Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Milan-San Remo

Milan-San Remo, the Spring classic bike race which bills itself as La Classicissima went off very well this year. At the line, Oscar Frere proved to have the right tactics and the best legs. He rides for the Rabobank squad and although the rider I follow most closely, Joost Posthuma, wasn't in this race, the result is a satisfying one. 'Tho it was the third time Oscar won, the announcers and the race cameras picked out other former winners and current favorites in the run up to the finish. I kept seeing the bright orange flash of his jersey behind or nearby the guys the photogs were watching. The replays showed both his skill in maneuvering himself into position leading up to the sprint and the enormous surge with which he pulled away from contenders.

Julian Dean's race diary blog tells a different story. Milan-San Remo is so very long and so very fast that — after a few hours of riding — racers who get shelled out the back have little hope of rejoining the front bunch. About half way through, Dean got caught up in a crash, was unable to reconnect, and lost so much time that he and another sufferer lost more than an hour on the lead group. He writes, in typical New Zealand idiom:
I was out the arse because I was going bad, now I had to keep going to the finish, hoping that at some point I might see someone coming from the finish to collect me after they finally realised I was MIA. But it didn't happen and I had to ride a miserable 100km to the finish with no fluids or food on one of the worst days I’ve had on the bike for as long as I can remember. . . .

Eventually, after almost 8 hours, I rolled into San Remo to the team bus feeling more than a little cheesed off and disillusioned as to the lack of consideration of the welfare the team has for its riders - especially for an athlete who’s struck a bad day and needs a little more support than they might need on regular occasions. What added to my frustration was that in my heart I knew I had done all I could to get back on top of my form after being crook and even though I couldn’t contribute much on this particular day, I still buried myself for the team.

Anyway that’s often what you get when you have a bad day. Unless you are running at the top of your game, professional sport can be very demoralizing and disheartening no matter how long you’ve been in it and how much stature you have. Everybody prefers to be with a winner....

{Dean at MSR on another day; source: his team's website}

A couple of days ago, a race page I follow called Cyclingnews did an article on an experience similar to Dean's from twenty-five years ago: Phinney and Kiefel recall 7-11's wild Milan-San Remo

At that time the American team, 7-Eleven, had just begun racing in Europe. They entered MSR hoping to put someone on the podium but expecting just to gain some valuable experience. Davis Phinney and Ron Kiefel were their two star riders, both successful in US races, and, eventually, in European ones as well. This day, March 16, 1985, was not to be Phinney's best. Beforehand he's given what he takes to be valuable advice to eat constantly in order to avoid running out of energy at the end — the race being so very long and hard. He fills his jersey pockets with the pannini that riders ate in those days and ate one after the other. For this, he's derided by one of the best racers of all time. As he tells it, "After about 60km Sean Kelly pulls up next to me while I'm stuffing my face. My gut is so full that my knees are banging into it while I'm pedalling. Kelly says, 'What are you doing? You're eating like a pig! You'll never make the finish like that'."

Then: "As we came into the little town before the Turchino [climb] started I was on the far right side, in the second row, and we're just flying along. There's a sharp left turn and the pack drifted a little bit wide to the point where I was pushed off the road. I went flying off the road, crashed into this chain fence separating the road from the sidewalk and dislocated my finger."

It was very cold and wet that day. Fellow team member Eric Heiden stopped to help Phinney and manages to pull the dislocated finger back to normal, but Phinney had lost steam. Heiden managed to get himself back in the race, but Phinney did not. He remembers: "Here I am at this big race, Milan-San Remo, off the back with three other knuckleheads, still riding with race numbers on. I'm dirty, wet, cold and hungry, because I have no food, and we're still a long way from San Remo. We realized that we're screwed."

Two of the four struggle on but Phinney and a Belgian rider decide to leave the course and see whether they can't hitch a ride to the finish on the nearby autostrada — a limited-access tollroad. They're stopped at the tollbooth and since neither knows the dialect which the tolltaker uses, they're near out of hope until the tolltaker finally figures out why these two bike riders are plaguing him and calls race headquarters. Phinney's team manager eventually sends a car for them. I'd love to see a photo of the two, dirty, cold, wet, hungry, dejected; standing by their bikes at the entrance to an Italian superhighway.

{Kiefel and Phinney at a warm and sunny race in Colorado a year or two before their MSR adventure; source:}

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