“I was happy I was there. The whole time I could go maximum; in the peloton, you’re so cold sitting in the wheels. I was cold in the end too, but for me, it was the best race of the year.”
Lars Bak – Lotto Belisol
Picture the scene: You’re in a cafe sipping a glass of something cold, watching the Tour de France on the TV. A small group of riders roll across the screen and through the French countryside. They are surrounded by motorbikes, team cars and TV cameras recording their smooth pedalling and precise pace lines as they share the workload in the rising heat. The bunch is ten or more minutes behind and there are around 100 kilometres still to race. All is well.
If you've never raced a bike before this scene may seem completely normal, regular, achievable even – they make it look so easy. “I could do that,” you might say to yourself. Appearances can be deceptive.
This is how the script plays out: the breakaway will (seemingly) nonchalantly ride away up the road after 30 kilometres or so, when television stations are yet to transmit. Eventually the peloton will relent and let a few lucky souls go, so the bunch can spend an effortless day tootling through France, or Italy, or Belgium, enjoying the sunshine and the crowds until they decide that they've had enough and the break needs reeling in. The teams with the leader or the fastest finishers will organise the chasing. The break is doomed. Sure enough, the escapees start to splinter with 10k to go and the attacking riders are nonchalantly swallowed up and spat out, their day done.
Sounds so simple doesn’t it? Not sure what all the fuss is about?
The breakaway may be the preamble to the main event, but making that initial selection is tough. Those opening kilometres can be lively; getting to the front and staying in the mix is hard enough, but forcing a split in a fresh peloton travelling at pace is a monumental task. Making the break requires forethought, cunning, tenacity and a very strong pair of legs. Then there’s the small matter of getting it to ‘stick’; having the right blend of riders who are committed to the cause.
And on the rare occasions when it works and a break stays away, it is – to my mind – as good as bike racing gets. Exciting as bunch sprints can be, they are more like penalties following extra time in a drab football match compared to a well-crafted goal. A rider hanging on alone at the end, crossing the line exhausted having left everything out on the road as the chasing peloton sweeps into the finish straight behind them – it’s what dreams are made of.
It is the baroudeur, then, the rider who attacks instinctively as if they have no other option or tactic, who is keenly watched during the early kilometres as they test the competition. He will have prepared, carefully studying the route, looking for the little kicker at the start, or a bonus sprint early on, a dodgy descent or sharp corner – anywhere to launch his assault. When the time is right, it will be a full-on attack, as if the life of their first-born depended on it. The big-name riders must be doubly committed, marked by following riders glued to their back wheels, refusing to cooperate.
But for one of the lesser-knowns, this televised break could well be their finest hour. A day in the saddle, swapping turns with fellow escapees, sharing the load and maybe – just maybe – the chance to fight out the finish amongst themselves. This could be the day that their career lifts off.
Vittoria race support car 2 – Milan-Sanremo, 2013
This is mind-numbingly dull. Even the most hardcore bike race fan would struggle to stay awake. Foul weather has forced most of the crowd back indoors so the spectator count is low and the umbrella count is high. But in neutral support car 2 we are in a racing no man's land. As the countryside speeds by and the sleet turns to snow, I'm cleaning the lens on my camera for the umpteenth time, just for something to do.
I've been sitting in the same seat for hours and nothing has happened. Nothing. The race radio first crackled the breakaway news at kilometre 15, but I can’t see the break in front or the peloton behind. In the first four hours I saw one cyclist, riding in the opposite direction with his soggy lunch in a shopping basket on the handlebars. And I missed it. My camera was still in bits on my knee.
So, in car 2, you’re just waiting for the call to action from race radio. It could be that the break has splintered and the peloton is closing and we are caught in the middle of an exciting melée. Then we’d be the neutral support for the counter attacks. Or a crash might force the peloton to split. Or that rare occasion when a group of no-hopers try bridging to the break up the road. But today the break has around 11 minutes. And we have nothing to do.
The atrocious weather is not helping. It’s unseasonably cold and behind us the bunch huddle together for warmth. At the front it’s a different story and the breakaways are smashing it up, building a massive lead. Luckily, there’s two of us today and Taz is in Vittoria car 1 in the thick of it.
