We know Milan-San Remo. It has a simple, linear narrative, and one of two endings. There’s a long roll down to the Ligurian coast, a manic thirty K dash – up and over the climbs of the Cipressa and the Poggio – and a well-placed finish line on via Roma.
It is also, in the words of Pete Kennaugh somewhere in podcast-land, one of the few races where climbers race sprinters.
First, the Cipressa.
Here, the pace is upped and the sprinters who will definitely not win today are singled out. Caleb Ewan, and Fernando Gaviria, clinging and desperate, find their particular strands of peloton elastic quickly snapping.
On the way back, they are passed by Julian Alaphilippe. King Julian. A race favourite having punctured and expending crucial energy chasing back.
(Hmm, that could be crucial.)Embed from Getty Images
The climb is quick. The riders strung out. Over the summit pops Daniel Oss, lieutenant of Peter Sagan, neither climber nor sprinter but a big brute of bike rider. He descends like a comedy anvil off a cartoon cliff edge, taking ever closer peeps over precipitous edges.
Off the Cipressa he arcs right back onto the coast road and settles in. Luxurious Italian hair flowing, bending the bike beneath him to extract power. He won’t win this race, but he will look bloody amazing trying. Sometimes that’s a nice consolation prize.
At the base of the Poggio he is caught.
Now, for those with gas in the tank, comes the race.
As a climb, it’s nothing. Less than four K’s in length, less than four percent average gradient. It is only, simply, the conclusion to three hundred kilometres of one of the world’s most prestigious bike races.
The sniping attacks came, until a kilometre from the summit King Julian launches, all flailing limbs and piratical goatee. As Eurosport’s Carlton Kirby puts it, “the only thing missing is a knife between his teeth!”Embed from Getty Images
Wout van Aert, race favourite, clings, and clung, and drags himself to within three seconds over the summit. From there, on the descent, risks are taken. Foam crash barriers are dabbled with. Until the base, and another swing back onto the coastal road, sees the two together.
Now they had to work to stay clear.
The climbers and sprinters had raced – the skinny lads tried to shake off the sprinters while sprinters dug in for the chance to unfurl a fast finish – and we’re left with two. Neither climber nor sprinter. A sprightly, dancing, climbing all-rounder with a fast finish (Alaphilippe); and a solid, elegant, sprinting-time-trialling-classic-winning all-rounder (van Aert).
The time to conserve energy has gone.
(Remember that puncture, and the chase to recover?)
For the final handful of kilometres the game is clear. The pack are still bearing down. Either one of them wins, or neither does. They work together, wordlessly: van Aert, the faster-finisher, takes long turns, while Alaphilippe chips in with short bursts of effort. He is marginally less likely to win a sprint.
Between them, they know this, and they’ve accepted their roles.
The final five-hundred metres.
Our two peer back to see a raging, van der Poel led peloton, hauling-ass for a sprint. So close. Camera angles cease to have meaning, they’re RIGHT THERE! Snorting, nostrils flaring, go..!Embed from Getty Images
Alaphilippe lauches. Van Aert too. Neck and neck. One bike flinging side to side, one stock still efficient.
And it’s van Aert…by a WHISKER!
(Later rounded out to a wheel length.)
And breathe. Two tanks emptied, three hundred K’s. And split by a yard.
(Remember that puncture?)
(Top Image: via rawpixel.com)