The Milano Sanremo, the cycling season’s first great classic, left Milano at about 10 am, under a winter rain, on Sunday, March 18, 2018. The cyclists pedaled until Liguria, a narrow piece of Italy that runs between the Alps and the Sea, in an eventless journey. They waited for something to happen on the Poggio, the last hill before Sanremo, that adds a character of unpredictability to a race that would be only a land for sprinters fighting in the last 200 meters.
Instead, this 3 km uphill makes the sprinters struggle in the last part of the race and opens the gate for somebody courageous enough to try something. There is a chance, actually, if you start at half of the uphill and take some advantage, then dip in the downhill taking all the possible risks.
It takes the combination of a good climber, the ability of a great downhiller, and legs that would keep you ahead in the last two kilometers, after the Poggio, to the arrival. Above all, you must not turn back, not think, not have anything in mind, but the road ahead of you until the arrival.
When Vincenzo Nibali, a star of the group, nicknamed “the shark”, a winner of the Giro, Tour, Vuelta, Tour of Lombardy, the only one daring to run both the long tours and the one day classics, took off at half of the Poggio, the whole group trembled. It is hard to stay with him when the road goes up. Somebody tried, but he took a little advantage, reached the previous escaper and left him behind, flying to the top of the hill.
There, he owned 10 seconds of advantage. He just looked ahead. Turned left, headed down then turned right. The sun was setting down East. His tiny body projected a long shadow behind him. The group struggled in the downhill. The sprinter’s teams, in these situations, struggle to regroup, nobody wants to make more fatigue than it is necessary, they have to use it in the last kilometers.
Vincenzo used all the space available. Drew trajectories that brushed the low walls built on the edges of the street. Almost 300 meters behind him, the group looked like a long snake trying to stay in the limits of the road.
At the end of the downhill, when the road flows back in the Aurelia, the way still bearing the ancient Roman name, it takes 2,5 kilometers to the end. Vincenzo lowered his head and pedaled the longest possible gear, careless of the stress, of the 7 hours on the bike, the hunger, the rain at morning and all the rest.
Behind him, the supporting riders looked for their captains. The technical directors from their cars screamed like crazy to their athletes to follow that devil. Somebody tried, but there was a moment, the decisive one, in which no team seemed too eager to start.
Vincenzo pushed down on his pedals, always seated to not waste energy. He must have felt acid running through his muscles, but nothing could stop him. He didn’t look behind until, 100 meters to the end, he was sure to win.
In these times of high specialization, Vincenzo Nibali is an unlikely rider. 40 or 50 years ago, the great cyclists ran all year long. In order to be great you had to win the Giro, the Tour, the Vuelta, but also show you could win the one day races. Eddy Merckx, on his own, won 7 Milano Sanremo, with 5 Tour de France.
From Miguel Indurain onwards, the Tour de France cyclist is a genre of his own. He only runs the Tour, or the Giro, and wants to win that. The Tour’s long time stages, help this kind of athlete, who defends himself on the mountains and never attacks.
But all this is boring.
Nobody remembers an exciting day from Miguel Indurain, or Jan Ullrich, or Lance Armstrong (yes he existed, too), or Chis Froome. Alberto Contador was a complete cyclist, setting himself apart from these.
Vincenzo, loves to try and win these races. He is aware he’s not the kind of cyclist designed to do it: big, strong, explosive. Nevertheless, he’s one of the best on the bicycle, a tactician, a smart guy, and knows that a victory needs to go through the eye of the needle, and, once you lost that moment, it’s gone.
The Eye of the needle of this Sanremo was that exact moment at the half of the Poggio, when everybody was doing their biggest effort, and he could take off, thanks to a team that brought him exactly there, making that uphill difficult for everyone.
In a way, Vincenzo is the prototypal captain. He’s a winner, he recognizes his supporting men’s effort, and they, the “gregari”, know that their wages depend on his victories, and on his ability to recall sponsors.
He’s an independent man. A rider like him, following the unwritten rules of modern cycling, should not rung the spring classics. He does, instead, and very likely his 2014 Tour de France victory, depended a lot on his ability on the roads of the Liege and of the Tour of Flanders, where he learnt how to dominate the ancient roman roads made of small stones.
The combination of great Tours and winning desire in one day races, makes him the only descendant of the great names of the past. Like Mercks, like Coppi, HInault, he always runs, he always tries. The fans like this, they support him and admire his capacity to star on different grounds.
His Milano-Sanremo victory seals his stature in cycling history. The big Tours losses he suffered because, very likely, he had to put aside time for the Classics, while others only prepared for the French race, were sufficiently repaid by his Classics wins, something neither Ullrich, Armstrong, Riis, Indurain, could ever do.
This does not mean we’ll see these riders also in the Classics. That time has gone. Vincenzo is a unique rider, still driven by his own idea of cycling. The career paths of modern champions are decided in big organization, measuring the benefits and the risks of each and any activity.
It’s unlikely that these organizations will like a sunny spring day on the Riviera, fighting for a win that they fear would weigh their athlete’s legs in summer in the Tour. Where probably they will have to follow again Vincenzo on a uphill, and see him go ahead on a downhill, wondering how the hell he can stay on the bike in that way.