In A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway’s memoirs of his early years in Paris, he describes how he started going to the velodrome when he became disenchanted with horse-racing (he said that anything from which you could only get a kick by having a bet wasn’t worth watching). He wanted to write a story about cycling but felt that he could never write one that was as good as the races themselves, and that it had to be written in French to be realistic. It’s a shame Hemingway never felt able to put pen to paper because cycling was right up his street – he was a man of action who wrote about men of action – matadors, soldiers, big-game hunters – men who looked danger between the eyes on a daily basis. He would have relished the thrilling finale of last week’s Milan- San Remo.
The Milan – San Remo ; the Sprinters’ Classic?
The enormity of Nibali’s achievement – providing the home crowd with their first winner since Filippo Pozzato in 2006 – can only be fully appreciated if you understand the unique character of the race itself. At 300 km the Milan- San Remo is the longest of the one-day classics, evoking the extreme distances of races in the early years of the sport. When Nibali crossed the finishing line on the Via Roma in the once-opulent resort of San Remo it was well over 7 hours since he had left the Piazza del Duomo in a rain-lashed Milan. The paradox of the MSR is that, despite its distance, it is known as the sprinters’ classic, but any sprinter who is going to have a chance in the finale is going to have to survive the war of attrition that is the first 295 km of the race – it’s a bit like expecting Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay to run the 100M having first completed a marathon.
Over the years more hills have been added to the later stages as the race follows the stunning Ligurian coast SW towards France – none of them are daunting mountains but their effect is to weaken the sprinters; some will get dropped, some will have their finishing speed blunted but sometimes, like John Degenkolb in 2015, they will have been so protected by a strong team that they can sprint up the Via Roma after 300 km of hidden anonymity, as if they’ve just joined the race after hiding in a back alley on the outskirts of San Remo. There are the Tre Capi, three small hills near Imperia, before the Cipressa, which comes 20km from home, but these are not hard enough, or are too far from the finish, to prove the launch pad of a successful attack.
The Poggio di San Remo
First included in 1960, the Poggio is a 4km ascent with an altitude gain of 150m, so the average gradient is a mere 3.7%, but what makes it so hard is that it is taken at full speed at the end of such a long race. The road is narrow, ascending in a series of hairpin bends, so it’s vital to be near the front. Then there is the descent – a true black run, twisting around on itself like a strand of spaghetti and technical in the extreme. It is not for the faint-hearted and it’s from where Hemingway would have watched the race, slugging back the grappa at one of the local bars and contemplating Death in the Afternoon; not an impossibility – when Philippe Gilbert crashed he was convinced that it was only his crash helmet that saved his life and Sean Kelly won the 1992 edition, catching Moreno Argentin after launching a reckless descent that should not have been contemplated by any man with a young wife and dependent children.
Nibali’s decisive attack
The Poggio has become the place where the MSR is won or lost. The sprinters know that if they can crest the climb in contention they will have a chance on the Via Roma, and the non-sprinters know that it is their last chance of launching a successful attack. This year there was one such defining moment – with the attack of Latvian champion Krists Neilands not being seen as a threat by most of the favourites, Nibali was able to jump clear of the peloton and latch onto his wheel. Suddenly a gap opened and Nibali could not believe his luck. He dropped Neilands with a second attack and crossed the summit with a ten second lead. Nibali had tried the same thing in 2012; back then he’d had Simon Gerrans and Fabian Cancellara glued to his wheel, but this year he was alone, and ten seconds proved to be enough for a descender of his ability. Just. What followed was five minutes of the most nerve-wracking, uncomfortable viewing as the sprinters regrouped for the final flat run-in. The on-screen graphics showed a wildly fluctuating time-gap and the static cameras foreshortened the distance, so it was only in the closing metres that we knew that Nibali would hold on to his rapidly diminishing advantage, raising his arms aloft just before the line, as much in relief as triumph.
Nibali’s Claim to Greatness
Vincenzo Nibali is one of 6 riders to have won all 3 Grand Tours. Of the others, all except Alberto Contador won at least one “Monument” (the 5 most prestigious one-day classics). Jacques Anquetil sole win was the Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Felice Gimondi won the MSR, Il Lombardia (2x) and the Paris-Roubaix and Bernard Hinault won Lombardia and LBL twice apiece, and added a famous win in the Paris-Roubaix that was just a V-sign to the organisers of what he saw as a stupid race. Oh, and Eddy Merckx won all 5…at least twice, and holds the record of 7 wins in the MSR. Enough said.
Nibali’s score now stands at 3, having won Il Lombardia in 2015/17 – his build and style of racing is suited to the Liege-Bastogne-Liege (he launched a solo attack in 2012 but was caught on the final drag by Maxim Iglinsky) but he has not ruled out an attempt to bag all 5 before he retires, and, while it is hard to see him winning a Tour of Flanders, he showed in the 2014 Tour de France that the pave of the Paris-Roubaix held no fears, while his rivals crashed out of contention or rode conservatively and lost time. That is not the way Nibali races and, of the Grand Tour winners who are currently active, Alejandro Valverde, with 4 wins (and counting) in the LBL is the only other Monument winner. It is possible that Fabio Aru and Nairo Quintana could one day win Il Lombardia or LBL and Tom Dumoulin is the sort of rider who could win any of them… but probably never will. It is hard to see Chris Froome ever riding in a Monument.
Nibali’s has rightfully earned a high place in cycling history through his solo wins in the Italian Classics, to say nothing of his win in the 2014 Tour de France when he took the fight to his rivals as early as stage 2 with that unforgettable win in Sheffield. But the defining moments of his career (so far) have to be his 2 wins in the Giro d’Italia – in 2013 he was completely dominant but the 2016 win only came after he was seemingly out of contention but managed to clamber off the ropes to knock out Steven Kruijswijk and Estaban Chaves in a crazy last weekend in the Dolomites. In many ways Vincenzo Nibali is an old-fashioned racer, relying more on tactics and racing instinct than the power meter on his handlebars and the team radio in his ear. Ernest Hemingway would have been a big fan.