For images: head to CyclingTips. These are the words to go along with the pictures.
The weather prediction had been the same for days - cold and clear Saturday, snow and rain for Sunday. It didn't seem real though - it couldn't be right. The weather has been mostly awful from southern Italy to Scotland all spring, but it didn't seem possible - it's La Primavera. This isn't Het Nieuwsblad or Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne or Nokere Koerse - it's Milano-Sanremo. Sure, there have been some terrible editions in the past, but that was then. The weather was always whiter and nastier in years gone by.
Dusty Roubaix's - ten in a row
We're in the time of dusty Roubaix's - ten in a row! There might be some bad weather along the early flat roads leading to the Turchino, but once we crossed over that great dividing line, it would all be ok. The race finishes on the Riviera, a place that dwells in eternal warmth and sunshine.
So we hoped. We hoped it was wrong. Maybe they were wrong? One last look that night showed some signs of hope - 30-40% chance of precipitation for most of the day. It didn't look so bad.
The morning dawned cold and wet. We packed two bikes, a box full of food, and another with every bit of clothing we could think of - just in case. As we drove to the start in Milano from our home base in Bellagio at Il Perlo Panorama, the first snowflakes began mixing with the rain.
The last time we chased Milano-Sanremo was our first time - it was 2011. It was our first big race chase since deciding that we wanted to try to do whatever it is that we do. That day, we had the amazing privilege to chase the race with PezCyclingNews's Alessandro Federico. For us, Sanremo is a great race - a special one, but one that mainly signifies the turn of the head to the north - to the cobbles, to the races I stay up at night thinking about. For Ale, Sanremo is the race he stays up late thinking about, the day he counts down to - his is a deep and unconditional love for La Classicissima.
The more time we spend in cycling, the more it becomes apparent that we're in a sport that really is built on those oft used words like passion and love - but not just the words - really built on them, what they mean, what they stand for.
When you think about it, the money in cycling is paltry - compared to the big sports, it's almost laughable. People are in this sport - on the teams, on the staffs, in the press, on the side of the road, chasing the races - because they love it, because they dream about bikes and bike races and the men that power their steeds to unbelievable feats. Sometimes, it's hard to remember that basic fact, but this year, I've been struck continually by the degree to which this sport runs on the blood of the people who love bikes, our sport. It's special. For all its faults and blemishes, it's beautiful.
Unfortunately, we wouldn't be chasing the race with Ale in 2012, but his energy for the race ultimately proved the glue that would hold our day together.
For a rare early in the day plus and a sign that it wasn't our first time, we found the start at the Castello without problems, picked up our credentials without problems, and went to leave without problems, until two very large problems made our exit a little more difficult than we anticipated. In the fifteen or so minutes we spent walking around the start area, the team buses had arrived. Garmin parked immediately in front of us, and Argos parked right next to us. Behind were some other cars. We were boxed in. This was cause for concern.
Every kilometer counts, right?
Ashley, being the sweetheart she is, managed to coax both the MTN-Qhubeka and Argos buses back a few meters, giving us just enough room to slide out and get on our way. Concern dispatched, we set out to our first stop - only a few kilometers from the official start, which, incidentally, is almost 10k after they roll out from the Castello. Make that a 310k day. Every kilometer counts, right?
Leaving Milano isn't a pretty experience. Italy does many things well and wonderfully, but its suburban industrial areas always strike me as unpleasant. Then again, I haven't found a place yet that amazes with beautiful industry and retail.
The weather had held for a few minutes in Milano, but as we left, the rain resumed and began an earnest attempt at cloaking the roads.
The first time we chased Sanremo, the break went in Binasco, but this time, the break was already long gone. The contrast to the efforts was startling - in the break the sextet were charging hard, faces drawn, teeth gritted, effort painted over their bodies. Behind, already a couple minutes in arrears, the field smiled, joked, chatted, peed, and spun lightly - easing into a long day of work.
It's almost hard to look back at these images. I see so many faces that we'd shoot only a couple of hours later, and the contrast is appalling. I see Cavendish joking, Hunter laughing, Belletti peaceful, on and on. Even in the early, dour conditions, the going was not grim. It was going to be ok.
