Throwback Thursday: Milan-San Remo and why it’s the season’s most unpredictable race

With its distance, its prestige and hard-to-predict nature, there is no race like it on the international calendar.

Photo: James Startt/VeloNews

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Simply put, Milan-San Remo is one of the most singular races on the cycling calendar.

There are not many races were racers as diverse as Tadej Pogačar and Vincenzo Nibali can win in a straight up race against Wout van Aert or Peter Sagan.

Steeped in history, this season-opening monument is one of the most unpredictable races in the sport today, and a race where great upsets are still possible.

It’s the longest race on the WorldTour calendar, and some say the most boring, at least until the final 35km. Things might seem a bit predictable until the race hits the Italian Rivera, but therein lies the charm and challenge of the race.

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If the race distance was around 180km, getting up and over the Cipressa and Poggio wouldn’t be a problem for most of the peloton. When they’re stacked up at the sharp end of nearly 300km of racing, it’s quite a different story.

The race earns huge respect inside the peloton, and all the big names dream of winning it. And there’s no shortage of favorites lining up Saturday in Milan.

For this week’s Throwback Thursday, VeloNews editors Andrew Hood and James Startt reflect on the race known around the world as La Primavera.

Where do you rank MSR among the monuments?

Milan-San Remo always delivers drama. (Photo: Dario Belingheri / POOL / AFP)

James Startt: I rank it very highly, perhaps just after Paris-Roubaix, in fact. I must admit, it took me a while to fully fathom the magic and allure of Milan-San Remo.

After all, it is not the hardest of cycling’s monuments, and perhaps it is the easiest.

Also read: Top 10 favorites for San Remo

But there is so much more to it, the beauty with the final half of the race (nearly 150-kilometer along the Italian Riviera, the sheer length at nearly 300 kilometers, and the fact that it is the first monument of the year, the first truly great rendez-vous after a long winter. It is just a stellar race.

Andrew Hood: I wouldn’t put it above Flanders or Roubaix, but in terms of pure entertainment, it’s hard to find a better final 30 minutes in elite men’s professional racing.

Roubaix, for me, is hands down the best race day of the year. Flanders isn’t far behind. In terms of the other monuments, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Il Lombardia don’t pack the same emotional punch simply because they’re more attritional-style races. That’s not to say they’re not hard — in fact, both of those are waaaaay harder than San Remo — it’s simply that the finish-line histrionics are not quite San Remo level.

There are other races that are more interesting and equally as thrilling, and I’d rank Strade Bianche and sometimes a good world championships race like last year’s at Leuven right up there.

Milan-San Remo isn’t the best, the hardest, or the most prestigious of the season, but it’s among the most-fun to watch.

What makes MSR a great race for you?

The Poggio is always the key moment of the race. Here, Julian Alaphilippe attacks in 2019. (Photo: Tim De WAELE / POOL / AFP)

Hood: I think the race benefits from organizers resisting the pressures to change the course to update it or to make it more challenging.

Rather than add a climb, like the long-rumored Pompeiana climb, the race organizers have kept the race untouched since the early 1980s. That’s rare among any of the monuments, as many have undergone major makeovers that have changed the character of the race.

The route’s largely unchanged quality (even La Maniè was ditched after a few efforts) allows the riders and teams to measure up against the legends of the sport. It’s like golfers playing at Augusta National. The tactics and form on the day are what count.

Also read: Big names in sick ward ahead of San Remo

What’s been interesting is to see how teams and racers have changed their tactics in the final hour of racing. The big watt-factories like Wout van Aert might not have had a chance decades before, but the race is a full-on sprint in the closing 50km, meaning that riders with extra top-end power can have a chance to sneak away.

It’s the tug-of-war between the attackers and the chasing sprinters that gives San Remo its unique flavor.

Startt: Well, firstly there is the daunting distance of nearly 300 kilometers so early in the season. And then there is the traditional flurry of intense racing over the Cipressa and Poggio.

I often compare Milan-San Remo to a Haiku painting: There are hours of reflection and hours of anticipation before it ends with a sudden flash of brilliance. The tension just builds and builds all day long, and by the time the racers hit the Poggio climb, I am just on the edge of my seat.

The Poggio itself is not that hard, but at the end of 300 kilometers, it offers a spectacular setting for one of the great races.

What’s your favorite edition or memory?

Erik Zabel celebrated too soon in 2004. (Photo: Lars Ronbog/FrontzoneSport via Getty Images)

Startt: That’s really impossible for me to say. For years it was dominated by sprinters and the different editions fade into memory.

So I would have to say I really prefer the editions in which a breakaway managed to hold off the pack. I loved Laurent Jalabert’s victory back in 1995 because he managed to win in a period where the race was dominated by sprinters. And then there was Vincenzo Nibali’s victory in 2018.

That victory really cemented the idea of just how special Nibali was.

I mean Nibali made his reputation as a grand tour rider and to be able to win Milan-San Remo as well was just so unique in this day and age. He demonstrated what is still possible and if Tadej Pogačar wins this year, it will in some ways be due to the fact that Nibali proved it was possible for grand tour riders to win such a different kind of race.

Hood: In terms of covering San Remo, it is one of the most difficult races on the calendar. The wake-up call comes early and it’s usually a hot cappuccino and a few pre-race quotes before the long drive down to the coast. Once you arrive in sunny San Remo, there’s usually time for a quick pizza before the real fun starts. It’s a long drive, at least 350km or more, depending on where you’re going after the race.

Also read: Cancellara tipping van Aert for the win

There’s nothing quite like the chaos, color, and noise at the finish line, especially when an Italian wins. I was there at the line when Mario Cipollini won in 2002, and I’ve never quite experienced such mayhem before or since.

Riders often cross the line, head to the team bus for a quick change of clothes, and can be home before dinner. With so many living in nearby Nice, France, or a bit further in Girona, Spain, it’s almost a local race.

Milan-San Remo is always a nail-biter. (Photo: James Startt/VeloNews)

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