It’s not the oldest classic, that’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege which was first run in 1894. It’s not the toughest classic, that’s Roubaix/Flanders/Liege depending on your point of view, but at almost 300 kilometres, Milan-San Remo is the longest of the “Monuments”. That’s the four races already mentioned plus the Tour of Lombardy; these five races form the very DNA of the sport.
The “Primavera” – Italian for Spring time; starts in the chill and grey of industrial Milano and heads south across the plains to the hills and the sea and sunny San Remo with it’s flowers, faded grand hotels and jazz. I have a friend who says that the race should run from the foot of the Poggio to the finish – that would save a lot of time. But he doesn’t understand, it wouldn’t be Milan – San Remo without those first 290 K before the Poggio, the final, and usually defining ascent on the fringes of San Remo.
It was first held in 1907 when Frenchman, Lucien Petit-Breton took the laurels. This year’s edition will be number 98; the race only surrendered the 1916, 1944 and 1945 editions to the World Wars. Italy have won 50, Belgium 20, France 12, Germany 5, Holland 3, Spain 3, Ireland 2, Switzerland 1 and Britain 1.
“Record-man” is Eddy Merckx of Belgium on seven wins between 1966 and 1976 – awesome! Alongside Eddy on the palmares are Italians, Coppi, Girardengo (who won six times), Bartali (four wins), Gimondi, Saronni and Moser; Belgians, De Vlaeminck, Van Looy and Van Steenbergen plus just about all the other “greats” save Hinault. Wins by ‘unknowns’ are rare and even the not-so-recognisable names on the roll of honour have a story behind them.
In 1993, Claudio Chiappucci was the last to make his Poggio attack stick.
Take Gabriele Colombo (Italy) who won in 1996, a very classy rider with wins in the Tours of Calabria and Sardinia to his credit. Rated equal-third in the all-time list of winners behind Merckx and Girardengo, alongside Bartali is the still very-active German, Erik Zabel – it should be five wins for the Berliner, but you don’t throw your arms-up in salute when Oscar Freire is lunging for the line just centimetres behind you, as Zabel did in 2004. So Erik has four and Oscar has one.
Whilst it’s known as a “sprinters classic” with the likes of Zabel, Cipollini, Petacchi and Freire taking the flowers in the last decade, the solitary rider can still win. Indeed, only last year the young Italian with the “golden-boy” looks, Filippo Pozzato, slipped the bunch late-on to deny Pettachi his “double”. The last English-speaker to make the podium was “Stuey” O’Grady in 2004 behind Freire and Zabel.
Speaking English, Please
The first time English was spoken on the podium however, was 50 years ago in 1957 when 1961 Dauphine winner and twice Tour de France stage winner, Brian Robinson from Yorkshire, England took third behind Spanish sprinter, Miguel Poblet. It was 1964 before another Englishman topped the podium, the legend that was, Tom Simpson.
It was 20 years before Sean Kelly of Ireland took third place in 1984 before winning in 1986 and 1992. The ’92 win was his last big triumph, a death-defying solo drop down the Poggio saw him bridge-up to Italian star, Moreno Argentin who was seemingly heading for a lone-win in the grand style – until Kelly arrived. San Remo was quiet that Saturday afternoon.
It would have been an absolute shame had Cipo never gotten that big win on the Via Roma in 2002.
Greg Lemond of the USA was second to Kelly on the Via Roma in 1986 and in 2002 it took “Super Mario” Cipollini at the peak of his powers to prevent PEZ contributor Fred Rodriguez from giving the stars and bars an airing in the roll of honour. Apart from Anglo-Italian, Max Sciandri’s third place in 1993 that completes the history of the “Anglos” in the race.
The Last Four Winners
In 20003, Bettini got away on the Poggio with Celestino and teammate Paolini.
Oscar Freire made Erik Zabel pay dearly for his mistake on the line.
Petacchi finally realized his lifelong dream in 2005.
A break went again for the first time in two years in 2006: Pippo just managed to hold off the field.
And so to 2007
Who will win? It’s anybody’s guess really, but we’ll make an educated (if not opinionated) one later today – so keep it dialed to PEZ, today and all weekend as we’ll be there for all the excitement – in Milano, on the Poggio, and on Via Roma in San Remo – notebooks, cameras, espressos and Peronis all on hand to bring you the drama from the 2007 Primavera.