I’m back in Sanremo. This race has become so much a part of the flow of my year, that I can’t quite imagine March without it. I have been lucky enough to be on the Via Roma to see every winner since Vincenzo Nibali took the last great win of his career in 2018. I wonder if he'll be kicking around tomorrow, perhaps gorging himself on Pizza and Aperol in the spring sunshine. Doubt it.
Much has been, much will be written about the nature of this most idiosyncratic of classics. I even dipped a toe myself into the online waters lapping at the shore of this long, steady bike race when I jokingly asked what on earth we should talk about for the first six hours in commentary. The replies were funny.
I only half meant it, of course. There is always stuff to fill the hours in a bike race, especially one which passes from the Po river valley over the crest of a mountain ridge to the crystalline blue of the Ligurian coast.
But the debate will rage, the schism will exist between those who think its infinite delay to be injurious to the image of cycling, and those hair-shirted purists who revel, not so much in delay, but in delayed gratification. Peter Cossins, whose opinion I trust, penned a sturdy defence of the spectacle, most of which I went along with. Despite the wisdom of his contention that all racing's nuance is contained in the 300 kilometres of Milan Sanremo, I remain a slight sceptic. I’d argue that, given there is really only one place to attack (no one even contemplates using the Cipressa any more) there is much, much more going on around almost every corner at Flanders and Roubaix in particular. However his contention that if you don’t get Milan Sanremo, you don’t get bike racing, though perhaps a little bit sniffy, is kind of true nonetheless – there is a sense of something uncoiling, imperceptibly slowly. Or rather, now I think of it, coiling; ready to spring loose on the Poggio.
I’ve just returned from my annual run from Sanremo centre, back along the cycle track parallel to the race route, onto the turn for the Poggio and back over the famous hill; my head filling with thoughts about the nature of this race, as my legs filled with lactic. Save for a couple of signs advising locals of the parking restrictions in place, and an RCS pink arrow sign pointing left at the top, you would have no idea that this stretch of road would be presented to the world the following day as pivotal sporting icon. No hint of the magnificence of the race.
Instead, as I lumbered up and over, I took it all in again: lifting gradually clear of the sparkling light blue waters, I glanced up to see the false summit of the walled cemetery around the Madonna della Guardia and in the distance the old hilltop towns of Pietrabruna and Ceriana, left high and dry by the construction of the Autostrada 10. I took in the sheer variety of vegetation being watered by the smallholders in tiny market gardens; lemons and olives, tomatoes and artichokes, flowers for the Mercato dei Fiori in Sanremo. I passed a trio of middle aged blokes in overalls working on the road, one of whom regaled me cheerfully. I have just enough Italian to understand that he was making the time honoured joke about “where’s your bike, mate?”.
I ran past the top with my annual touchstone glance at the statue of the engineer who built the famous Genoa-Ventimiglia railway. As I turned for home and started to run down, wondering where exactly it had been that Matej Mohorič had nearly clipped a curb in his maniac descent, I started to hear the voice of the football coach of the Sanremese Calcio squad. His voice drifted up the hillside on the mild air rising off the sea. Down below I could see his charges, running around the pitch whose four sides were flanked by the white-washed stands of the Mussolini-era Stadio Communale. It was a very calming scene to inhale, along with the 2 stroke petrol from the Vespas.
Then suddenly I was on the main road, to my left Alfred Nobel’s villa, being lavishly refurbished by private property developers. Ahead, the via Roma and famous finish line.
Who will get there first tomorrow? I have no idea. The last two years have proven how hard a race it can be to call in advance. But don’t rush to judgment either way – be aware that it is going on, check in now and then, and then settle down for the final hour and do not leave the couch. And before that, fill your boots with your predictions in the comments section below: