
As racers we always split races up into sections. Some splitting is more complicated than others, almost all splitting is more complicated than MSR. It’s two halves, the tunnel of the Turchino Pass is the spiritual halfway point—the moment we exit the tunnel we descend to the coast and enter a brave new world—one where we’re more at home.
The bit nobody sees on TV is everybody shedding their kit and stopping for nature’s calling as we drop off and enter Genoa. The downhill ends in Genoa, we hit the seafront and turn right, beginning our journey along the Italian Riviera. It’s almost as if we’re finally getting up and out of bed, the previous 150K having been that time under the covers delaying the inevitable. When we leave Genoa, the event horizon is visible and the whole energy of the peloton changes from standby to power on.
The corniche road is one of the most beautiful we do in bike racing. The contrast to Milan is extreme, although there’s not much chance to appreciate it as the race becomes exponentially more stressful the farther up the coast we go. The first hurdles are the “Capos;” Capo Mele, Capo Cervo, and Capo Berta. The first is summited at 240K, the last at 253K. In any other race they’d be inconsequential, yet here they decide everything. It’s possible to have been floating the previous 240K yet you hit the Capos and realize you’re running out of fuel. The amount of times racer’s will say, “I’d felt amazing, then I tried to stand up out the saddle and fell to pieces.” Welcome to Sanremo.
If you’re properly in the race for the win then the Capos are barely noticed, they’re simply a footnote to the Cipressa, the hardest climb in Milan-Sanremo. The race into the Cipressa is furious. Positioning is important if not critical when entering it, the reason being the mind has to remain focused on how critical it is to be positioned well at the summit, because that’s where shit gets real.
The descent of the Cipressa is one of the most incredible things you’ll ever do as a professional cyclist. We properly race down, no gifts. The hardest section is the junction back on to the coastal road—the speeds are maximal, and many victories have been lost right there on that flat section of road in the 500 meters following the descent, because it doesn’t matter how strong you are, if a gap opens up in front of you at 70K/h+ you’re fucked, the line out in front gets sucked back into the lead group, those who lose the wheel are air-braked out of the race. See-ya.
Then everything settles down again, relatively, and the build up begins for the final and decisive climb: the Poggio. The non-sprinters will be psyching up to attack, the sprinters will be committing 100 percent to not being dropped, their respective teams will be applying the relevant tactics to fulfill the prerace strategy. By this point everything becomes very focused, you disappear into your own bubble, every bit of energy you’ve been conserving since rolling out in Milan 280K previously was for this moment. It’s the purest endgame in cycling.
It was around 4 p.m. on March 22, 2003, when I hit the Poggio in my first MSR. I hadn’t noticed the Capos, the Cipressa hadn’t been that hard, and the descents had been fun. I was properly in the race. Saeco drove it into the bottom, Celestino clipped off, we “settled down.” I can remember being surprised at how easy Cipo, resplendent in his rainbow jersey, was making it look. I was waiting for it to happen, and I knew the greenhouses where it would take place, I was ready—BOOM—Paolini and Bettini went.Paolini was setting up Bettini, I went with them without thinking. We went from about 15th position. I made it off the front with them and went so stupidly deep not to lose the wheel, knowing it was the move and the road would ease off. I exploded monumentally.
I vividly remember watching the race ride away from me. I’d felt good all day and bad right when it counted at the end. Fondriest was right, “David, that’s bike racing. It’s always going to be hard, it will always hurt, you only have to feel good at the end.”
The majority of the week before starting that MSR I’d been off the bike sick. I’d quit Tirreno Adriatico (the preparatory stage race) on the second day with bronchitis. I’d only ridden the day before out of duty. I figured, based on that less than ideal preparation, that one day I could attack and emulate my first hero, Fondriest. I never did. Didn’t even come close again.
I did lose my gloves in my final MSR though, but that’s another story.
Check out the , inspired by David’s experiences of Milan-Sanremo and the journey that it takes you on as a rider.