There’s a hesitation at two kilometres to go, just a second, but it’s all he needs, he’s gone and no one can bring him back – just as Pez predicted in our Tirreno round up piece, world time trial champion, Fabian Cancellara of CSC and Switzerland was just too stong for everyone in Saturday’s 99th Milan – San Remo.
PEZ followed every inch of the action from the Saunier Duval – Scott team car.
Saunier DS and former world team pursuit champion, Pietro Algeri just laughs when I tell him that my girl, Marlene says; “all Italian drivers are crazy, and he must be careful because you are in the car!”
The sun is splitting the sky and the early morning chill has eased as we roll out at the Castello start of the 99th Milan – San Remo. I’m in the Saunier team car, front seat, grand stand for the duration.
At the Partenza the biggest crowd was around the QuickStep bus but Paolo and Tom were nowhere to be seen. I caught Ale and Erik slipping out of the Milram bus though, looking tense. Oscar slipped quietly through the throng, relaxed and anonymous, like he is in most of his races – until he sees the finish line, that is.
My tip for today? Apart from Oscar, Fabian and Thor? Gasparotto – he had a winners face this morning.
Also spotted at the start was the Jean Paul Sartre of cycling journalism (always wears black), Phillipe Brunel from L’Equipe chatting to Marc Madiot.
”Right Dave, which way to the start?” “I thought you knew where it was Maggy…”
We’re weaving through the cobbled streets of Milan, club cyclists have tacked on the back, enjoying their moment of rubbing shoulders with the worlds best.
Into the suburbs, Philippe Gilbert (F des J) punctures, no drama, there’s even time for a joke with the mechanic.
Also spotted at the start was cycling journalism’s Jean Paul Sartre (he wears more black than Johnny Cash), L’Equipe’s Philippe Brunel, in deep philosophical discussion with FdJ boss, Marc Madiot.
There’s not a lot to see of the race back here, just the rear of the LPR car, but I have a good view of the speedo – it’s 50 kph steady, it’s not as if it’s a long race!
Pietro is moving us up the string and we glide past the Euskaltel and QuickStep cars. In the back seat with mechanic Andrea Nieri, are a pair of Mavic Ultimate carbons.
Talking of wheels, there are two punctures in quick succession – Caise D’Epargne and Cofidis, I’m glad I don’t have to get back on, its 55 kph on these pan flat roads.
An email arrives from my Pez colleague Ale Federico, he’s working away and desperate for news of his beloved Primavera. I tell him it’s fast but ‘compatto’ and Pietro just served breakfast…!
One hour in and I catch a little glimpse of the race up ahead, gutter to gutter and the speedo says 60 as rattle over the cobbles in Pavia. Pretty girls wave at us, Pietro and Andrea are too cool to wave back – but Pez aint!
It’s pee time, Di Luca gives Pietro a cheery ‘Hi!’ as he pedals past. Pietro nonchantly weaves through the swishing carbon wheels all around the car as I suck my breath in, meanwhile in the back, Andrea rumages for sandwiches.
Our man Eros Capecchi (193) drops back for a chat, even whilst hanging on to the door of the car he’s gesticulating with his hands.
It’s a young team for Saunier today, Riccardo Ricco decided not to start, he had a stellar Tirreno in 2007, but a difficult one this year. He’s a winner and the form isn’t there, so he’s not here. Mauro doesn’t expect too much from the guys today – it’s great experience for their future though.
A break has gone, four guys, two minutes clear – 77 Filippo Savini, Navigare, 161 Nicola D’Andrea, Miche, 215 William Frischkorn, Slipstream and one of the few guys in the peloton whom you’d be comfortable with in the roughest of bars, Saunier’s own brick built outhouse, number 191 Raivis Belohvosciks. The speed of the bunch is now down below 40 kph.
Casteggio and the knots of spectators are getting thicker as David Bowie’s ‘Starman’ blasts out from the car stereo; this is the life!
The speed is still low and more riders take advantage of the lull to have a “comfort break.”
