Rain falls on the Piazza Sempione, but Milan is beautiful, even beneath the graffiti that blights the city, and, besides, this is Italy, where it takes more than rain to damp the spirit of the people.
To professional cycling’s eternal credit, even its biggest stars do not play the prima donna, and the locals certainly do not stand on ceremony. Riders are embraced, their shoulders clapped and hands pumped. They are stopped by friendly mobs of fans en route to the sign-on ceremony and photographed, wished well, and cheered on their way. Having signed the race register, the scene is repeated on their way back to the buses.
None are spared, and especially not the home riders. It’s tempting to think that the well-wishers are family, but not all of them can have brought their relatives. It’s an international affair, too: Cannondale-Garmin’s Jack Bauer takes three steps from bus to bike, but it’s too late: he will not be allowed to set off on a 300km journey into exhaustion without the very best wishes of complete strangers. It is wonderful to behold. Bauer seems to enjoy the moment, posing to ensure that his amateur paparazzi capture what he jokes is his best side.
Team vehicles stretch in a long line from the Arco della Pace. The ProTeams are putting on a show. This is a Monument, after all, and no less than the first of the season. Logistics may have prevented them from hauling their best kit to the flyaway races of January and February, but gleaming buses and numberless fleets of support cars are in abundance in Milan. Some have brought an additional vehicle to carry but a single bike (Orica-GreenEDGE for Matthews and Tinkoff-Saxo for Sagan). One more for luck.
This being Italy, there is a black Ferrari among the race convoy, but it is the bikes, as ever, that steal the show. Familiarity can breed contempt, especially among the identikit solutions bred by UCI regulation, but look closely and there are enough details to sustain interest once the ‘wow’ factor of the lightest, stiffest, most expensive kit has passed.
Bora-Argon 18, for example, are using Di2 buttons on their bar ‘tops’, as well as those mounted on the levers. Team leader Sam Bennett has an enormous 55-tooth chainring (bigger than any other we pass), whose ferocious appearance is magnified by the absence of any cutaways to reveal the inner ring, making it appear more buzzsaw than chainring. He’s running deeper rims than most of his team-mates, too: Vision’s Metron 55, rather than the more popular 40. The Irish sprinter, unsurprisingly, is a man with speed very obviously at the top of his agenda.
Peter Sagan has a new bike with a camouflage paint scheme and his choice of Specialized’s Venge reflects a preference for aero road bikes among the Milan-Sanremo peloton. Katusha’s selection of Canyon’s Aeroad CF SLX is almost uniform and Ridley’s Noah SL holds sway among Lotto-Soudal’s Classicisma constituency. It might be that the more conventional, but (typically) lighter climbing bikes will be in greater evidence at the Volta a Catalunya.
The convoy inches forwards as the riders, some 250m away, roll out for the ceremonial start. Yoann Offredo has left it late and nudges his bike through the throng to join the peloton at the first corner; still he is away before Luca Paolini, who starts at the start but is somehow last as the peloton snakes away. He is cheered rapturously, and will go on to play a critical role for the second year in succession. The 106th edition of Milan-Sanremo, however, will crown a new winner, despite the Italian's best efforts. Its traditions and the hospitality of the Milanese people remain unaltered.