Situation after 60 kilmetres – Peloton at 10’ 35”
Lars Bak (Lotto), Maxim Belkov (Katusha), Filippo Fortin (Bardiani Valvole-CSF Inox), Pablo Lastras (Movistar), Matteo Montaguti (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and Diego Rosa (Androni Giocattoli)
Lars Bak: It was a crazy day, like a split stage. All of us in the breakaway, especially me and Pablo Lastras, tried to get as much time as possible because, with the weather, we thought that maybe they’d take some of the other climbs out. They took the Turchino and Le Manie out. With the rain jacket, I was wearing four layers maybe: an under-jersey, a normal jersey, a body-warmer (the black one, the really good one we have) and the rain jacket. You can keep putting layers on, but when it’s wet, it’s wet.
Filippo Fortin: I was really excited to do the best I could for my first Milan-Sanremo. I’ve always been a sprinter, so this was my first breakaway of the season. And it’s looking like it might be the last, too. The first time I saw this race was when [Erik] Zabel put his hands up and Óscar Freire nicked it. I was only 15.
Matteo Montaguti: I’ve never done a race in the snow before, so it was a bit of a new experience, shall we say. When we escaped, I wasn’t thinking so much about the problems of the snow, or how many other problems we’d have. I hoped we’d be caught on the Poggio or Cipressa. I hoped for many things because of the TV coverage. Unfortunately, I couldn’t finish the race because of the conditions. I’d really given everything.
Francesco Villa, Mechanic, Vittoria Servizio Corse, Car 1
Usually, in the car during quiet moments, we chat or talk by radio with the guys in the other Vittoria cars, exchanging information and commenting on the race. But that day we were all tense.
It was freezing cold and the riders were racing in unbelievable conditions. We helped them to dress, to open their energy bars, to shake off the snow from their backs and shoulders. In the car the heating was set to maximum level so my hands were warm enough. And then Lastras of Movistar had a flat – I had no problems and replaced his wheel in seconds. As I pushed to get him started again, I saw his eyes: he was really overwhelmed by the effort, from the cold and from that absurd situation. I saw him again at the Giro this year and he thanked me for that help. I just remember the intense cold, the heavy snowfall and the tension of it all.
Alberto Galbiati, Driver, Vittoria Servizio Corse, Motorbike
I felt like hell, but it was not hot…
When we left Milan the weather situation was already difficult. We knew that in Ovada the weather conditions would have been much worse. In the province of Pavia we saw the first flakes. I have in my head this image of the snow that comes towards me. At first very gently, then it was more and more dense, hitting my helmet visor and eventually it prevented me from seeing. I was scared. I had not only the responsibility of the intervention in the race, but also that of my colleague, Paolo, who was sitting behind me, and above all of the athletes who were riding to the side of my motorbike. If I lose control, can you imagine what could happen?
So I was focused, tense, concentrated. Paolo, every twenty or thirty seconds, had to clean my visor. He did that with his gloves but they were not waterproof so, in a few minutes, they were soaked and useless. At one point, the jury sent us to the head of the race, where there was a breakaway. It was safer for us, they said. I was just hoping for it to end, and that no one got hurt. I'm an experienced motorbike driver for 13 years now at many important cycling races, but I never saw anything like that. It was exhausting, both physically and mentally. I approached the curves very slowly to prevent any slides.
When they stopped the race, all the riders got on their buses but Paolo and I drove up to Arenzano. We could not leave our motorbike on the Turchino, for sure! So for us, the odyssey continued until the finish line. Paolo could have chosen to jump in one of our cars but he decided to stay with me until the end. We are a team. I appreciated that.
When we arrived at the Arenzano gas station (where the race started again in the afternoon) I remember that my colleague Veronica, our team coordinator, brought me a bottle of hot tea. I put it on my face and chest and held it between my hands to warm them up, while Paolo was trying to revive his fingers by warming his hands on the exhaust pipe. This Milan-Sanremo is a story that I will certainly tell my grandchildren.
