Story and photos by Tony Szurly
Poggio climb was added to the Milan-San Remo course in 1960 to thwart the field
sprint finishes that the organizers thought had by then become all too common.
In recent years, the Poggio has been such an important element in deciding
victory that Cycle Sport magazine once joked that there should be a sign placed
at the bottom saying “Attack Here if You Want to Win!” It’s
somewhat ironic that the World Cup’s longest classic should so often be decided
in a little over three kilometers.
Although I had watched some taped coverage of Milan-San Remo over the years,
it wasn’t until I watched it live via RAI on the satellite at a small social
club in the Italian section of Paterson, New Jersey that I became a true fan of
this race. The men in the neighborhood would gather there regularly, fire
up the dish and watch their favorite teams in Serie A football matches, the Giro
d’Italia and also, luckily for us- La Primavera. A bunch of us from the
cycling club, led by Vince, our resident Italian ex-pat, would head over on
Saturday morning to watch the race there. We would drink fresh brewed
cappuccino, accompanied by those delicious little sfogliatelle napoletane
pastries. Many of these men had followed cycle racing for many years and they
would share their memories with us- a personal history of past races from a
of my favorite stories was told by a man who was a fervent tifoso of the great
Fausto Coppi. When he was just a giovane, a young boy, he waited along the
route and anxiously watched for his hero to appear. Just before Coppi rode
by, he placed his jacket in the road directly in the path of the great
campionnisimo. Coppi’s tires left tracks on the back of the boy’s jacket
that he treasured as his own cycling version of a holy relic, well worth the
scolding he received at home from his mama.
Intrigued by the beautiful scenery, I had always hoped for a chance to put
some rubber to the road on one of Italy’s most famous strips of strada. My
wife indulged my desire to make a little cross-border detour during our two week
stay near Nice in the south of France and graciously agreed to follow in the car
and do her best Graham Watson imitation.
For a climb with such a prominent role in one of the most storied races in
professional cycling, at first glance the Poggio presents a surprisingly modest
Cycle Sport’s William Fotheringham describes it:
“It is precisely 3,740 meters long from bottom to top. The average
gradient is only five percent or 1 in 20. It takes the leaders around six and a
half-minutes to climb. The record is five minutes and forty-six seconds, set by
Laurent Jalabert and Maurizio Fondriest in 1995. (Note: other sources list the
record as 5'22" by Giorgio Furlan in 1994).
The climb is tough because of the wind blowing off the sea and the riders
have almost 290 kilometers in their legs. It is ridden on gears of around 53 x
16 and 53 x 14. The steepest sections come between 500 and 800 meters and
again between 1,500 and 2,100 meters, with the steepest section at 2,500 meters
into the climb (7%).
Attacks are made here, with dropped riders too tired to respond on the
final drag at the top. From the top it is 5.5 kilometers to the finish.
The 3.25 kilometer hairpin descent of the Via Val d'Olivi often plays a role.
Sean Kelly caught Moreno Argentin here to win in 1992".
with that vivid description fresh in my mind, it was high time to see first hand
what all the fuss was about.
After dodging what seemed like a million Italian teenagers on scooters on the
coast road from Ventimiglia, through Bordighera and on through the center of San
Remo, we found the sign for the climb just outside the town. It was going to be
a blast riding on the same road that had seen so much great racing action.
As I made the turn onto the Via Duca d’Aosta and started up the climb, the
painted names echoing the action from March's race were still clearly visible on
the road. Michele Bartoli, Mirko Celestino and Danilo DiLuca seemed to be the
fan favorites, judging by the number of times their names appeared. Mario
Cipollini’s fans had worked their paintbrush magic too.
are some things that come along in life to let you know all is just right with
the world. Riding a steel Colnago with Campagnolo Record in Italy up the
Poggio on that beautiful sun-drenched day overlooking the Med was definitely one
of them. It was full-on Italian overload. Che belezza!
The road surface is good and the climb itself is not particularly hard but
that’s not the whole story of the Poggio. After a long, hard six-hour day and
nearly 180 miles, it becomes a real “spaccagamba”, or leg-breaker, and puts a
serious bite into the legs at the speeds these professionals race.
I rode past the spot where Saeco’s matinee idol, Danilo DiLuca, made a brash but
brief bid before fading in the face of the winning move from Paolo Bettini and
his Quickstep teammate Luca Paolini in the race just a few months prior, I could
see how the climb could be underestimated by more than a few riders at this
point in the race. It’s a mistake they probably only make once.
The views of the azure-blue Mediterranean on the ascent were wide open to the
sun and ocean breezes and while the houses, walls, wire fences and everything
else on the climb were not necessarily the most attractive backdrop, it was
still a scenic ride. There is a small church on the way up, the Sanctuary of
Madonna della Guardia. Until that day, I never knew that there was a café on the
false flat near the top. I’m sure it is the prime viewing spot, packed
with fervent, espresso-charged tifosi on race day. A quick flick left at
the little square on the summit and it’s down, down, down.
descent of the Via Val d'Olivi, twisting through the famous greenhouses, is as
tricky as you've read about. With lots of hairpins, many of these with high
stone walls completely blocking the view of what's around the corner, it demands
full attention. But it was still lots of fun!
I was lucky enough to blast down the Poggio on a day with very little car
traffic and when I could safely see ahead, I readily took the opportunity to use
the whole road, searching for the best line in and out of the snaking turns.
Sean Kelly must have felt that he had nine lives on that day in 1992 when he
bombed down to catch Moreno Argentin, securing his victory. Taking on this
winding descent at full-on race speed must be a wild move, and definitely not
one for the nervous.
the bottom, I turned onto the Via Aurelia and when I climbed off the bike a few
kilometers later, it was hot and in the mid-90's. Back on the Via Roma in
San Remo, a nice pizza Margherita, a cold drink and a well-earned two-scoop
gelato were our prelude to some serious beach time at the Lido Fontana, which
finished off a great day on the Italian Riviera! It certainly wasn’t the longest
or hardest day I’ve done on the bike, but you couldn’t peel the smile off my
face for a few days.
I’ve been lucky enough to ride some of the most revered stretches of road in
the cycling world, from the majestic Champs-Elysées to the cobbled Koppenberg,
from the switchbacks of Alpe d’Huez to the madness of the Arenberg Forest.
I always find a tremendous satisfaction in knowing that any fan can ride on the
same roads as the sport's greatest racers. This ability to touch some of
cycling's history and relate to it in a truly personal way is one of the most
unique aspects of our sport. Now that I feel I know the Poggio just a
little bit better, it’s a sure thing that when I watch the race unfold at this
week’s edition of La Primavera, I'll have a much better appreciation of this
crucial part of the great Italian monument.
All photos © Tony Szurly
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