Gimondi is flying; he’s alone in the lead on the Riviera di Ponente coast road; the rainbow jersey has never looked cooler than on this man and there are few nicer looking bicycles than 1970’s Bianchi team bikes.
Ok, so this isn’t Gimondi in the Arc en Ciel or at Milano-Sanremo, but you get idea.
It’s March 1974 and I’m glued to our tiny TV; I’m in Kirkcaldy, a monochrome town – to match the picture.
The elegant man from Bergamo glides across the Macadam and the fans throw themselves on to the road after he passes. “What the hell are they doing?” I ask myself. Then I understand; they’re kissing the tar which Felice’s Clements have just graced.
Milan – San Remo does that to people; it isn’t just a bike race, it’s a living thing, a legend that grows with the years. The world stumbles from one war and crisis to another; governments come and go but the Primavera shines on. It’s an epic race that only the very best can win; last year’s saga took seven-and-a-quarter hours to unfold. It’s no surprise that the ‘record man’ is Eddy Merckx with seven wins.
Cancellara definitely falls into the category of classy opportunist.
Two kinds of rider can win here; strong, classy opportunists like Cancellara, Pozzato and Bettini or the absolute best of the roadmen sprinters like Petacchi, Freire, Zabel and Cipollini – eventually.
It’s a long way home from here.
The route is just like you’ve read about ever since you were a kid – through the grey back streets of Milan under a weak sun before bursting out onto the endless plains and a horizon that refuses to budge.
The Turchino Pass eventually relieves the skyline; over the top and the cavalcade tumbles down towards the western flank of Genoa. And there it is; the Gulf of Genoa, part of the Ligurian Sea, it’s so blue that it makes you gasp.
This is act two of the great opera, hurtling along the coast road like some Technicolor tidal bore; interrupted only by the new – and evil – ascent of Le Manie.
The front is the only place to be; there are splits all the time as the race progresses in a serious of huge spurts which ebb and flow.
The most powerful one comes just before the feed; the leaders ease, stretch, mangle bottles and gulp the contents, musettes are rifled for something savoury to relieve palates of the sickly sweet cloy of electrolyte drinks, energy bars and gels. Bladders are relieved, shorts and jerseys adjusted – time to step on it again.
Take a deep breath, because the show is about to begin.
Just as the purge starts, the stragglers catch up, but there’s no time to eat, drink or pee; just time to re-board the infernal train and avoid the spinning bidons, squashed Coke cans and flapping musettes which litter the road – if you’re back here, you’re doomed.
Act three begins with the Capi; Mele, Cervo and Berta, drags rather than climbs but taken at a speed which would indicate that the finish is just around the next bend – only there’s still an hour to race. The Cipressa, with 23 K to go, is a real climb, almost as famous as the Poggio – if you were a Super Mario fan this is where you held your breath – and, to paraphrase Stephen Roche; ‘you can’t win Milan – San Remo here, but you can lose it!’ Cipollini did lose it here, more than once, until the glory that was 2002 – it still makes me smile.
The finale; through the tunnel in the rock and the sprinter trains are running at an infernal pace, you must have your man at the front here as the route heads right, away from the sea and onto the Poggio di San Remo. It’s hard to get the gap on the Poggio, but you must be at the front for the sinuous decent; the peloton throws itself off the top like lemmings on speed.
Attacks are constant and plentiful on the Cipressa and Poggio. This will be the first year in many where we don’t get to enjoy Il Grillo’s incessant accelerations.
If you’re still in there at the bottom, you have three kilometres between you and Legend; go early if you have the strength, late if you have the speed – and the train.
There’s just one flaw in the jewel; once more the finish is not on the Via Roma, rather ‘Lungomare Italo Calvino;’ it just doesn’t sound right!
If you win your career is made; lose, and it’ll haunt you for the rest of your life – just ask Max Sciandri.
‘Enough of that grandiose prose, already,’ I hear you say – ‘who’s gonna win?’
We’ll start with who won’t:
This is Mark Cavendish’s (Columbia) first Primavera, he won’t win but he’ll watch, learn and prepare for the big day that will come one day.
Cancellara was exceptionally quiet at Tirreno-Adriatico…a good or bad sign?
Last year’s winner, Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank & Switzerland) can’t win; an illness blighted spring has seen to that – the Primavera demands perfection from its winners and 95% just won’t do [Jered sez: but this is Cancellara we're talking about...]
Philippe Gilbert (Silence-Lotto & Belgium) falls into the same category as Cancellara; additionally, the statistics show that it’s very difficult to win Milan – San Remo if you haven’t ridden Tirreno – Adriatico. The race finishing on the Tuesday rather than the Sunday seems to be better suited to riders trying to peak for the Saturday in San Remo; Gilbert chose Paris – Nice – and didn’t finish.
Oscar Freire (Rabobank & Spain) too has tasted the tar this year and won’t make it three wins in the ‘City of Flowers.’
The PEZ crew see the top of the podium like this:
The Boss: Boonen.
Al: Pellizotti and Boonen.
Jered: QuickStep (B-D-C), Cervelo (H-H), or a Serramenti
Martin: Colom or Chavanel.
They’re all good choices; the only one I can’t imagine winning from the names above is Colom.
Like Jered I think it will come down to a poker game – Cervelo have two aces to throw down with Haussler and Hushovd; but QuickStep have three in Davis, Chavanel and Boonen.
The stats are against the first two though; it’s 14 years since the last French winner – Laurent Jalabert, and an Aussie has never won. Boonen was imperious at Kuurne and there’s no team harder working or better drilled than Lefevere’s laminated floor layers.
Haussler is hot – he won two stages in the Algarve, was there all day at both Gent and Kuurne then iced the cake with a Paris-Nice stage win. Hushovd won in California and in Gent; he’s always a danger.
But just maybe that rivalry will let in the ‘troisieme laron,’ as the French say – the ‘third thief – that being the case, my money would be with Ale’s boy. Pozzato might well have won Gent – Gent had he not crashed, and as Al put it; ‘he was hiding at Tirreno.’ He’s won before, so he has the knowledge and the confidence.
But if it’s a mass drag race, I’d go with Matt’s choice; Ale Jet’s big frame was on the front on those Tirreno climbs, but his mind was on the Cipressa and Poggio.
A name that no one mentioned is Michele Scarponi (Diquigiovanni & Italy) look no further than last year for the last time a rider won the ‘Race of the Two Seas’ then the Primavera; the man has form and that’s a strong team he has behind him.
We won’t know for sure until Saturday afternoon; the 100th Primavera; what a nice race to win – and PEZ will be there to tell you how it was done, meantime, ciao, ciao!