David Fitzgerald takes us through his Milan-San Remo in June. Self-Organised, with five bottles of water he sets off on a quest for a beer.

Starting at the end

Sitting in San Remo on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Savouring a beer, savouring the moment. This is how I imagined it would be. For the last nine and a half hours. Especially for the last nine and a half hours. But also for the last eight months. I’ve just finished cycling my bike a full 296km in baking sunshine and heat from Milan, in the northern plains of Lombardy, to San Remo, on the Ligurian coast. The temperature has been around tirthy-four degrees all day. I’m feeling pretty tired, hot, sweaty and dehydrated. Exhausted and exhilarated. All at once. I phone home to check in, confirm I’m still alive and share the news of the day. Although, honestly, right at this point, I’m not up for much conversation. I realize I’m pretty drained physically and I need to rehydrate, refuel and recover. It’s a pretty emotional moment for me and all the other finishers. I can tell from the faces of most of those flopping over the finish line that it’s a huge personal achievement. For me is the realization of a dream, the culmination of many months of training, commitment and discipline and a great deal of support from family and friends. My loving wife’s patience has been stretched to the limit. I’ll phone again later when I’m rational. Right now I need to stay in the moment. It’s been a long day. My bike is resting against an old tree on a lovely old Italian street. I’ve just downed a litre of cold sparkling water. Glorious. I’m taking great pleasure in drinking this beer, slowly. Like that scene from Ice Cold in Alex, I’m watching condensation slowly run down the outside of the glass. It’s crisp, it’s refreshing, it’s glorious. I’m sitting on the kerb, near where they are handing out the medals and from my vantage point, I’m getting a glimpse into the nature of this event. I’m watching all sorts of people coming through. Many nationalities but mostly Italian. Club teams, groups of friends, individuals like me - and a wide spectrum of ages. There is a universal set of emotions - joy, relief, gratitude - and despite some obvious language barriers the communicants in this broad church of cycling are concelebrating!

At length, I drag my weary ass off the pavement and find the pasta party in a local hall just up the street. All the finishers are huddled in their masses in there, enjoying some delicious hearty Italian food - pasta, bread, wine - and after I collect my backpack, I set off on my bike (you’d though I’d have had enough at this stage) to find my hotel.

 

La Primavera aka La Classicissima

The event I’ve just completed is the Granfondo Milano-San Remo which faithfully follows the route of La Primavera ("The Spring classic"). One of the five Monuments of cycling, it is the first major classic race of the season and is usually held every year on the third Saturday of March - when the weather can be unpredictably bad. The first edition was held in 1907. At a distance of 296 km it is the longest professional one-day race in modern cycling. There have been many famous rivalries in this race down the years, none more so than that in the 1940s with the mythical years of Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali, whose duels were the subject of intense coverage and resulted in epic races. Milan-San Remo was at the peak of its popularity and the Italian press started to coin the untranslatable term "La Classicissima", the greatest of all classics. The most successful rider with seven victories is Belgian Eddy Merckx but my favourite one is Sean Kelly's, in 1992 when he descended the Poggio (the final hill) like a man possessed and overtook the local favourite Moreno Argentin to win. I wonder if I’ll descend like Kelly today...

This year, the professionals raced Milan-San Remo on 19th March 2017 and amateurs were afforded the opportunity on the 11th June. Unlike the professionals who all start together (there’s only around 300 of them), the amateurs start in groups of around 250 riders at 10 minute intervals with every individual’s time recorded via a timing chip on the bike, so the event is a very long time trial (very, very long!). Milan-San Remo is described as "a sprinters classic because of its mainly flat course". That made me laugh. While it’s true in a relative sense - there’s nowhere near as much climbing as say Liege-Bastogne-Liege or a day in the Alps - what it does contain is three classified climbs and a series of short, sharp lumps which aren’t notorious enough to get a mention but come at a stage in the race (after 200kms) when your legs are screaming, your lungs are burning and your tank is empty.

 

The Hard Yards

I spent a reasonable amount of time in the winter and spring training for this event. I tried to persuade the usual suspects to sign up for this but it just didn’t suit everyone this year so I decided to plough ahead on my own. As a result, almost all of my training was on my own. I tried to get in two spinning sessions a week with Andy Kenny in his gym at Grand Canal Dock. His King of the Mountains classes on Thursday nights are legendary and I can’t recommend them highly enough. If you want intensity and suffering, this is the only show in town. In addition, I worked through a programme of 4-week blocks and built up to some reasonably long distances. I didn’t really focus on climbing efforts because Milan-San Remo is more about distance and speed so I spend a good chunk of time building long intensity efforts at high speed/high watts. It’s fair to say that as the distances build and the ride times get longer, there’s a bigger and bigger impact on family life at the weekends. My wife and children have been very accommodating. Training went mostly to plan and the weather was pretty decent all winter. There were a lot of days of strong headwinds but not a lot of rain or ice. I had one mishap going around a small roundabout at the back of Rathnew on 15th January which resulted in a road rash and a pretty sore collarbone. The rear derailleur hanger sheared off so I had to take about 20 links out of chain, put the derailleur in my pocket and cycle home on a big ring fixie for 40km. I wouldn’t recommend it. But mostly training was good. The worst sessions were in late winter when the days were dull and there always seemed to be a strong headwind on the homeward-bound leg. The best sessions were in late spring when I could get out really early and greet the morning as the countryside was waking up in glorious sunshine. I finished off my training with the Mick Byrne 200 at the end of May and tapered from then until 11 June.

 

Travelling Solo

Having committed to the event, I needed to plot my way there and back. There are basically two ways to do this - either sign up with an organized tour group which takes care of everything, or look after the details yourself. There are loads of reasons why the organized tour is the best option - they take care of transfers and accommodation, event entry, they provide special event support on the day and you get a group of people to ride with. The big downside for me is their tour packages were minimum three nights and I didn’t have that much time. So, I went the second route and did my own organizing. The event hosts in Italy did a brilliant job in facilitating the "direct" traveler. They offered a choice of hotels at the start in Milan, at the end in San Remo and they facilitated luggage transfer from start to finish (300kms away!). I booked direct flights with Aer Lingus out (+ bike) to Milan-Linate and return from Nice. I organized my own airport transfers from Milan to hotel at start line and from San Remo hotel to the airport in Nice. Everything worked out really well. I did have a "moment" in Milan airport when my suitcase came through quickly after the flight landed but no sign of my bike for another tirthy mins. I was beginning to get concerned... and then it eventually came through on the luggage belt. Phew! My pre-booked taxi was there to meet me and within half an hour I was at my hotel - which was also the place for event registration and the starting point for the race. The registration process was simple and efficient - collect race pack, souvenir jersey and timing chip and then check into the hotel. I had a quick look down through the confirmed list of entrants and reckoned that of the 900 entries, I was the only one registered from Ireland. I didn’t need that pressure. Now I’m racing for the nation!!

 

Good Preparation

The first and most important job to do when arriving for one of these events is to put the bike together and make sure everything works as it should. Having checked in and found my way to my room on the sixth floor of this enormous hotel, I set about reassembling my bike. I’m happy to report that this was seamless. I had one new piece of kit to add - an Xlab super-wing carrier that attaches to the saddle which can take up to 3 bottle holders. Ordinarily I would ride with two water bottles on the frame. But having read a bit about how other riders have dealt with heat and fluids and waterstops, my race strategy was to carry enough water to get me to the 200km waterstop which would mean if I was moving in a fast bunch I wouldn’t need to stop at the 135km waterstop and get left behind. So I fitted this carrier with three additional bottle holders. Job done. Next up is to take the bike for a quick test ride which was grand although getting the bike in and out of a small lift was hilarious. With my bike safely tucked up for the night, I went in search of lunch and provisions. I got the essentials in a local supermarket and then had lunch in hotel restaurant. €10 for two course lunch. Is that cheap or is Ireland just expensive? It was great wholesome food and very welcome after a 4:30am start that day. I went for a little walkabout after lunch but the afternoon sunshine and heat was intense (mid 30’s) so eventually I retired to my room for a siesta. I arose in the early evening to make sure I had everything organized for the morning. I had to ensure that my luggage and bike box were dropped off to hotel reception at 6:30am for onward delivery to San Remo hotel. So, race kit laid out, bottles filled, food for the day organized, breakfast ready to go, I had dinner and went to bed.