Dario Acquaroli, Driver Vittoria Servizio Corse, Car 1
Unbelievable. I had an eye on the car’s dashboard to check for the outside temperature. All of a sudden, after Pavia, there was a sudden drop and the degrees lowered from +5 degrees to -2 degrees Celsius. The riders were soaked, trembling, veering. We were worried. When the snow began to fall heavily, they came back to the Vittoria cars to ask for something warm to drink. At one point we ran out of everything and had to ask the team cars for more tea bottles. All were generous and shared their stocks.
When Lastras had a flat, I braked cautiously and pulled to the side of the road. The snow on the ground was so thick I feared the winter tyres wouldn’t be good enough. Francesco immediately jumped out and Lastras was back on his way in seconds, but he was shaking and his eyes… I will not forget his eyes.
We were with the breakaway from then on and every now and then I looked over at Alberto and Paolo, riding the motorbike. I was really worried about them: they were cold, they were wet, but they could not stop because the Vittoria Servizio Corse is committed to the race and the athletes. I could see Paolo beating his hands against his breast and his legs as he had lost feeling in his fingers, and Alberto, very focused on keeping the motorbike on the road.
Paolo Tomaselli, Mechanic, Vittoria Servizio Corse, Motorbike
A memory? Cold, cold and colder. While sitting behind Alberto I was tense and agitated. I have the utmost confidence in the ability of Alberto as a driver but, believe me, the weather conditions were incredible. I don’t think he’s experienced that kind of heavy snow. But he was outstanding. The commissaire had sent us to follow the breakaway, as it was less dangerous for everyone. It was so cold I started losing sensitivity in my hands. At a point, I was forced to tell the commissaire that I would not be able to intervene if they had called for me because my hands were useless.
I remember Lastras who was in the breakaway group. At one point he asked me to zip up his cape: a scene that I will hardly forget. I know what it's like to ride when it’s cold but not that cold. The worst I experienced in my riding career was minus ten degrees racing in Belgium, but that was dry cold.
The snow is dangerous because you get wet in seconds, it penetrates your flesh and gets to your bones. I can still see the hands of Lastras shaking as he handed me his jacket and I helped him put it on. He was pedalling like a robot... At one point we passed him a bottle of hot tea. He asked if we could throw it on his hands to warm them.
Many other riders asked for our help that day: paper towels to wipe snow from glasses, tea, warm clothes. We rode for hours and hours, under the snowstorm. And when the race was stopped, we had to carry on to Arenzano and then to the finish. When I finally got to Sanremo the first thing I did when I jumped off the motorbike was to look for a bar and ask for a grappa. I don’t usually drink at all, but that day… it was well deserved.
I asked the neutral car to open my gels and to help me with the rain jacket. My problem in cold weather is normally my hands rather than feet: you can’t brake or change gears, eat or drink, or take clothing on and off. You’re fucked, basically. With the cold, it’s not the mental aspect. It’s your body… it’s blocked. You just get colder and colder, with no feeling in either your legs or head.
In the final 20 kilometres, I had a sugar flat, no energy left. So it was just survival getting to the finish line. I was happy to be on the results list the day after. It was hard but I don’t like to quit a race.
I think the organisers made the right decision. You cannot be ahead of the weather, nobody can control it. Maybe they should have stopped us after 100 kilometres because the last 10km before we stopped, it was really cold and snowing, but that’s nature, and cycling. The guys that don’t like it can stay in the buses – some did. Of course if that happened every weekend, people would start complaining…
The engine stops and sleet dashes against the car’s windscreen. "We take a coffee." I've been busting since the last 'taking of the coffee', so this stop is quite a relief. Apparently a human bladder can hold around half a litre of liquid, so how on earth two tiny espressos can cause so much discomfort, I will never know.