And then it wasn't.
We jumped in the car and headed about 40k down the road. It was in this time that it all changed. The light rain changed to moderate rain, which changed to snow. The flakes began tentatively at first, mixing in quietly with the thud of the rain, until the thudding of the water on the windshield stopped, and was replaced with the quiet of snow.
We watched in amazement from our car on the side of the road. It was snowing - not a little bit either. Visibility was a few hundred meters, the snow was falling with vigor, and the race hadn't even begun to think about the Turchino - a full 500 meters higher than the flatlands outside of Milano.
Twitter, my number one race chasing resource
Last year, Twitter became my number one race chasing resource. Nothing is more helpful than a hashtag viewing of a race. For Sunday, #msr saved us over and over again. While waiting for the field to pass, we learned of the neutralization in Ovada, which in an instant, changed the complexion of the race - the previously slumbering field was in full flight when it passed, headed up by the teams of the favorites.
Behind, there were clumps of riders chasing back - at least a couple dozen, well off the back. The news of the neutralization in Ovada had spurred an instant response from the big teams to ensure that the break didn't get too much time. The change from relaxation to serious business, plus the snow, made for a perfect recipe for falling down cake. And so they chased at the front and off the back.
With the news of the neutralization, Ovada became an obvious stopping point.
The snow fell harder and harder, as we headed ever closer to the Apennines, ever closer to Ovada, the gateway to Sanremo's first climb - the Turchino. When we reached Ovada, the team buses were waiting for their riders, and the scene was triple take inducing. Snow. Lots of it, more falling. I still shake my head when I think about it - looking back at the images from Ovada, it doesn't seem real. The riders arrived covered in snow, ice caked to their glasses and helmets, drool dripping from their long frozen chins, hands were claws, speech was slurred.
It was appalling. It looked like the riders had gone to war against an army of snowmen and lost badly. The first riders rolled in without too much issue, but as the numbers ticked upward, their condition worsened rapidly. Cavendish plodded by, looking absolutely, for lack of a better term, fucked. It was another of those moments when you look around from the camera to make sure that it was all real, that what the foggy, wet camera was shooting was happening.
Cavendish was terrible, but it got even worse still. The next groups revealed riders that could barely hold on to their bikes. Robbie Hunter made it to the Garmin bus, his face contorted in agony - David Millar reported soon after that Hunter's eye had frozen.
Manuel Belletti arrived shaking to the point of convulsing. We, the photographers, charged forward, eager to prey on his misery, his frozen, shaking mass. It was cruel, and of course, as the ones that document the scene, we were ready, vultures circling, waiting for each rider to arrive, looking for the next victim, the next chance to catch a miserable wretch, desperately searching for a warm place, anywhere but outside.
And on Twitter, they talked of how weak the riders have become, they talked of the old days when men were hard, and how Hinault rode through a snow storm to victory in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, how only a handful made it over the Turchino in the early 20th century. They talked of flahutes, and spoiled men, and bla bla bla.
It looked a lot different on the ground. Just because it has been done before, doesn't mean it has to be done again. There's this image we as cycling fans love to cultivate - the rider as gladiator - hell, Cancellara has it painted all over his bike. It's a romantic notion - gladiators all, waging life or death war for the spectacle, our delight, a chance to enter the hall of legends, a chance to win approval on social media, and satisfy our appetite for mayhem.
In the midst of the awful, there were still some that seemed unperturbed by it all. A Focus rider flashed the sign of the horns and smiled as he headed for his bus. Edvald Boasson Hagen smiled wryly, in no hurry to get on the bus, while Geraint Thomas gave the conditions two thumbs up.
However, for every Boasson Hagen, there were a dozen who looked in agony, who were in agony.
Ashley and I joined up again at the car, blown away by what we had seen, what we were still seeing, not even sure if the race would start again. It was a massacre.
We started driving - Ashley caught a glimpse of the Turchino road below the autostrada - it was completely white. As expected, the weather changed when we passed through the Turchino tunnel, so the snow turned to rain, but only just.