 

Up and At It

Race day kicked off at 4:30am. We need to be at the start line at 6:30am for a 7am start so I have two hours to get sorted. Time to have first and second breakfasts, shower and other bathroom duties, sort out baggage, get dressed and be ready to go. I was awake before my alarm went off. The bed was really comfortable and on any other day I might have struggled to swing my legs out onto the floor - but not today. I slept fitfully, with thoughts and dreams of what race day would be like. I have a game plan and I’ll try and stick to it. So, up and at it. First things first. Eat. On days of very long endurance efforts, it’s important to get as much nutrition on board as is reasonable before the start. But clearly there’s a digestive cycle to manage, meaning you need to go before you go, so that’s part of the reason for getting up so early. Eat, digest, loo. I’m really lucky that the race starts at my hotel so I have the creature comforts of a private bathroom pretty much right up until start time. The luxury of it. I’ve seen some really bizarre scenes at mass-start events in France with cyclists caught short before the start of an event having to jump over fences and hide behind hedges to deal with their situation. Moving on!

First breakfast is the old reliable two Flahavans porridge pots which I brought with me. The kettle comes to the boil, I have a grand cup of tea and while the porridge is standing and expanding, I prepare my water bottles with a special blend of water, energy powder and electrolyte tabs. It’s going to be very hot and I need to ensure I’ll stay hydrated as best I can. After finishing first breakfast, I finish packing my luggage and bike box and bring it down to reception for onward delivery to San Remo and then make my way to the dining room. This was probably my one disappointment of the trip. It was only 5:30am and it was pure chaos. I thought I’d be one of the first there but it was already jammed with a big queue out the door. I figured that I would be tight for time if I waited in line for ages (not to mention having to stand when I’m trying to save my legs for later) and then had to cram in second breakfast and then do the loo thing so I turned on my heels and went back to my room for plan B. I had taken the precaution the previous day of buying some bread, cheese, ham, yoghurt and fruit so I got tucked into that in my room - with another grand cup of Lyons tea - and by 6:00am I was ready on all fronts. I sauntered down to reception, checked out, handed in a day-bag with last few bits and pieces to the shuttle bus and made my way to the start.

 

