Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Milan-San Remo 2012

Milan-San Remo 2012 (click to enlarge)
Definitive start list
Route details

All the Classics have history, but Milan-San Remo has more history than most. For many fans, it is the most important of the five Monuments, the venerated races that are the most prestigious of the Classics and widely considered secondary only to the Grand Tours. A list of winners is a list of the fastest riders from the last 105 years: Petit-Breton, Christophe, Garrigou, Pélissier, Defraye, Girardengo, Binda, Bartali, Coppi, Bobet, Van Steenbergen, Van Looy, Poblet, Poulidor, Simpson, Merckx, De Vlaeminck, Moser, Kuiper, Kelly, Fignon, Chiappucci, Zabel, Cancellara, Cavendish.

The final climb, Poggio de Sanremo, was introduced into the race in 1960 in an attempt to prevent it from ending in a bunch sprint every year and despite being known as the Sprinters' Classic, there are hills: the Passo del Turchino is a long grind up to 532m, not steep but for the final part, Le Manie tops out at 318m but is much steeper, Cipressa only hits 239m but is also steep - it's the reason many people though Cav couldn't win this one. He took them all by surprise in 2009 when he climbed them with relative ease, then beat Heinrich Haussler across the line to become the first British rider to win this race since Tom Simpson in 1964. Now he says that a second victory is one of his main targets for 2012, and when Cav locks onto a target he's as good as unbeatable.

The race begins at the Piazza Legga Lombarda in Milan (45°28'39.56"N 9°10'51.64"E); an attractive city street with flat cobbles and tramlines by the neoclassical Arena Gianni Brera, previously known as the Arena Civica, which in the 19th Century hosted Bill Cody's famous Wild West Show - as did the Buffalo Velodrome in Paris, once run by Henri Desgrange. It then runs south along the Via Legnano to begin a neutral zone of approximately 7.21km, following the streets through to the famous Castello Sforzesco. This vast citadel, one of the largest in Europe, was once the seat of the powerful Duchy of Milan - itself dating back to pre-Roman times - and now houses several important museums and art collections in addition to the Salla delle Asse, a room with a ceiling decorated by Leonardo da Vinci. Having played an instrumental role in the early days of the Christian faith in Europe, the area surrounding the castle is sometimes known as the Centre of Christianity. After following the road around the castle, the riders turn left into the Via Marco Minghetti and come out at the Piazza Cadorna with its fountains and colourful modern sculptures, then pass into the Via Giosue Carducci. Just visible at a few points are Basilia of Sant'Ambrogio, dating from the 4th Century AD and one of the oldest churches in the city. It is the burial place of several martyrs, killed as a result of Roman persecution of Christians, and of Emperor Louis II. The basilica was much damaged by Allied bombing in 1943, as can still be seen in some parts, though arguably more damage has been done to the complex by the inclusion of the modern and spectacularly ugly museum and office building. That's just the first few kilometres.

Certosa di Pavia
(image credit: Tango7174 CC BY-SA 3.0)
The route takes the  the Largo Paolo d'Ancona, and eventually winds its way to the edge of the city and takes the Via della Chiesa Rossa leading away from the ancient city, then onward past Rozzano (45°23'14.86"N 9° 9'5.04"E) - a small town that has officially been a city since 2003 and which boasts an attractive, apparently semi-derelict fortified manor house. The road becomes known as the SS35 and passes Binasco and Casarile, then bisects Certosa di Pavia with its enormous and world famous monastery complex built in the 14th and 15th Centuries by the Carthusian Order. It has changed hands several times since but is now owned by the State, though a small community of Cistercian monks have lived there since the 1960s. We reach Pavia a short while later, its spires and towers visible from far away across the flat fields (45°11'9.93"N 9° 9'23.61"E).

