The beauty of Milano-Sanremo
Alberto Bettiol talks to us about Italy’s springtime monument
The peloton hit the bottom of the Poggio, and Alberto Bettiol went: hands in the drops, a smile gritted between his teeth, as he attacked up the final climb of Milano-Sanremo.
He had done everything right, learned all of the lessons the old pros had taught him, kept eating, kept drinking, surfed wheels when he could, and been at the front when it counted. For almost 300 kilometres, he had hardly felt the wind. The Cipressa was easy. He knew he was good. He knew he could win. He was 25 years old.
He had been watching Milano-Sanremo ever since he was a little kid. Every year, he and his dad would watch the peloton make its way from the grey outskirts of Milan to the Riviera dei Fiori. That’s when Alberto knew it was spring. His dad was a footballer before he married Alberto’s mum, but they always watched Milano-Sanremo and the Giro d’Italia together. Later, Alberto watched the races with his friends. After seeing the start in Milan on TV, they would go out training, sprinting amongst themselves as if they were on the Via Roma, while the peloton dawdled across the Po Delta. Their rides got longer as the years went by, but they always made sure they were back to watch the finale.
“Every year, the race happens on the Poggio and the last kick,” Alberto says, “but I remember when Pantani attacked on the Cipressa. And I remember the snowy edition, when the peloton had to stop and start again after the Turchino. Oh, and Cancellara’s attack after the Poggio! And Cavendish’s win! Every year, Sanremo is emotional.”
The first time that Alberto got to race Milano-Sanremo himself, he could hardly believe his luck. His sports directors were full of advice.
“At first it looks like a simple race; it’s all flat, and then you sprint, and that’s it,” Alberto says. “But once you’re in it, there are all sorts of things you have to know. It is a really long day on the bike, so you have to be smart. You have to know the course. You have to know when you can spend energy to move up and when you can stay in the back and save energy for the finale. It is an Italian-style race. Once the breakaway goes, we have time to chat, until the Turchino when the finale starts. You can feel good one minute and a minute later be dead.”
Alberto could almost see the corner in the village at the top, when the winning group blew past him.
He had gone too early.
“That was my best memory of Milano-Sanremo, but at the same time the worst,” he says. “It was really emotional, but I had good legs and I should have done better. It is not every day that you attack on the Poggio. I learned that if I have the possibility to attack on the Poggio in the future, I will do it later. I want to win.”
That will be hard this year. Milano-Sanremo will only be Alberto’s second race back after a long bout with illness. He had a good day out at Milano-Torino on Wednesday, but a champion like Alberto still needs to be in peak form to even have a chance of making moves in the finale of a 293-kilometre monument.
“I feel motivated. I prefer racing to training. That is for sure. Finally, I am back to racing!” Alberto says.“This year, I expect a really, really tough edition of Milano-Sanremo, one of the toughest in recent years, because the two favourites, Van Aert and Pogacar are climbers. Pogacar is a proper climber and Van Aert is really good on the climbs, so I expect both of their teams to make moves earlier than in previous years, because they will try to isolate each other and drop the sprinters. For us, it is going to be really tough.”
Alberto wouldn’t miss it for anything. This year, he will take to the start line with all of the love for the race that he has had since he was a kid. Every time he races Milano-Sanremo, he gets a little wiser.
“I have already won a monument,” he says, “but as an Italian, of course Milano-Sanremo would be even more special. It would really be a dream come true. We love Milano-Sanremo. It would be special if one day I would win this race, because I would win it in front of Italian people. We grew up with this race, with the history and the beauty of Milano-Sanremo.”