Start Your Engines

Participants are grouped into five colour-coded grids based on race number and I’m in Griglia Silver (silver grid, numbers 501-700). Think cattle pen. The riders are herded into the appropriate pen. When the first grid is released from the start line, the second pen is opened and those riders move up to the start line. And so on. The first grid will start at 7:00am and we’ll be the third to go, starting at 7:20am. It’s only 6:45am so it’s a bit tedious waiting around. There’s a lot of checking and rechecking of gear, nervous laughter, hearty back slapping, kissing, hand gestures, contemplative silence. A lot of the banter is in Italian and I don’t detect any English being spoken so I’m just soaking it up, thrilled and privileged to be here, waiting for the off. My saddle mounted bottle holder attracted a lot of curiosity. I’m loaded up with five bottles, two on the frame and three on the saddle, and I’ve seen some derisory laughs at the start line. I know they won’t be laughing so much when fellas are hanging for a drink after 150km and I’ll still be well hydrated. We’ll see! But the bike is heavy to start with the extra load affecting the handling. I’ll need to be careful on bends and roundabouts. At 7:00am, exactly on time, the first grid starts. There is motorbike support for each group with marshaling at roundabouts and junctions for the first 20km. But the event is not closed roads. This becomes very evident when we hit the coast after 150km and we have to negotiate a series of seaside towns on a summer afternoon. More about that later. The second grid moves up to the start and at 7:10am, they’re off. We’re next. People are jostling for position as our pen is opened and we move up the start line. I find myself on the very front. Well, OK, I did a bit of jostling myself! The best place to be to stay out of trouble is at the front. Very often at mass start events there is a bit of mayhem when the flag drops. It’s stop/start. People clip in to their pedals too soon and then fall over. People lose bottles. Gels and bars fall out of jerseys on the ground which cause riders to crash. Handlebars get tangled. It’s noisy and colourful and wonderful. We count down to 7:20am (5-4-3-2-1 in Italian), the flag drops and we’re off. This is it. On On. My game plan is to tuck in behind some big lads and get a nice tow for the first three hours. But I find I’m on the front after about ten pedal strokes. I know I shouldn’t be here but I make a quick decision to enjoy leading it out for a short while until the fast people take off. So I start blasting away, for about 5km. I’m hammering along at around 40kmh, head down, on the drops, having fun. Hee hee hee. The terrain is pan flat, a lot of roundabouts but nothing too tricky at this stage. I’d say there’s a load of people at the tail end who are wondering what just happened but I’m cruising. After about 5km, I sit up and look for someone to come through and we start working together. But there are only 4 of us working and everyone else, the smart ones, are tucked in and staying out of the wind. So after around 20km, I drop back and stop pulling turns. Time to rest and recover. That was exhilarating. But there’s a long way to go. Only another 276km to the finish.

 

A Game of Two Halves

On a map, the route appears to be a game of two halves with the first a flat dash to the coast and then the second an undulating coastal spin to the finish. But in reality, it’s more like a three Act play.

Act I is a blisteringly fast 135 km with not a lot to see. The countryside is pan flat. And you'd be a fool to look around. Travelling at this speed in such close proximity to a lot of other riders takes utmost concentration all the time. Trying to watch the road surface, which felt a lot like the back roads of Wicklow betimes, appalling in places, and watching the folks around you to see who is braking suddenly, who is cutting in front, who is riding with no hands as they try to take off clothes/unwrap food/take a phone call (yes, seriously, saw a few of those). Going around roundabouts on both sides, coming off major roads onto minor ones, entering major roads where there is regular Sunday morning traffic going about its business, hurtling through towns and villages at breakneck speed. It was an exhilarating white-knuckle ride. There’s a huge benefit to sticking with the peloton for as long as possible on the flat fast stage because the dynamic of the group can save the lone rider a lot of work. Like a murmuring of starlings, the peloton morphs into many shapes without individuals crashing into each other (well, mostly). Like a meitheal, it forms specially to do a collective community job. But it’s not necessarily easy to stay with the group. The peloton has a body but it's got no soul! You do your turn and take a rest and do your turn and take a rest. But if you get shelled out the back, tough. It waits for no one. The temperature had been climbing all morning and by 10:00am it was in the thirties. There was a refreshment stop available after around 135km but I decided to stick with my strategy of staying with the fast group for as long as I could. I still had two full bottles left of the five I started with and I was confident I’d get to the next waterstop at the 200km mark. And so Act I came to an end. 

Act II is a transition from the plains of Lombardy to the Ligurian coast via the Passo del Turchino. It’s a 26km climb with a few decent ramps followed by a plummeting descent to the sea. While it’s not an extraordinarily difficult climb on its own, I remind myself that when I get up, over and down the other side, I’ll still have another 150km to go, with the harder climbs at the end of the spin. A significant number of our lead group pulled into the waterstop so as we started the long 26km grind our numbers were significantly diminished. On the way up, our grupetto accumulated riders from the earlier start times who were revitalized from the waterstop. But there isn’t much chatter. I settle into my own climbing cadence that I’m comfortable with which (foolishly, with hindsight!) takes me ahead of the group and out on my own. I pick out riders in the distance as markers to reel in and tap away to the top. I probably went into the red a bit going up but I was feeling strong and really enjoying the ride. I devour two gels at the top and begin the descent to Voltri. It’s fast and furious but I take it very easy. Having had two cycling-related visits to the VHI Swiftcare clinic in the last twelve months, I’m now a cautious descender. There are loads of hairpins and lunatic Italians with low centres of gravity who will pass on the inside and the outside. I hold my line and speed but not quite at escape velocity. One of the tracks on my playlist for this trip is Temptation by New Order. There’s a line from the song that’s on a loop in my head "Up, down, turnaround please don't let me hit the ground". At every roundabout, hairpin and gravelly bend it just plays on repeat. Before too long, the coast hoves into view. It’s a stunning sight, the Mediterranean Sea sparkling in the summer sunshine. The road finally straightens out and we literally at sea level. We take a sharp right turn onto the coast road and we’re onto the home "straight" (although its anything but straight!).

Act III is the north-bound rollercoaster. Looking at a map or route profile, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the road is mostly flat. You’d be wrong. I was expecting some respite after the climb and descent of Turchino but the road is undulating all the way to San Remo. The routemap/road book says there are five listed climbs in the following order: Capo Mele, Capo Cerva, Capo Berta, Cipressa and Poggio. But in between, there are loads of short stiff ramps. We get into a routine of a flat bit of coast (where there is a beach and coastal town), short stiff ramp where the road has to go up and around a headland, fast descent onto a flat bit of coast (where there is a beach and coastal town), short stiff ramp where the road has to go up and around a headland, repeat to fade.

The coastal route itself was spectacular. On a lazy Sunday in Liguria, people were chilling by the beach, having family Sunday lunch in fabulous seaside restaurants, flip-flops and parasols and gelato. After a while, the smell of garlic and grilled fish along the seaside strip became a bit overpowering. As we blasted along the beachfront, we had to negotiate endless pedestrian crossings. To be fair to the Italian public, they were just trying to get from the beach to the footpath. But when there’s a long train of bikes coming through, it’s tricky. It’s true that it’s not a closed road event and it’s true that we need to respect the rules of the road. But we can’t stop at every crossing. We’d lose all our momentum. We are the peloton. Tempers flare. Words are spoken. Italian men are very demonstrative and expressive. Lots of words and volume and hand gestures, especially when challenging someone's driving standards. Or cycling standards. Or daring to cross the road at a pedestrian crossing. A lot of the time I see the finger tips closed in so they're touching and then keeping the wrist straight make small movements at the elbow so it's like your waving a flag. They do that a lot. And shout. A lot.

As I was beginning the ascent of the first of these unlisted hills outside a lovely seaside town called Arenzano, I was passed by the fast peloton that I had left behind at the foodstop 40km ago. I was quite pleased with myself that it had taken them that long to catch me. Ignoring the golden rule of always climbing at your own pace, I tried to stay with the bunch going uphill. After all, it was only about 500m of a ramp. But slowly, inexorably, I was going backwards. I burned a lot of matches trying to catch up. We got to the top and I was just about back in the train. And then a furious descent. I played cat and mouse with the group for the next 30km and it was really hard. I would eventually get back on the end of the train at the end of the flat coastal section (I move well on the flat bits) and as soon as the road kicked up at the next ramp I lost all the ground I gained. The coastal climbs were taken at pace and just too fast for me. I kept losing wheels which made me feel like I was going backwards. Then I was struck by the negative thought that I have at least four hours of this to come. Really hot, headwind, tired, hungry, already sick of gels, can’t stay with the pace. I had a good chat with myself and refocused on the job at hand, enjoying the spin, getting to the end in good spirits and chalking up another monument. Trying to stay with this group was counterproductive. I decided to let it go and work at my own pace for the rest of the day, and enjoy it. So I waved a wistful goodbye to the peloton. 

The next foodstop came at around 205km which was my first planned stop of the day. I pulled in to refuel, refill my bottles and refocus on what was to come, the final 90km and with all of the listed climbs. It was only at the foodstop when I got a really good appreciation of the heat of the day. There is some cooling effect of a headwind when you’re clipping along on the bike but standing still in the middle of the day with heat radiating off the tarmac, it was like a furnace. There were trays of freshly cut fruit covered in water to stop them drying out. People lying around on the ground beside their bikes, dehydrated, fried by the sun, just done in. I downed two cups of warm coke, a few slices of fresh orange and a muffin. With three freshly filled bottles of lovely cold water on board, I set off again on the final leg. The Capo’s (Mele, Cerva and Berta) aren’t very difficult climbs on their own but when you’re tired after 235km in your legs in the stifling heat, they are challenging. The scenery was stunning, the road cut into the cliffs and headlands, and from the climbs, views of beaches and marinas, boats on the water, the sea glistening in the sunshine. It was everything I hoped it would be. Spectacular. And I had already begun to fantasise about a beer, the cool feel of the glass, the sight of condensation on the outside, the hoppy smell, the lovely bitter taste as a counterpoint to the sweet energy gels I was tiring of. On on. I can’t remember any distinguishing features of any particular Capo but I knew when I’d descended the last one (Capo Berta) that all I had left were the two hilltop village climbs of Cipressa and Poggio. This is just gratuitous punishment, intended by the original organisers to be the final opportunity for a shake out before the final sprint to the finish line. Each of the two climbs is in fact a detour off the coastal road. As I reach the turnoff for Cipressa, I realize that the shortest route to San Remo is to stay by the coast. Who would know, right? Well, I would! In the shadows of the greats, I make the right turn and begin the ascent. It’s not a terribly difficult climb. It’s about 6km with a few step ramps. There’s plenty of people on the side of these roads shouting support to locals and tourists alike. "Vai Vai Vai",  which I took great encouragement from, though I don’t know what it means. The road flattens out at the summit in the village and I see people stopping to take photos under the Cipressa sign. I push on to the descent which twists and turns through some hairpins all the way down to sea level again. There’s about 10km of unremarkable coastal road before the final climb of the day which again is a right turn off the main road. Here we go. This is the famous Poggio. It’s not a very long climb and it’s not very difficult. Ever since I started cycling the hills of Wicklow, I’ve always wondered how the real Poggio in San Remo would compare to the hill we call the Poggio at the back of Enniskerry. I was about to find out. I had kept something in reserve for this. Buoyed by the knowledge that I was almost home, notwithstanding the 280km in my legs, I took off up the hill. I passed people by left, right and centre. I was really enjoying this. I wasn’t suffering. I was smiling and singing.

 

When in San Remo, do as the San Romans do!

 

Descend like Kelly

At the top of the Poggio hill in the village, there’s a crossroads where the route makes a sharp left turn to begin the descent. There was a time when I might have I fantasised that I would descend like Kelly when he plummeted like a stone to beat Moreno Argentin in 1992. But with my crash-induced caution, I’m descending more like Ned Kelly on a high Nelly. The route down is fast and dangerous. There are four or five tight hairpins. Physics and gravity is working against me so I take it handy. The road levels out at the bottom and a friendly marshal waves me back out onto the main road to complete the run in to San Remo. Time to attend to the important things. Wipe my face, zip up my jersey, ensure that that I’m looking my best for my sponsors! I can see the finish line in the distance. What a magnificent day. It’s been a hell of a ride. I cross the finishing line and as I go over the timing mat I can hear the beep that confirms I’m done! I give myself a pat on the back. I did it. The finish area narrows in to a spot where there are two ladies giving out medals. I dismount and, suitably conferred, I find a shady spot to rest and reflect on the day. But first, I’ll need to go and get that beer.

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