Once the capital of Lombardy, Pavia is home to a university founded in 1361 and has many important buildings, the most famous of which is the Cathedral - begun in the 15th Century, it's still not finished. For a short time, the city was also home to Albert Einstein. A short while after passing Cava Manara, the riders arrive at a bridge crossing the Po at 38.7km from the start of the race. Gradually, after Bressana  Bottarone, the road begins to climb; almost imperceptibly at first and then more rapidly at Voghera after 59.8km where there is a museum that exhibits the gun that was used to execute Mussolini. Here, the parcours takes the SP93 and continues south-west to Tortona, the largest conurbation the race has seen since Milan and the chosen home of Fausto Coppi who died here in 1960 - the city's stadium is, unsurprisingly, named after the man who for many is Italy's greatest sporting hero but it seems a pity that the race does not pass through Castellania 12km to the south-east, his birthplace. From this point, the altitude rises far more steeply and for the first time becomes a problem for the sprinters, once of whom will most likely win the race - look to see who shows signs of suffering and then keep an eye on them in the steeper climbs to come, as this may be indication that they won't have the strength to compete in the final sprint to the finish line.
Altimetry (click to enlarge)
After 91km, the riders reach Pozzolo Formigaro and then a few kilometres later Novi Ligure (44°45'42.47"N  8°47'9.96"E), birthplace of the legendary Costante Girardengo who was Il Campionissimo long before Coppi was and held the record number of wins in this race (6) for almost five decades until Eddy Merckx won a seventh in 1976. When they reach Bassaluzzo a few kilometres later, the riders have complete the first 100km - and have a little under 200 still to go.

(image credit: Davide Papalini CC BY-SA 3.0)
The road turns south and becomes the SP155, passing by Capriata d'Orba and Silvano D'Orba. Silvano has a castle that looks the ideal home for a vampire, set on the edge of the forested hills east of the town. 6km away is Ovada, built in between two rivers and jut small enough to feel like an island, after which the race turns into the forested hills and what is perhaps the most beautiful section following the course of the Stura river through Gnocchetto and over a level crossing, then onward through Rossiglione to Campo Ligure. Here, the riders arrive at the first of the two feeding stations and the beginning of the first proper climb, topping out at the Passo del Turchino 532m above sea level (44°29'13.52"N 8°44'6.78"E). In years gone by, this pass frequently decided the winner of Milan-San Remo - in 14 of the first 39 editions, the first man to the top went on to win; but the route has been much-altered over the years and today, only 134km into the race, it's too far from the finish to make much difference and as roads and levels of athleticism have improved it no longer fractures the peloton. The gradient is very low, topping 4% only during the last few metres before the highest point, which is located within the 180m long Passo del Turchino Galleria tunnel (44°29'12.38"N 8°44'6.36"E). The descent, meanwhile, is steep in parts - it drop more than 400m in the next 8km with some sections of 10% encouraging high speed around the hairpins and through the next tunnel (120m) on the way to Mele. (Random fact - in 1910, there was so much snow on the pass that only 4 out of 63 riders made it across.)

Once the Turchino has been passed, the race becomes a very long, very fast sprint for much of the remaining 155.7km with only a few smaller climbs - Le Manie, the three Capi, Cipressa and the Poggio del San Remo to break things up. Expect a large breakaway, and probably several smaller ones too, to try to gain an advantage here and also keep your eyes on the sprinters as their teams nurse them through the kilometres in an attempt to conserve their energy for the last section.

(image credit: Nijnemans CC BY-SA 3.0)
Mele is perhaps not the most attractive town in this part of the world, its best features being the bridge that carries the autostrada high overhead and the views down the green valleys to the Meditarranean which lies only 2km away to the south at Genova Voltri (44°25'50.11"N  8°44'51.85"E), the next town, where the riders will have completed the first half of the race. From here, the parcours runs along the rugged and very beautiful coast of the Italian Riviera. A short way beyond Voltri, it passes through a series of tunnels and then arrives at Arenzano. A short climb takes the race through La Colletta and then to Cogoleto, birthplace of Christopher Columbus and once the site of a Roman bridge - until Allied bombs did to it what the centuries had not.

