Across the Border
Words: Paul Maunder with Images by Yuzuru Sunada
Arnaud Démare’s dramatic victory in this year’s Milan–San Remo was but the latest twist in the long-running and complicated relationship between France and Italy’s Classicisima. While Italians love their spring classic unconditionally, with all the verve one would expect, French attitudes have fluctuated over the years, moving from contempt to cool indifference to passionate ardor. There has often been controversy — Démare isn’t the first to experience it. There has also been heroism, opportunism and frostbite.
So Italian is Milan-San Remo that it’s easy to forget how close France is to the race finish. Continue from San Remo along the coast for another 25 kilometers and you’ll be riding into Menton, the French border town. And it’s this proximity that provided the original impetus for the creation of the race. The town of San Remo was founded on tourism and in the 19th century it played host to the aristocracy of Europe, attracted by grand hotels and the warm winter weather. But by the turn of that century Nice and Monaco were in the ascendency and the good burghers of San Remo were looking for a way to publicize their town.
They hit on the idea of a bike race. Why not? After all, the Giro di Lombardia had been launched successfully the year before, in 1905, by La Gazzetta dello Sport — and the newspaper’s co-owner, Eugenio Camillo Costamagna, had links to the San Remo area. He was initially skeptical about whether it was even possible to ride a bicycle from Milan over the Ligurian Apennines and along the coast to San Remo — 300 kilometers on mainly unsurfaced roads. But the winner of that first Lombardia, Giovanni Gerbi, undertook the task of crossing the Turchino Pass in training to show that it could be done. And on April 14, 1907, Costamagna duly staged the first Milan-San Remo.
The organizers wanted the race to be international. They could depend on the attendance of the top Italians, led by Gerbi, but they also needed French riders. An emissary was sent along the Riviera in February to find French stars Lucien Petit-Breton and Louis Trousselier. When invited to the start in Milan, Petit-Breton asked for an Italian team to support him. Bianchi, which already sponsored Gerbi, leapt at the chance. A rider of Petit-Breton’s quality would surely play an excellent supporting role for their team leader.
But Gerbi had other ideas. He was more interested in making cash than making history. Bianchi had offered him a bonus of two and a half lire for every kilometer of the race if he won. But Petit-Breton had been offered 15 lire for every kilometer if he won. Gerbi suggested to his new French teammate that he would help him win, in return for half of Petit-Breton’s winnings. Petit-Breton agreed. Strangely, Gerbi then attacked and went clear. As the rain on the Turchino Pass turned to snow, the Italian was four minutes ahead. Petit-Breton, meanwhile, was feeling the effects of hunger knock, after having eaten just a chocolate bar all day. With 100 kilometers to go, Gerbi found himself alone in the lead with another Frenchman Gustave Garrigou. Gerbi knew he was unlikely to win a sprint against Garrigou, a promising young rider on the Peugeot team, so he stopped working and began to verbally abuse his breakaway companion in the hope of distracting him and allowing Petit-Breton to return to the front of the race. It worked.
Despite his hunger knock, Petit-Breton made it back to the leaders on the Capo Berta climb. In the sprint, just to make sure his French teammate got the lucrative win, Gerbi got hold of Garrigou’s collar and pulled him backward. The race referees suspected foul play but hadn’t seen anything so couldn’t sanction Gerbi, and the Italian even had the audacity to accuse Garrigou of pulling on his jersey, further confusing matters, while the two rival teams had a brawl. Race winner Petit-Breton went on to win the Tour de France that summer…and a monument was born.
We may never know for sure whether Démare did hold onto a car on the Cipressa, as two Italian riders claimed after this year’s race, but any such misdemeanor pales beside those of Gerbi. The Italian took 30 years before he admitted the truth.
The French took another two wins in the race’s early years: Eugène Christophe in 1910 and Henri Pélissier in 1912. Christophe’s win was notable for its epic qualities. Of the 71 starters, only seven finished. As in the 2013 edition, the Turchino Pass was covered in snow — and snow was still falling. But in 1910 there were no warm team buses to climb into. Christophe and a rapidly dwindling field pushed on into the snowdrifts, their extremities growing numb with cold. Near the Turchino summit, Christophe stopped at an inn, where the Frenchman drank rum and did physical exercises to get the blood flowing through his leaden muscles. The previous leader in the race, Cyrille Van Hauwaert of Belgium, gave up at this point and the innkeeper insisted that Christophe do the same. But when the Frenchman saw “four piles of mud” slowly riding by, he knew that there was still a race to win. He borrowed some new clothes from the innkeeper, tricked him into thinking that he was going to get the train to San Remo, then went out into the snow and chased down those piles of mud.
Christophe won the race, having taken over 12 hours to complete the course. It was such a triumph of will over adversity, and his incredible ride made headlines across Europe. Again, it was a Frenchman who helped build the reputation of this new race. For Christophe, however, there was another less pleasant legacy to his win. He went straight from the finish to the hospital, and spent a month recuperating from frostbite to his hands and other problems brought on by the severe cold.
After those early editions, Milan-San Remo became an almost exclusively Italian affair. The political climate — with Mussolini taking power in the 1930s and driving Italy towards isolationism — didn’t help. And French teams didn’t see the need to race abroad to secure publicity. A French writer for L’Auto visited the race in 1937 and was very critical of its organization and the Italian racing style. There wouldn’t be another French victory until 1951, when the dapper Louison Bobet broke away with his Bottecchia teammate Pierre Barbotin. They finished three minutes ahead of the chasers and Bobet took the win. Milan-San Remo was back on the international stage.
There were further wins for the French through René Privat in 1960, Raymond Poulidor in 1961 and Joseph Groussard in 1963. Then it was almost 20 years before Marc Gomez took a famous shock victory for his Wolber team in 1982. Gomez was a first-year professional, a tall bespectacled 26-year-old, who only a few months before had been riding for a club team. Now he was on the start line of one of the world’s greatest classics, and he knew he had good legs.
As in the 2016 edition, the race started hard and fast. Only a few kilometers out of Milan the early break established itself. Gomez was there, as was fellow Frenchman and world track pursuit champion Alain Bondue, riding for La Redoute. The weather was cold and wet, and the main bunch settled down to a miserable, and what the teams considered a predictable, day of racing. The lead group was 20 riders strong and worked well together, building up an advantage of 11 minutes, but more importantly many of the group rode within themselves, conserving energy. The favorites, including Italian superstars Giuseppe Saronni and Francesco Moser, were reluctant to exhaust their teams on the front of the peloton. When the break got to the coast road they found they had a tailwind, and this made a critical difference. On the Cipressa, included in the route that year for the first time, Gomez accelerated. Only Bondue could go with him. Behind them the remnants of the break were scattered across the rain-soaked roads, and the peloton was only just starting to wake up to the reality that the break was not coming back.
Bondue was faster in the sprint and knew he couldn’t afford to let Gomez get away from him. He marked Gomez’s every move on the last climb, the Poggio, and then jumped into the lead for the descent. Unfortunately Bondue overcooked both of the first two bends of the descent, and although he didn’t crash, he did lose his nerve at the worst possible moment. Gomez was off, never to be caught. As he rode alone down the Via Roma, the French rookie found his reception muted. The crowd, waiting for Saronni or Moser, had no idea who he was.
Laurent Fignon, the next French winner, didn’t have the problem of anonymity. The Tour de France champion of 1983 and 1984 had been plagued by injuries during 1985 and 1986, and only toward the middle of 1987 did he feel like he was returning to something close to his Tour-winning form. Writing in his autobiography, “We Were Young and Carefree,” Fignon tells how his manager Alain Gallopin firmly believed he was well-suited to winning Milan-San Remo because of his reserves of stamina and his ability to put in several intense efforts in the final few kilometers of a long race.
Fignon initially thought him crazy, but by early 1988 he was preparing seriously for the trip to Milan. His form in Paris-Nice was good but not special, so he and Gallopin experimented with a new form of training they called super-compensation. The idea was that in the six days between the end of the stage race and the start of the one-day classic, the rider would spend some time recovering from the first race, then do a massive midweek training session, taking him to the depths of his physical ability. This would deplete the body’s glycogen stores, and the body would over-compensate, putting back in more than was needed. It was like over-charging a battery, if such a thing were possible. By the second race, the rider would be flying.
Fignon’s midweek session consisted of two rides on one day. The first was 120 kilometers long, ridden on an empty stomach. Then came a small snack before another 100 kilometers, ridden behind a derny pacer. The speed of this second session started at 40 kilometers per hour and got progressively faster; the last 35 kilometers were full gas. The trick worked. Later, Fignon wrote: “After about two-thirds of the race I said to myself ‘My God, I’m flying.’ It was fabulous, apart from on the Poggio; my legs never hurt the whole day. It hadn’t been that way for such a long time. On the Turchino I might as well have had a cigarette in my mouth.”
His plan was simple: stay hidden in the bunch for as long as possible, then make one effective attack on the Poggio. On the climb, the strong Dutch team PDM made the pace, with its climber Gert-Jan Theunisse on the front. Fignon tracked them closely, with Sean Kelly on his wheel. On the steepest section, Theunisse began to tire and Fignon attacked hard in a 53x15 gear. Kelly, a close friend who knew the attack was coming, let the wheel go. Only a young Maurizio Fondriest could bridge up to Fignon. The pair descended together. Fignon tricked Fondriest into setting the pace and they came into the finish together — and Fignon outsprinted the Italian.
As he crossed the line with his arms aloft, Fignon let out what he describes as a primeval yell — of delight and redemption. He’d been in the wilderness for a long time. However, no one in France saw television images of his famous victory. With a decision that shows the ambivalence of the French cycling establishment toward the race, Antenne 2 didn’t even show race highlights.
The following year, knowing that the same attack wouldn’t work twice, Fignon selected a point between the Cipressa and the Poggio for his attack. Dutch rider Frans Maassen went with him, but fell back on the Poggio and Fignon rode in alone for a brilliant back-to-back victory. There was another French victory in 1995, with Laurent Jalabert. Then came a 21-year wait for FDJ’s Démare and his frantic chase after crashing before the foot of the Cipressa. French cycling is having something of a renaissance period right now, and Démare, the 2011 world under-23 road champion, is just one of a new generation of talented young riders.
Controversy, bravery and sheer great bike racing — Milan-San Remo saw it all 110 years ago, and thankfully little has changed since.