Gino De Blasio looks at the amazing history of one of cycling's most historic races: Milan to Sanremo.
Pasticceria Piccardo appears to be a run of the mill coffee bar near Imperia, Liguria. In the warm March of 1946, however, it witnessed something a little special – and typically Italian in a country where people are serious about having un caffé (an espresso).
Italy was rebuilding after World War II, and it was in need of enthusiasm, excitement and something to lift the country. As with most things Italian, sport was the pill to cure all evils. Italian cycling was in its golden era and two men would divide a nation over who was the best, whose belief system was greater and who deserved eponymous titles for years to follow.
Fausto Coppi was il campionissimo, (the champions’ champion). He was a man who was changing the sport, the young gun who was defying a highly religious nation and challenging traditional methods of training. Coppi was infuriating the sporting bodies and the established riders of the time. The rivalry that he was set to create with Gino Bartali was in full swing. The two would divide a nation and fan bases in the cycling clubs would discuss who was better in what became highly charged cycling rivalries.
After passing Varazze, Coppi held an eight-minute lead. People were out in the town piazzas and stood along the sides of the streets cheering him on. The radio commentator couldn’t stop; he was like a hammer talking of the breakaway by the rider. Caffè Piccardo in Piazza Dante held one of the few radios in the village, suddenly a bystander cried out: “He’s here, Coppi is here!”
The radio presenter exclaimed: “Ten minutes now ahead of the group.”
Coppi slowed down and got off his bike. Gingerly placing his bike against a railing, he walked in, ordered an espresso, drank up, paid and left. He went on to win the Milan to Sanremo stage with 14 minutes between him and the group. The feat was so impressive, that the radio commentator announced: “First, Fausto Coppi, whilst we wait for the second, we’re going to play some nice music”.
The Milan to Sanremo stage is the longest, single-day ride and known as a classic: “A single-day race of the highest standard with lasting significance.”
The event itself marks the start of the spring cycling season hence its name, ‘La classica di Primavera’. It is seen by many in the cycling world as the true test of cycling pedigree. It’s not necessarily the fastest who wins, but the most prepared: Coppi’s feat of 1946 has been attributed to the 6000km (3728 miles) of training he did before the event, starting 1 January that same year.
Established in 1907 by daily sports newspaper, ‘La Gazzetta dello Sport’, the race director at the time didn’t know if the course could be completed. So, Giovanni Gerbi, an established classic rider of the era was invited to see if the course could be finished. Eventually in spring that year, the first Milan to Sanremo took place in particularly “unseasonal” weather.
Since then, the course has got longer, hillier and overall more demanding. It set the stage for some of the most historic victories in the one-day classic category. Unsurprisingly, Italian riders have done well in the competition, with more than 50 individuals winning the race. But it’s not just Italians that love the course, the great Eddy Merckx has won the event seven times, while Britain’s Mark Cavendish put his name on the map in team cycling in 2009 with an emphatic win.
Starting in Milan city centre, riders will pass through some of the most notable towns and villages in Lombardy and Liguria. Riders will be challenged on the Passo del Turchino, a 2,000ft climb that is topped with a 50 meter (164 feet) wide tunnel before an equally sharp drop towards Genoa city centre. The athletes will then head towards the Riviera di Ponente, passing through Savona, Le Manie, Capo Cervo, Cipressa and eventually arriving in Sanremo: a not so gentle seven-hour ride in total.
It’s one of cycling’s premier events and marks the start of the spring season in the calendar. All that is left is the start of the race, where most pundits and fans are going to be looking out for the British contingency, including previous winner Mark Cavendish, Swiss-Italian Fabian Cancellara and Italy’s own Damiano Cunego.
Fausto Coppi would go on to win another two Milan to Sanremo stages in 1948 and 1949, his rival, Gino Bartali would be the only man stopping him from successive quadruple back to back victories in 1947 and 1950. However, if the roads could talk, they would probably recount the time a young man stopped for a coffee while going on to win the race in such unprecedented style.
The next Milan to Sanremo is 16 March and starts at 8.25am local time, at Castello Sforzesco. Whether any riders stop for a coffee is anyone's guess.
Video of the 1960 Milano Sanremo cycle race won by the French rider René Privat. Video includes footage of the riders going onto the Poggio climb that was used for the first time that year.