Fortezza del Priamar
(image credit: Basilico CC BY-SA 3.0)
After another short climb, we reach Castello d'Invrea where the fabulously wealthy come to buy holiday mansions for fabulous sums and the locals leave to find homes they can afford. Next is the  descent into Varazze (44°21'38.00"N 8°34'33.75"E) which was once the home of notable anti-Fascist Lelio Basso, a lawyer who sat on the Russell Tribunal alongside the great Welsh philosopher Betrand Russell himself and Jean-Paul Sartre, investigating allegations the USA had committed war crimes in Vietnam - and found the nation guilty of genocide. Celle Ligure and Albissola Marina come and go as the peloton passes through the 300m Capo Torre tunnel before arriving at Savona, birthplace of two popes,a president, a prime minister and numerous footballers. Standing high on a hill above the town is the Fortezza del Priamar, a vast castle that served as Italy's main military prison until 1903. Vado Ligure (44°16'9.82"N 8°26'9.06"E) is the next recognisable town, Zinola being squeezed in between it and Savona so that it seems nothing but the two linked together. Vado Ligure is an industrial city with a commercial port and a locomotive manufactury, making it in many ways a more interesting place than the pretty tourist traps we've passed so far along the coast.

7km later, the race reaches Spotorno and passes through a 220m tunnel. 3.5km further on is Noli (44°12'20.96"N 8°24'59.01"E) - a tiny town nestling in a wooded valley, but one with an impressive past: between 1193 and 1797, Noli was a self-governing independent nation, the smallest of the Maritime Republics that included Venice and Pisa. The church, San Paragorio, was the cathedral until independence ended with the Napoleonic invasion of 1797. Just outside Noli the race reaches the 200km point, roughly two thirds of the way to the finish, then the  following 4.7km become harder on the sprinters as the parcours briefly leaves the coast and they climb Le Manie. Once again the hill is not high nor steep enough at 318m to decide the race nor prove too much of an obstacle, but coming after so many kilometres it's far from easy.

Porta di Finalborgo frescoed gatehouse,
Finale Ligura
(image credit: Mau CC BY-SA 3.0)
A fast descent leads into Finale Ligure (44°10'14.63"N 8°20'47.94"E), considered by some to be one of Italy's most beautiful towns due to its wooded hillsides, frescoed medieval gatehouses and ancient churches, then the race continues through Borgio Verezzi and Pietra Ligure. Nearby are the Grotte di Borgio Verezzi, caves created when water dissolved soluble bedrock to leave hollows between other rocks. Remains found in the caves show that the region has been inhabited by humans and human ancestors for as long as three quarters of a million years. Loano and Borghetto Santo Spirito are next. The latter does not benefit from unattractive high-rise buildings that sprang up in the 1960s and 70s, but the Castello Borelli which perches on a rocky plinth as though it grew from it is very impressive. Ceriale, 2km away, hosts the second of the two feeding stations - the town's population increased sharply in the Middle Ages due to an influx of people fleeing nearby Capriolo when it was overrun by an invasion of biting ants. In the 16th Century, Ceriale was attacked several times by Arabic pirates which led to the construction of a circular fortification on the beach - it proved to be of little use when Barbary pirates from North Africa attacked in 1637 and looted the town.

Having negotiated streets of varying prettiness and width through Albenga, site of an 11th Century cathedral, the riders cross a bridge and take the SP1 leading to Alassio (44° 0'14.07"N 8°10'5.72"E), which inspired Edward Elgar to write an overture (the town repaid the honour by naming a street after him) and which is usually included on lists of the most beautiful locations in Italy. Laigueglia is next, then it's on to the first of the three Capi, hills low enough to have little if any effect on the outcome of the race. This one is the 67m Capo Mele where there is a lighthouse bulit originally in 1856, then extensively rebuilt in 1947-8 after it was badly damaged by Allied shelling in the Second World War. At the bottom of the descent the riders arrive at Andora and have 50km left to the end of the race. There is a velodrome in the town and the environs are popular among mountain bikers. The 61m summit of Capo Cervo is reached 3km after the town, then we drop into Cervo which marks the beginning of the Cervo/San Bartolomeo al Mare/Diano Marina conurbation where the three towns have grown to become contiguous. Diano San Pietro, up in the hills, will soon join them.

