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At the front of the peloton the same twenty riders attack and follow each others’ attacks in an attempt to break free. For the first hour of racing the pace is furious as riders work to forge a gap between themselves and the peloton.
They know their escapade will most likely be futile, but their teams have given them the task of representing the team in the move, whether it is to gain a tactical advantage or simply television coverage for the sponsors. Behind the attackers, the rest sit tight in the draft without any desire to breakaway. There is a unique flow to the races in Italy. The tarmac is smooth, undulating and sinuous, the gradients of the climbs are constantly changing, the fans — the tifosi — are ebullient and the peloton races the finale with fury.
From the start we speed through the small coastal towns swerving around and grazing parked cars, poles, traffic circles and garbage cans. The flow of the peloton is occasionally abruptly broken when a rider, unaware of what is in front of him, hits one of the obstacles. The bunch thins into a long single line as the pace increases and balloons as it slows — the accelerations can be felt in our legs as they swell with tension and ache from the residual damage from the previous days’ efforts. As the kilometers pass, we find the rhythm of the race, our muscles adapt and the accelerations feel less violent.
The coastal towns are dormant in the early spring. The beaches are empty as a cold wind blows off the Adriatic and the beach restaurants are shuttered. Fishermen, bundled up to keep warm in the cold wind, look up from untangling their nets as we whizz past. Those waiting at the roadside to cheer us on are the shop owners, the students and the city workers. The Italians understand cycling profoundly and their passion can be felt whether we were at a race or training through the countryside.
Tirreno-Adriatico, a week-long stage race from the Mediterranean to the Adriatic Sea I rode last week, is prestigious to win, but is also a race where the riders who will be protagonists in Milan-San Remo and the cobbled Classics tune their fitness. The stages are balanced as some suit climbers while others end in bunch sprints. The organization routes the race around the peloton’s objective: to be fit and fresh for Milan-San Remo.
Each of the dozen favorites for Milan-San Remo pushed themselves to test their fitness on one of the three harder stages and then opted to ride in the slower gruppeto on the others. Through the years a formula for fitness has been developed through experience. When a rider is fit, with a major objective in the near future, he will be prudent and pick his battles. Cyclists are forever conserving energy for the moment where they’ll need everything in their body to attempt victory. Milan-San Remo is a race of attrition where a rider pays for every wasted watt in the finale.
The team of Sky riders I have been racing with for the last few weeks is the core of the Classics squad. We will spend the next month together racing in Belgium and France. Between the races we will sleep in the small town of Kortrijk, which became known in North America when Greg LeMond, Dag-Otto Lauritzen and Steve Bauer settled there through their careers.
To win consistently, our Classics team will need to understand each other, respect each other, rely on each other and be committed universally to the objective. The races — Milan-San Remo, Gent Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix — will require complete sacrifice to achieve the goal: Victory. With each race, each meal together, each road trip in the bus and each training ride the bond between us grows.
As spring arrives there is a feeling of excitement within the cycling tifosi in Italy. To them, Milan-San Remo welcomes the spring and is the first major event on the cycling calendar. The race is as prestigious as the month long Giro d’Italia — every Italian cyclist dreams of winning in San Remo and every fan follows each riders’ movements and form in the weeks prior to the event.
As we trained on the quiet country roads in southern Italy, near Pescara, we encountered dozens of old men and boys, on bikes and sitting in cafes. They knew Edvald Boasson-Hagen had just won the final sprint to victory in Tirreno-Adriatico and was a favorite to win in San Remo. Edvald, a calm polite champion, obliged to their questions, let them pick up his bike and admire it; like a lifelong Packers’ fan chatting on the field with Brett Favre their interest and excitement showed a unique, almost juvenile, passion. Milan-San Remo sparks the Italian passion North Americans learn about in romantic dramas.
Like the stages in Tirreno-Adriatico, and most other races we will race through the season, the Milan-San Remo will follow a predictable formula: A breakaway will forge a gap early while the peloton settles into a progressive pursuit behind. It isn’t until the final kilometers of the 298km (312, including the controlled start out of Milan) that the drama will unfold. As the helicopters arrive, their chop loud above the peloton, the speed will increase, the intensity within the peloton will rise and the battle to stay at the front will begin in earnest. Only in the last 50km, when we race over the last ascents, the Cipressa and the Poggio, will the peloton begin to splinter under the weight of the race. In those final kilometers every rider will know whether or not he has the legs to win, or even finish.
With a leader, a goal, a plan and a team we each have a role that fits into the framework of the race. Completing the job will require each of the eight riders on the team to finish drained of every ounce of energy.
Somehow, it feels as if we are taking part in something greater than a just bike race. The history of the race carries a weight that lifts the event to another level. And, that history turns the winner into an icon in Italy.