The race has been halted at Ovada, the snow on the Turchino pass being too deep and fresh fall inland meaning that everything behind us is a total whiteout. The Milan-Sanremo is run by RCS, who recently appointed Director General, Michele Acquarone, a man who is fast learning that running a bike race takes more than glad-handing charisma: he needs to be decisive and tenacious too. Acquarone makes a quick but tough call:
“Due to the unfavourable weather, the Race Management – by agreement with the Commissaires Panel – has decided to neutralise the race in the stretch of route between Ovada and Arenzano (subject to further assessment of the weather conditions in Arenzano). The race time of the breakaways and their lead over the chasing group will be ‘frozen’ in Ovada and the status quo will then be resumed in Arenzano, where the race will start again around 2:30pm.”
Frozen indeed. Another coffee is taken as we wait by the seaside. The sleet turns to rain. More umbrellas are called into action.
It was pretty crazy at that moment of getting to the buses. If you look on YouTube, there’s a clip just before they stopped the race where, for two or three minutes, it’s just a single file of riders, coming and coming and coming. The other guys said to me they could not see anything and were so afraid of crashing, they left gaps of one or two metres to the next rider.
It was at around 50ks that my sports director said on the radio that they were going to stop the race after 117km and the time the breakaway had would remain after the restart. We decided to go full gas in the breakaway from the start to have as much time as possible over the peloton.
At this point, we had 11 minutes; when we came to the stopping point, we only had seven, because the bunch was also aware they couldn’t give us 15 minutes. If the second part of the race were only 100km, it’d be difficult for them. Nobody knew exactly what was going to happen. It was nearly mission impossible with those teams chasing.
When we stopped and got on the bus, I had no feelings in my hands. My soigneur took off my jersey, my shoe covers, my gloves – everything off me. Then I went into the shower and the hardest thing was coping mentally. It was like when you’re a little child gone out playing in the snow and come in to get warm with hot food and drink – you don’t want to go out again afterwards. That was the same feeling we all had, having to go out on the bike again.
Of course, I was excited because I had seven minutes and a ten second gap alongside the six other guys, and we knew it would be on television. At first, my team-mates were really, really negative and freezing. A lot of guys said ‘Ah, we cannot go’; the discussion was: ‘Are we going to continue the race?’ Some wanted to, some didn’t.
But at the end of the day, Milan-Sanremo is a monument in cycle sport. It’s not something you just cancel. And there was no snow for the final 130km: it was really cold, but you could ride on the roads.
As we went on, I started to shake. I didn’t have control of my bike anymore. It was an ugly sensation; on the other hand, it was beautiful to be in the break in Milan-Sanremo. The conditions were unreal, especially as the day before had been so beautiful.
The neutralisation was in the best manner possible, there was no other way. As riders, in the snow, it’s horrible, you know. But in the end, it’s Milan-Sanremo. Hail, snow, shine, rain, whatever: you try to do the best you can. On the bus, I had a cold shower because I didn’t feel anything in my hands and feet and didn’t want chilblains. It took 40 minutes, just to warm myself up.
The idea of a service course neutral support car seems odd in the cutthroat world of bike racing. Assistance from team cars plays as much a part in team tactics out on the road as a lead-out train in the closing kilometres. I’d previously thought that neutral support did the bare minimum and were mainly there to ‘look’ like they helped; sponsorship, endorsement and advertising being the overriding reasons for attending. But this day was different; this day needed some clear heads and quick hands; this day the neutral support went above and beyond. And the riders clearly appreciated it.
They could see we were suffering like pigs, like maniacs. Actually, I think they felt a little bit sorry for us. They helped us more than normal, especially the guy that put my raincoat on. I started out in my black body-warmer, but after 40 or 50 kilometres, I was already cold so I wanted my rain jacket. Normally in the breakaway, you don’t want it on, but I was freezing.
He helped me a lot, also taking my food out of the pockets. They could see that it wasn’t funny and tried to help us more than they normally do – though it’s not like they were pushing our bikes. I’d say thanks to them at the next Italian race, but I cannot really remember what the guys looked like.
The Vittoria guys were so helpful, because my team car had dropped back and left some kit for me, and they helped me put it on. They’re there to give assistance but in the snow, it was a whole different situation for them too.