Pietro decides to go up to the break, at the front of the bunch, Fabian Wegmann still has his white leg warmers on and is larking around.
The whole of Voghera has turned out to watch the show and the Asian flower seller is taking advantage of all those courting couples; “rose? one euro?” as Pietro hussles the Honda through the narrow cobbled streets.
The gap is BIG, fifteen minutes to be exact and we drive, drive, drive to catch them. Pietro has a few words with Raivis then the real reason for our mad charge becomes apparent – a pizza stop! These guys know how to eat ~.
By the time the bunch catches us there’s no larking about, just a long, long line with a sole Milram at the front, behind the teams are forming in line astern with Rabobank and Lampre nearest the front.
Then there’s another mass “pee-break” and it calms down again as big groups chase back.
Someone has punctured – it’s Saunier – number 196 Manuele Mori, a nice, calm change from Andrea, a big push from Pietro and the heat is off.
The sun is high in the sky, it’s 12.30 pm and what are those things up ahead? Hills – first ones we’ve seen today, there are a lot less apartment blocks here though, but the cherry blossoms are out around Ovada with around 120 K on the odometer.
The break has 12-34 here and we’re seeing a lot fewer riders back here, getting back is no ‘breeze’ on this drag with the speedo registering 50 kph.
It’s warm in the car, I’m down to a tee-shirt and we have the windows open, there’s little to report – except that it keeps climbing and is fast – 40 kph. They take the feed at Campo Ligure with 164 K to go and now we’re starting the Turchino pass.
At the end of the feed zone, the expert tifosi lurk, looking for discarded musettes and bottles.
Ballan! He’s been down, but he’s soon riding past us again, jersey open – as a concession to this glorious day – and flapping in the breeze.
And now we’re on Passo del Turchino, it’s maybe not a killer climb, but it’s no cakewalk either. You suspect that if his was any other race, guys would slide off here, but not today, not with the eyes of the world all on the Primavera.
Through the tunnel at the top and straight into the decent – fast, twisting but well surfaced.
Genoa, the sea – I was going to wax lyrical about this historic sea faring city – instead, insanity! Guys stop for a pee, take jerseys off, demand bottles, chase through the cars – which swerve, horns blow, riders swear – it’s like an arcade game and you’re in it!
“French ****s!” a High Road rider screams at us, now isn’t the time to explain that I’m Scottish and the guys are Italian, I guess?
Big Magnus goes back for David Millar, the Swede in full flight is impressive and he returns with the British champion on his wheel, a bear in blue and yellow, towering over the little Italian domestiques.
The madness continues into the darkness of tunnels. I’m convinced we’ll take either a car or a rider out, but Pietro sits there like Hans Solo taking the Millenium Falcon through a meteor shower.
I thought I could drive, I would just have stopped back there!
Pietro turns on the dash TV, the news is on – what else but Autostrada death crashes?
Cogoleto and it’s ‘tranquilo,’ Pietro stops for our ‘comfort break’ – sweet relief! The, of course, there’s the crazy chase to get our place in the string back.
The coast road rolls and twists, avenues of plane trees, beaches, marinas, bars and people – lots of people, of every age, but all craning to get those few seconds sight of the crazy technicolour spectacle.
We can see the bunch on the straights, compact, motoring, nervous, this isn’t just a race, it’s Legend.
Savona at 183 K and the break still has ten minutes; “can it go all the way?” I ask Pietro. “Perhaps, but the last 100 kilometres are very hard,” he replies.
Bergeggi, there’s the CSC car stopped for the guys to take a leak – even Bjarne!
The speedo must be stuck – 60. 60, 60 is all it will read.
The new climb at Le Manie, just after 200 K a sudden, steep killer – it’s over for some, including classy young Belgian, Gianni Meersman of F des J. Francesco Tizza of NGC medical gives me a resigned smile as we motor past him.
If this was Het Volk, Nico Mattan would be having his first beer by now, but there’s two hours still to race.
We pass another two groups of casualties on the decent – around 20 riders, including Frank Hoj, Rodge Hammond and Magnus.