We headed for a spot a few kilometers after the restart on the coast in Arenzano and waited. After the restart, the break and field continued on their grim way - pressing on as fast as possible.
It was around this point that the day began to take its toll on even us - who were spending most of the day happily protected by the warm walls of our car. It was just one of those days when it felt like nothing was going right - we were convinced the pictures weren't there, we were missing the shots we were trying to take, the cameras were balking in the driving rain…it just sucked. It had ceased being an enjoyable day chasing a race, and was 100% shit work. I know that sounds sacrilegious, but there are days when race chasing becomes a nightmare, and once the ball starts rolling down the slope of misery, it rarely stops and turns around. It just gets worse and worse.
At this point, I'd like to give a huge nod of respect to the motorbike photographers. Wow. We saw them countless times - driver putting on a brave face into the snow, whilst the photographer, head down, tried his best to hide from the elements, failing miserably. They spent most of the daylight hours exposed. Sure, they weren't racing, but they're a close second on the list for victory on that terrible Sunday. Unbelievable.
It's easy to say HTFU. It's super easy actually. I wrote that in a little over a second and laughed at that original video where it all started. It's so easy to say it, entirely different to do it.
We were driving toward what would be the first climb of the day at La Manie. The maneuvering involved would make for a tight window to beat the race, but it should work. Then we saw a lone tweet that La Manie had been cancelled. I wasn't sure if we could believe it though, so we pulled off at the exit, checked five more times, then saw the necessary confirmation. We formed a new plan and headed for the coast.
We talked about turning around and heading for home before Andora, but eventually decided to give it a go. We weren't in exactly high spirits, which meant we were mostly at each others throats, which always makes for a good time.
I pulled out the bike in hopes of making it up to the Capo Mele, which crests a few kilometers before the Ligurian town that makes the world think of the Pyrenees. I got my taste of riding bikes in the current weather with my dabble - it was wet, cold, and miserable. I don't think I had to ride my bike to find it out, but it certainly underlined it when I got back to the car soaked.
Before that though, there was a moment of eureka - the spot was fantastic! Unfortunately, the eureka moment was lost when the camera went bonkers right as the field rolled by. I cursed and swore and moaned and groaned, but looking back, it was pretty funny. The current of the day had gone bad, and at a certain point, the day can still be salvaged if you can only take a couple of steps back and laugh. Unfortunately, I was taking it all way too seriously, and the humor in the situation was completely lost on me as I raced back down to Andora, not enjoying my cold spray shower. Despite all that, there was a small part of my mind that had flashed brightly and made a check mark - I'd be back to that spot next time for a second go.
Back in the car, we talked about throwing in the towel again. Ashley was certain that nothing had worked out for her where she had shot. She was frustrated, I was frustrated and wet. See, it's funny now. A hidden camera would have made for some amusing viewing.
We went for one more spot, if only for Ale, if only to see the day through, if only to watch a great race that we had endured with come to an end. Ale's approach to the Poggio is genius, but also almost requires a sherpa to get up it. The road takes you up the other side of the ridge of the Poggio. What the normal road does in a couple of kilometers, this approach does in probably less than 1k. I am pretty sure it averages around 30%. It's hard to walk up and makes the Muro di Sormano look like a mild speed bump.
We huffed and puffed and cursed and moaned some more then parted ways - Ashley went down to the early switchbacks, and I went up toward the top. The race came and wet, the result was lackluster at best. Ashley's camera went psychotic and stopped focusing, I picked an unfortunate spot, and it was over.
We were like spoiled kids walking back to the car - in disbelief that things had gone so wrong on the picture front, in disbelief that things hadn't gone our way. Sometimes you need a kick in the ass, a day to remember that it's not all pretty pictures and smiles. Sometimes it's work, sometimes it sucks, sometimes riders do cry in the snow, and sometimes, sometimes, you wish you were somewhere else, doing anything but this.
Less than 48 hours later, we're in Oudenaarde after fifteen hours of driving. The day feels a lot different to me now, and I'm happy we had a hard go of it. I'm ready for tomorrow's Dwars door Vlaanderen, excited about another chance, ready for a good day.
Thanks for reading.