When you get in the break in Sanremo, you don’t want to end it like that. I wanted to do something more, but the conditions forced it. I’m not the kind of guy who can win a sprint so getting in long escapes is my game, and that’s what I’ll be trying to do in the next years here if I have the good fortune to take part.
I was the first to be dropped. After the restart, my body wasn’t responding so well, and I couldn’t keep the rhythm of my breakaway companions. At the second feed zone, I pulled out, 15-20 kilometres from the first capo. My head wanted to go on, but my body wouldn’t let me. I kept my race number as a souvenir. I’m happy to have been there – everyone speaks of the epic Milan-Sanremo, a race not like the others. It was an incredible experience because it was atmospheric, strange, new.
Vittoria’s servizio corse manager Dario Acquaroli has only been speaking the ‘new’ language of the peloton, English, for a few months but he’s quickly getting the hang of it. The next day we meet him at the HQ and “take a coffee”. I’m sure a bit gets lost in translation, but learning English is all part of the job now for Dario, an ex-pro who can work in racing without the worry of a tricky induction into civvy street.
“I know a lot of ex-professional riders. If you save money when you are riding you can buy a little bar, or maybe a bicycle shop, some can work for a team. It’s a good story to know what riders do after their careers, because some have a terrible time. I am lucky because I have a job, and a job that I really enjoy. Vittoria is an international company with different cultures involved, there is pressure and it’s not always easy, but I like to work at the races.
“Diego Rosa [Androni Giocattoli] wrote and thanked me for the help at Sanremo. I was very pleased: we often do our work without receiving a nod; sometimes the team cars even yell back at us, because they want to approach their riders while the Vittoria cars are sent from the commissaires to their place, but sometimes, a simple ‘thank you’ can make your day.”
Tearing down the Poggio after eight hours or so in the car, at a speed that was making me glad not to be behind the wheel, Pietro (a former team DS and rather good driver) asks me who I think will win. Gripping the door handle, I suggest that Ian Stannard likes the rain and that a win for him would continue the tradition of the ‘Curse of Rouleur’ – namely, that riders featured in the magazine will win something big soon after. It’s an office joke, rather than an innate ability at race punditry. Well, it makes us laugh, anyway…
Listening to the finale of Milan-Sanremo over the final kilometres, via a terribly inaccurate race radio, I thought Stannard was going to be the next recipient of the dubious Rouleur badge of honour, but it was not to be. The race radio keeps telling tales; Geraint Thomas goes down (we’ve interviewed him before), Gilbert attacks. Chavanel is in a break (done him too). Oh, no he isn't, he's crashed, now he's in the break again. Cavendish is out of it. Stannard leads over the top of the Poggio. Cancellara’s back on and attacks. Pozzatto fades. Stannard and Chavanel are caught. Ciolek takes it. Pietro predicted a sprinter would have it – Luca Paolini or Ciolek. Certainly not Stannard.
It was some finale and a fittingly hard-fought sprint for the line. After almost 200 kilometres on the front, the break was finally reeled in, the Vittoria support guys in attendance the whole way. It may not be the first time la Primavera has seen snow, and should come as no surprise that the inaugural race in 1907 – including a Turchino pass resembling a goat track – took almost 12 hours for the 33 riders to complete, but the 2013 version was possibly the toughest in living memory.
Surprisingly, only 65 of the 200 starters abandoned. Lars Bak, Maxim Belkov and Diego Rosa were the remnants of the breakaway when it was eventually caught – all three made it to Sanremo.
You can never control the weather and if it was always 30 degrees and sunshine, bike racing wouldn’t be much fun to watch. But the weather has a big influence. In one way, it was not such a charming day, but in another, that’s the charm of cycling: the influence of the elements.
On stage 13, the longest of the Giro last year, I was in the breakaway with Pablo [Lastras] again and went over the same first sixty-odd kilometres of the Milan-Sanremo parcours beside him. I said to him: ‘It’s the same distance practically – today is 250km too’. Then I added: ‘…but now it’s 30 degrees’ and he laughed.
I’ll never forget that day because it was crazy, but it’ll be good to tell the grandchildren one day.
This feature originally appeared in issue 40 of Rouleur, published in July 2013.