It gets worse as we come off the descent, maybe 50 riders in all have gone, including the fast finishing but heavy Napolitano.
The coast road again and I can’t help thinking how nice a paddle on that beach would be for me hot feet.
The wind is blowing strongly off the sea, driving the charge and still that speedo says 60.
We’ve got live TV coverage in the car now, Liquigas, Lampre and QuickStep are riding tempo behind the doomed break – they are losing time, fast.
D’Andrea has gone but this is a healthy & strong Frischkorn who’s getting the air time for his sponsor today.
Ceriale, 71.3 K to go and it’s feeding – and peeing – time, if you’re up front, then you can afford the time to pee, but not if you’re chasing and it’s easy to forget to eat enough. Bettini missed his musette and stopped for it, it’s not hard to miss your feed, it’s a dangerous time, with bottles and cans bouncing around the tar.
I saw both Freire and Petacchi pass us on the way back from their stops, Oscar just never looks stressed, whilst big Ale is always intense.
Alassio. It’s cloudier here as Pietro radios the guys that the Capo Mele is approaching.
The Capo Mele and Tinkoff’s Ivan Rovny attacks, it’s a wide and smooth climb, a ‘bump’ really, but that’s six-and-a-half hours now.
Pietro points out that the live interview taking place on the TV is being conducted at the LPR car, in front of us; “can Di Luca win?”
Andora, where Mirko Celestino has his bar and it’s time for Pietro to change TV channels so he can check the football scores!
It’s the Capo Cervo now, again, it’s not tough in its own right, wide and smooth; but they keep coming, and so does the lactic acid.
Ahead, Raivis, the big Latvian and his two co-conspirators grind it out, they’re on the Capo Berta now.
The Russian, Rovny is on his way across to them, they have two minutes, but it won’t be enough. The Berta is stickier than the other two capi, longer, steeper and it’s done for Steegmans; maybe next year, Gert.
Rovny has cracked too, out of the back, done, gulping Coke.
Super Mario Cipollini is commentating on the TV now – he even sounds cool! And his choices? Cancellara or Hushovd – he’s been listening to me and Viktor!
Pietro tells Raivis, over the radio that he’s doing a great job, getting the team a lot of TV time.
The Cipressa and Bettini goes, it’s a long time since it ‘stuck’ from this far out, Thomas Lцkvist of High Road is with him.
LPR are losing guys on the climb, I’ve counted three, and three Gerolsteiners. Lampre strongman Bruseghin is finished too, maybe 30 have gone on this climb. There’s Belohvosciks – what a man, he’s earned his salary today.
Tirreno strong performer, Niklas Axelsson (Diquigiovanni), Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) and Paolo Salvodelli (LPR) have got over, that’s five up there as we plunge to the sea again.
But we’ve lost the TV feed – still the five drive, 28 seconds.
Back on the coast, just one climb to go.
This is a good move by Quickstep and Diquigiovanni – they have Boonen and Hondo respectively – and maybe LPR if Pietropolli is still there.
CSC and Liquigas are driving behind, there’s the tunnel – the Poggio is close.
“Poggio di San Remo!” cries the commentator, there’s the glass houses, there’s the 10 to go banner, Pietro steers right – we’re on it!
Stuey O’Grady has blown and Bettini has gone, we just passed him, so has the TV feed!
Gasparotto, Gilbert and Rebellin, lead the landslide off the top,
– five K,
– four K,
– three K, Rebellin, Pelilizotti, Ballan, Bertolini are the names we hear.
Two K and Cancellara launches a huge attack – red kite !
We pick through the stragglers, swerve round the bends, but there’s only on thing to say; “Fabian Cancellara!”
“Pippo” Pozatto is second and Het Volk winner Gilbert is third, Rebellin fourth with surprises in fifth and sixth – Mirco Lorenzetto of Lampre and Anthony Geslin of Bouygues.
Many thanks to hosts – Pietro Algeri (r) and mechanic Andrea Nieri.
I wish I’d gone to the bookies !
• SaunierDuvalTeam.com website.
• SCOTTUSA website.