Porto Maurizio, seen from the west
(copyright-free image)
Capo Berta - by far the highest of the Capi at 130m - lies 2.5km on from Diano Marina. Once they're over, we may begin to see the peloton become a little more animated as teams alter their tactics to protect the printers over the last two climbs, also stepping up the pace in an effort to reel back any breaks that are still off the front. Imperia (43°53'18.38"N 8° 2'7.11"E) is reached after the descent and a short climb of 30m; its rather grand and militaristic name is something of a misnomer as the locals chiefly concern themselves with the cultivation of flowers and olives. It is in fact two towns - Oneglia, sited on a low plain, is the more modern half and has a commercial port; while Porto Maurizio stands on the hillside on the western side of the river, where the wealthy have expensive homes along its picturesque winding streets. Once, they were separate entities, then Mussolini decided to join them together and give them that high-falutin' name in 1923. San Lorenzo al Mare is 6.1km away and upon reaching it the riders will be as pleased to know that they have less than 30km to go as they will be unhappy that the town marks the beginning of Cipressa (43°51'4.65"N 7°56'22.10"E), the penultimate climb of the race: it's only 239m high and rises to that altitude in around 11.5km so it's not steep, but coming after 276km it can still make their knees hurt. Sprinters who are obviously suffering here can be ruled off lists of potential winners with some degree of certainty, though it should be remembered that some - most notably Team Sky's Mark Cavendish - have phenomenal recovery times.

Current World Champion Mark
Cavendish, known and respected as
one of the fastest sprinters in the
history of cycling, is widely regarded
as standing a good chance of
repeating the success he had in this
race in 2009 - the year he became the 
first British winner since Tom Simpson
in 1964.
(image credit: Mogens Engelund CC BY-SA 3.0)
With the fast Cipressa descent out of the way the peloton arrives at Santo Stefano al Mar, then Riva Ligure and Prai before crossing a bridge into Arma di Taggia (43°50'17.26"N 7°51'22.22"E) - where they have a little under 15km left to ride. Taggia as a whole is the largest town we've seen for some time with 13,000 inhabitants. The race remains near the coast on the SP1 but the town can be seen stretching north into the hills before the riders tackle the last tunnel (142m) and move on to Bussana, round Capo Verde and begin to climb 160m Poggio di San Remo - the last climb of the race and the place where the teams arrange themselves into formations designed to be able to lead their best hopes over the mountain and into the last section where they can blast off toward the finish. According to the Inner Ring, parts of the road have been resurfaced and are faster than ever. It's possible for a solo attack to result in a win here, as Paolo Bettini proved back in 2003 (nobody else has managed it since, though many have tried), but the race almost invariably ends with a bunch sprint.

The peloton enters San-Remo along the Via Aurelia, continuing when it becomes the Via Guiseppe Mazzini and then the Corso Felice Cavallotti. This leads them to the Rondo Garibaldi where they will turn left onto Via Flume, then right onto the Corso Orazio Raimundo and left 300m later for the Via Nino Bixio. From here, it's all about high speed as the teams lead the sprinters left at the Giardini Vittorio Veneto ready for them to switch on the afterburners and launch themselves at the finish line by the seafront on the Lungomare Italo Calvin (43°48'49.96"N 7°46'28.97"E).

Thor Hushovd - Cav's biggest rival
(image credit: PB85 CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cyclopunk's Top Tip: Cav. Those hills are well within his definition of doable, and once he lights the blue touch paper in a sprint he's as good as unbeatable. He has a rock-hard team to help him including the tried, tested and trusted tough guys Edvald Boasson Hagen, Mathew Hayman, Jeremy Hunt, Christian Knees, Thomas Lofkvist and Ian Stannard; each of whom has seen combat and achieved impressive results in either this race, the other Classics or both. Cav's also got Bernhard Eisel, his lieutenant and lead-out man and with whom he forms 50% of what may be the best-rehearsed double-act in the history of cycling.

It's hard to see any other team working so well together as Sky who, as became apparent at Paris-Nice, have spent all winter honing their technique. BMC are likely to be the biggest threat - the team as a whole may not work so well but Thor Hushovd, Alessandro Ballan and Philippe Gilbert (assuming he's improved his form since the Tirreno-Adriatico) are each capable of winning this race. If they can operate as a unit, Sky will need to work extra hard. GreenEDGE will certainly be wanting to win, not least of all because a Monument in their first season - after a start which some have called "lacklustre" - would silence the critics. Then there's RadioShack-NissanTrek - their team seems less likely to operate as one somehow, but with Cancellara aboard it might not matter: on a good day, Cancellara could win this race solo.

TV: In Britain, the race will be televised live on Eurosport from 13:15. It will also be showing on Eurosport in most other European nations and live streams will be available from all the usual sources.

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