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The Poggio: Springboard to Victory
By Staff
Date: 3/16/2004
The Poggio: Springboard to Victory

Story and photos by Tony Szurly

The 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 unique perspective.

One 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 profile.

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".

So 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.

There 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.



As 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.

The 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.

At 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

Check out The Milan-San Remo website
Have a look at L’Equipe’s Poggio graphic

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