Monumental finishes: Milan–Sanremo

For a so-called sprinters’ classic, Milan-Sanremo’s finishes are a spectacle of tension and turbulence, not just repeat screenings of a cycling stampede. Granted, the races first five or so hours rarely deserve rapt attention, but once the race reaches the Mediterranean and turns west, it becomes fraught, tactical, and volatile.

This collection of Milan-Sanremo finishes is by no means exhaustive – the race’s century-long history is full of classic endings – but it does encapsulate the two sides of La Primavera: the epic struggle that rewards endurance and patience, and the blasting firefight that is won through explosiveness.

And now for some light music – Fausto Coppi

In 1946, Italy had its first peaceful springtime in longer than most cared to remember. Between the start of that year and race day, Fausto Coppi is said to have ridden 4000km in preparation.

The base miles were put to good use – Coppi attacked after only five miles, accompanied by nine others. With 90 miles left, he attacked these companions, setting off alone. The radio announcer went hoarse with excitement, and he claimed that Coppi had so much advantage that he stopped for coffee in a village somewhere after Varazze.

The coffee fuelled a 14-minute advantage – so long that, after Coppi crossed the line, the race announcer was forced to play popular music over the PA to fill the time. “Ladies and Gentlemen, here is your champion, Fausto Coppi. And now for some light music.”

Only Eddy in the frame – Eddy Merckx, 1971

Eddy Merckx won seven Milan-Sanremos, the first when he was just 20 years old. By 1971 he had reached the midpoint of his career, the time at which his acolytes started to ask whether he was one of the sport’s greatest, or the greatest.

In his three previous victories in La Primavera, Merckx had won from group sprints, overpowering his rivals in the final stretch. In ’71, he won with a measure of wits as well as strength, slipping away from the pack despite being the most heavily marked rider in the race. He rode with all-out effort until the finish line, only just remembering to pose for his victory salute. The photographers snapped frame after frame, catching only Merckx, the race director’s vehicle, and the Molteni team car in the frame.

King Kelly – Sean Kelly, 1992

It is said that Sean Kelly would ride with his quick release skewers so loose they could be undone by the breeze or a falling cigarette paper – the low tension reduced drag on the wheel’s bearings, apparently.

This must have helped when he descended the Poggio in chase of Moreno Argentin. The cameras focused on the Italian as he skimmed his knees against garden walls and almost lost his wheel in every gutter. Kelly’s chase was a far more composed affair. He somehow managed to start pedalling a fraction of a second sooner than anyone else, rocking his bike back and forth, finding every scrap of traction in his tyres.

Kelly caught Argentin just as the ‘final kilometre’ graphic flashed on the screen, causing the commentators to gasp and grumble in shock. Argentin waggled his head from side to side in disbelief, but continued to plug away at the front – but at this point, he was riding for second place.

Panicked by the approaching pack, Argentin opened his sprint early, protecting Kelly from the wind. The Irishman hauled past with ease.

Arguments for wider tyres – Óscar Freire, 2004, & Mark Cavendish, 2009

Two finishes that show how seven hours of racing can boil down to the smallest differences. Mark Cavendish and Óscar Freire took these victories by inches after nearly 300km.

Were there any who doubted Cavendish’s talents in 2009? He had won his first Tour stages the year before, and was racing on what was then the world’s most successful team. Still, few expected Cavendish to be able to hold his own over such a long distance, and even fewer would have put money on Cavendish chasing down Haussler’s flyer without a four-man leadout. It’s still a result that Cavendish’s managers still recall when talking about his next five years in road racing – if he can win Sanremo, what about Flanders?

Cavendish could find himself changing into the sort of rider Freire was, although probably without the whimsy of the Spaniard. As he showed in his first Sanremo victory, Freire combined doggedness, strength and canny positioning in equal measure, the by-product of which was some of the most staggering sprinting of the last two decades.