Monday, March 21, 2011

riding into San Remo

This Saturday was Milan-San Remo, the "Prima Vera", a race considered by Italians to be their world championship. Like all of the "monuments" of cycling, it is an epic race, a grand journey which covers an enormous amount of terrain. And no professional race covers more: 298 km from Milan, to the Adriatic coast, then westward to San Remo.

When I was at Lake Como last September I had two days before my flight to Milan. I'd been thinking of going north to the Dolomites: the Stelvio, the Gavia. But there was snow in the hills, and no sign of the temperature poking its nose above zero. I needed an alternate plan.

bike on train
On the bike car, toward Genoa

So I decided to head southward. After some snafus at the train station, where I ended up buying two tickets by accident, then lost the relevant ticket and had to beg the stern conductor for forgiveness (funny: I take the train to work almost every day and have never forgotten my ticket there), I arrived in Genoa.


The next morning I boarded another train, to Savona. More of the trip was underground than above, which impressed me given the debate over burying high speed rail on the peninsula between San Francisco and San Jose. Cheap labor plus the ability to dig laterally into cliffs makes things happen. But eventually we arrived at my destination, which was to be the starting point for my journey westward, tracing the final, most famous portion of the Milan San Remo corsa.

Given how simple it should have been to begin my trip, I spent a surprising amount of time wandering the steets of Savona looking for an exit. Along the way I foudnd a very tasty pretzel, not what I expected to be eating in Italy. But finally I found the main road, numbered 1, along the coast, and set off retracing the steps of the greats of bike racing history.

Soon I had cleared the city and knew I must be going in the right direction, because the beach was on my left:

Beach southwest of Savonna

I was getting hungry, so stopped for a delicious panini at Bar Torino:

Bar Torino
Bar Torino

The thing I love about Italy is I can stop almost anywhere and get delicious, fresh food. In contrast, in the US, I need to pick my stops with care: the comparable place here would have sold greasy burgers and an over-sized serving of comparably greasy fries. But here: roasted vegetables on fresh-baked bread with recently-pressed olive oil. And on the television, the start of a Moto Grand Prix race. I ate slowly, watching the race, until it was time to move on.

The road was surprisingly flat, despite the hilly terrain near the coast. Suddenly, a peloton coming the opposite way:


It was some sort of sportif event, it seemed. The police had a rolling closure on the roadway, and I didn't hear a single complaint from any of the drivers who were held up. Cycling is an essential component of the history and culture of Italy and few there question the value such events have in their lives.

Eventually I climbed a gentle grade, something which back home, for example on Highway 1, would hardly have registered on the radar. But this was no ordinary gentle grade, it was one of the great "capi", the climbs which mark the crescendo of Milan San Remo:

Capo Berta
Capo Berta

I didn't stop for the pizza: the race was on!

Berta is the final capo along the main coast road. As the depth of talent in the pro peloton increased, the derailleurs reduced the sting of the climbs, the organizers began introducing a few scenic detours to the route to spice things up approaching the finish. The first of these two, final climbs is Cipressa.

From looking at the map I was afraid I'd miss it, or that I'd get lost along the way. As to missing it, not an issue:

Cipressa sign
to the Cipressa

Via Cipressa
start of the climb

and although the name of the road changes name several times toward the summit from the initial "Via Cipressa", as long as one keeps moving in the "obvious" direction upward, there is no getting lost. The road was in pristine condition, and the paint from past races left little doubt I was going the right direction:

climbing Cipressa
Climbing Cipressa

The descent following the church at the summit was surprisingly technical. I didn't come even close to approaching race speed. The big boys bomb down these roads at the limits of traction. The descent is actually more impressive than the climb, which was hardly a challenge at my tourist pace.

The Poggio was the next challenge... not so much to my legs, which could feel neither pain nor fatigue in my state of bliss at being on such a legendary cycling road, but to my impared navigational ability. Poggio, it turns out, is incredibly clearly marked. But along the way there were a few "candidates", of course unmarked, which attracted my attention. One of these I climbed a short distance, but the other turned into quite an impressive climb, ending in a recently developed residential pitch which had me glad for my 34/26. Nice view, however:

wrong turn
Wrong turn!

I returned to the coast road the way I had climbed and continued onward. It was a surprising distance from the Cipressa to the Poggio. It made all the more impressive the accomplishment of Clauddio Chiapucci when, in 1994, he attacked on the Cipressa, riding solo over the Poggio and to the finish in San Remo.

But eventually, after futilely trying to ask some locals for directions, I came across the sign marking the Poggio. "Poggio" it said, leaving no doubt of the way to go. Had I not worried so much and just ridden, I would have stayed on course without problem.

The climb of the Poggio was nothing short of a religeous experience. I didn't want to break the bliss by removing my camera, even: straight up and over. The climb was remarkably easy: big ring all the way except for a short bit where I downshifted for only a few seconds. Of course I was riding at less than 2/3 the speed of the pros last Saturday.

Then the descent. The descent where Sean Kelly famously overtook Marino Argentin to win in 1991. This was even more technical than the Cipressa descent, with switchbacks so tight, if you were to fall over the guardrail on the upper portion of road you'd land on the lower portion of road.

From the bottom there was a surprising distance to San Remo. I must have missed the finish line area. But after stopping for a snack:

snack time

I came across this, closer to the beach:

bike path
bike path

Then it was time to catch my train back to Genoa, then the next day pack my bike and catch a series of trains to a motel near Malpensa, from where I flew back to San Francisco.

Here's the Strava data from the ride:

I had the honor of defining these climbs on Strava. Hopefully more riders visiting this part of Italy will upload their data.

No comments: