Milan-San Remo: Ultimate Guide To Cycling’s “Spring Classic”

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Known in Italian as La Primavera (“The Spring”), Milan-San Remo is the first major race of the cycling season, traditionally taking place on the third Saturday of March.

One of the five Monument races – those considered the most prestigious prizes in cycling outside of the Grand Tours – Milan-San Remo is one of the greatest honors a rider can claim in their career.

With stunning views along its 298 km route and a nail-biting finish, the “Spring Classic” is also the longest one-day race on the men’s road cycling calendar.

To get you up to speed on all things Milan San Remo, we’ll be covering:

  • What Is The Milan-San Remo?
  • The Milan San Remo Route
  • History Of Milan-San Remo
  • Spectating The Milan-San Remo
  • What Does It Take To Win Milan-San Remo?

Ready to get to grips with the Spring Classic?

Let’s dive into “La Classicissima”!

Milan-San Remo: Title Image

What Is The Milan-San Remo?

Milan-San Remo is a single-day “Classic” race and the first of the five Monuments on the men’s cycling calendar.

The other four Monuments are:

From start to finish the Spring Classic is around 300 km long, making it the longest professional one-day race in modern cycling.

The Milan-San Remo dwarves normal stages of the men’s Tour de France, which are generally between 150km and 200km.

The race is considered a sprinters’ race, as it mostly features long flat sections – although the rouleurs (all rounders) can make up ground on the punchy Poggio di San Remo climb just 5 km from the finish.

Matej Mohorič‘s stunning win at the Milan-San Remo 2022 was a great example of an all-rounder denying the peloton a sprint finish. Instead of escaping the sprinters on the climb, however, Mohorič inventively used a dropper post – previously a novelty in road racing – to hurtle down the descent of the Poggio and evade the chasing pack for an iconic victory.

In contrast, the Giro di Lombardia, also held in Italy, is the Monuments race which is considered the “Climbers’ Classic”.

A women’s Milan-San Remo has finally been announced and is due to take place in 2023 – although it won’t be the first.

The Primavera Rosa began in 1999 as a women’s version of the Milan-San Remo but was canceled after 2005. With the addition of the Tour de France Femmes and other prestigious events to the women’s road racing calendar, the return of the women’s Milan-San Remo could signal some long-awaited progress towards equality for women’s cycling.

Profile graph of the Milan San Remo route.
Credit: BaldBorisCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Edited from the original.

The Milan San Remo Route

The Milan-San Remo route starts in Milan’s heart at the Piazza del Duomo, and broadly follows the flat plains past the cities of Pavia, Voghera, Tortona, Novi Ligure, and Ovada.

The first climb of note is the Passo del Turchino, falling around the 160 km mark.

After the Turchino descent the route meets the Ligurian Sea at Voltri, the race’s halfway point. From there it follows the stunning Aurelian Way past the towns and seaside resorts of the Ligurian coast.

The final 60 km features a series of staccato climbs culminating with the Poggio di San Remo in the hilly suburbs above the town. The race’s iconic finish line lies on San Remo’s Via Roma.

Whilst the Milan San Remo route broadly stays the same every year, it is regularly tweaked. The 2022 Milan-San Remo was 293 km long, which was 6 km shorter than the previous iteration.

Stills from the 1914 Milan-San Remo.
Stills from the 1914 Milan-San Remo.

History Of Milan-San Remo

Origins and Early History

The Spring Classic was launched in 1907 by Milan-based daily newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport.

Sponsorship by a magazine or newspaper was typical for European cycling events of the time – La Gazzetta dello Sport had already helped create the Giro di Lombardia in 1905 and would also launch the Giro d’Italia two years later in 1909.

The idea of the Milan-San Remo was conceived after an auto race between the two cities was held and considered a disappointment. An amateur bike race over two days was held in 1906, but found little success.

The Italian sports journalist Tullo Morgagni was central to the launch of the Giro di Lombardia in 1905. Morgagni took the concept of a race from Milan to San Remo to Gazzetta dello Sport, and the paper held the first official Milan-San Remo in 1907.

After a successful debut that attracted international bike racers, Milan-San Remo quickly established itself as an institution in road cycling.

Milan San-Remo’s legend would be cemented in the infamous 1910 edition: a snowstorm ravaged the route, forcing riders to take cover. Just four competitors finished the race at all.

Frenchman Eugène Christophe won with a time of 12 hours and 24 minutes – the slowest winning time in Milan-San Remo history. Christophe took the wrong path and, upon arrival at San Remo, had no idea he had won the race!

Fausto Coppi leading the pack in 1953.
Fausto Coppi leading the pack in 1953.
Unknown (RotoFoto), CC BY-SA 3.0 NL, via Wikimedia Commons. Edited from the original.

“The Greatest Of All Classics”: Milan-San Remo In The Mid-20th Century

From 1917 to 1928, Constante Girardengo dominated the fledgling event.

Nicknamed “Campionissimo” (Champion of Champions), Girardegno won six Primaveras in this period – and finished on the podium a total of eleven times.

As Girardengo’s time at the top waned in the late-1920s and ’30s, two racers competed fiercely for domination in the Milan-San Remo: Learco Guerra (the “Human Locomotive”) and Alfredo Binda (the “Trumpeter of Cittiglio”).

The Primaveras of the 1940s were in the grip of an even more fearsome rivalry between two of Italian cycling’s greatest legends: Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali.

Their races were exhilarating duels and the pair won the Milan-San Remo three times each in this period.

Coppi and Bertali’s rivalry was said to divide Italy. The conservative and religious Bartali was the hero of Southern Italy, whereas the more worldly and innovative Coppi was venerated in industrial Northern Italy.

As the Primavera‘s fanbase grew, the iconic finish on the Via Roma of San Remo was added in 1949. The Poggio climb was added in 1960 to make the mostly flat race’s finale harder.

By this time the Milan-San Remo was at the peak of its popularity and became known as the “Greatest of All Classics” internationally. After the time of the Campionissimos, the race was repeatedly won by international riders.

The Belgian “Cannibal” Eddy Merckx began an amazing seven-win streak in 1966. Later in 1997 the German rider Erik Zabel began a streak of his own.

Milan-San Remo: Ultimate Guide To Cycling's "Spring Classic" 1
Credit: Claudio Martino, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Edited from the original.

Recent History Of The Milan-San Remo

A recent iconic moment in the Milan-San Remo was during the 2004 finish when Erik Zabel, by this time a four-time winner, lost because he was overtaken by Óscar Freire whilst celebrating.

In the Milan-San Remo’s 100th event in 2009, Britain’s Mark Cavendish won the race on his first ever attempt.

2013’s race was marred by awful conditions which forced organizers to reroute the race to avoid two key climbs, shortening the event by 50km. Thankfully this was not as extreme as the infamous 1910 Milan-San Remo.

A final piece of Milan-San Remo history is the only instance of the Spring Classic being held in summer! The 2020 San-Remo was moved to take place in August due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Spectating Milan-San Remo

Among some fans, the “Greatest of All Classics” has a bad reputation as a boring spectator event. Commentators have even called the first 250 km a “snoozefest”.

But is this fair?

The argument goes that as the race is almost entirely flat, it is dominated by competitors riding with the peloton and therefore not much racing happens.

And this is true up to a point. With the exception of the midway Passo del Turchino, most of the riding is with the peloton… until the final 60 km.

This is where the real Milan-San Remo begins: a nail-biting climax as the peloton breaks up and the top riders battle it out on the series of climbs and descents all the way to the finish.

And these final moments are what make the Spring Classic so thrilling, allowing only the fiercest riders to win.

What Does It Take To Win Milan-San Remo?

Due to the mostly flat nature of the route, the Milan-San Remo is sometimes known as the “Sprinter’s Classic.” And some of cycling’s most famous sprinters have won this race before, recently including Óscar Freire and Alexander Kristoff.

However, don’t think that only sprinters can win the Primavera. Late attacks on the famous Poggio climb are a common way for rouleurs to steal the win.

As breakaways detach from the peloton in the race’s closing moments, racers can attack the climb and build a gap big enough to win the day, such has been the way with Vincenzo Nibali in 2017 and Michal Kwiatkowski in 2018.

Finally, we occasionally see the hair-raising spectacle of the Milan-San Remo being won on the descent back down the Poggio. In 2022 Matej Mohorič won in a stunning descent using a dropper post, and before that was Sean Kelly‘s legendary Poggio descent in 1992.

Enjoyed this Milan San Remo guide? Find more from the BikeTips experts below!

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One of BikeTips' experienced cycling writers, Riley spends most of his time in the saddle of a sturdy old Genesis Croix De Fer 20, battling the hills of the Chilterns or winds of North Cornwall. Off the bike you're likely to find him with his nose in a book.

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