February 2015

By Barry Boyce, CyclingRevealed Historian


Part 1

Part 2


History of Milan-San Remo: Coppi's Grand Journey

Milan-San Remo (M-SR) is the first Classic of the year and generally attracts a huge amount of interest from the media, which during the winter months starve for newsworthy stories. Our legendary ‘Cycling Tale’ begins in March of 1946 with “Coppi’s Grand Journey.”

M-SR is a link to the legendary, bygone days when races were long and tedious compared to the shorter but harder paced classics of today. At 294km (about 185 miles), it required great early season training. Its traditional route leaves the city of Milan from the main square outside the cathedral, heads out across the plains of Lombardy towards the climb of the Turchino Pass (the biggest climb in the race), then drops down to the Ligurian coast at Genova and follows the coast all the way to the finish on the Via Roma in San Remo.

Milan-San Remo was first run in 1907 and except for 1916 ran consecutively until 1944 & 1945 when WWII canceled the event. Italy was staggering after World War II; cities were destroyed, jobs were scarce, the roads were not paved, and TV coverage did not exist. The radio broadcast gave the only link to the racing action and the beleaguered people of Italy were glued to the audio action of the race.

March 19, 1946, the race called La Primavera would provide the stage for the re-emergence of a great champion. Fausto Coppi, one of the most famous riders of all times, had prepared very seriously with over 7,000 km of training from January 1 to race day. From the start the sprinters attacked, trying to gain an advantage for the many early monetary prizes (primes) offered by the small towns across the plains of Lombardy. Coppi found himself drawn into an early counter-attack after only 50km. An Italian radio commentator proclaimed Coppi's move "sheer madness." All of Italy knew their hero, Gino Bartali, would catch and pass Coppi on the Turchino Pass. Coppi seemed to disagree; he caught the small group of sprinters at the base of Turchino and proceeded to systematically shed his breakaway companions one by one. Finally, only original attacker Frenchman Lucien Teisseire could stay with the flying Italian. Halfway to the summit, Coppi's smooth pedaling opened a gap on Teisseire that would not be closed.

At the summit, Coppi entered a short, dark tunnel. Claude Tillet, L'Equipe's main reporter for the race, eloquently set forth one cycling's great legends when he wrote:

The tunnel was of modest dimensions, just 50 meters long, but on 19 March 1946 it assumed exceptional proportions in the eyes of the world. That day it was six years in length and lost in the gloom of the war... A rumbling was heard from the depths of those six years and suddenly there appeared in the light of day an olive-greenish car stirring up a cloud of dust.

“Arriva Coppi” the messenger announced, a revelation only the initiated had foreseen.

There were still 145 km (approx. 90 miles) from the top of Turchino to the Via Roma. Coppi never looked back, riding alone to finish some 14 minutes ahead of Teisseire and several more minutes ahead of the field. The stylish victory provided a great distraction for the war torn country. From a British prisoner of war camp to top of the cycling world, his status as a living legend had begun.

The 1946 M-SR also marked the start of a great cycling rivalry between Coppi and Bartali. War kept the two Italian heroes apart and M-SR brought them back together. This edition left no doubt that Fausto Coppi was the best in 1946, but the race started a rivalry that would push both men to excel and fascinate Italians over the next decade.

Historical Highlights of M-SR

  • 2nd M-SR 1908: Cyrille Van Hauwaert, called 'The Lion of Flanders’ asserted himself under snowy conditions and cold temperatures to win by more than three minutes.
  • 4th M-SR 1910: Only four competitors out of the 71 starters at the beginning of the race finished in San Remo. Eugene Christophe after his victorious arrival under apocalyptic conditions is taken by ambulance to the hospital. He remained there for one month before finding the complete use of his arms and legs. Christophe will spend almost two years to completely recover this day of hell.
  • 1916 No Race WW1
  • 11th M-SR 1918: The first ‘Primavera’ victory for Italy’s first Campionissimo Costante Girardengo, he will gain five more M-SR victories.
  • 19th M-SR 1926: 1925 Italian Champion Costante Girardengo went over the Turchino Pass first and soloed into San Remo for his 6th and last M-SR victory.
  • 30th M-SR 1937: For the first time Milan-San Remo is run on March 19, the day of St. Joseph. It became the official race day of La Primavera. Cesare Del Cancia, riding for the Ganna team, broke away with 70 km remaining and rode to victory with a new record average speed at 37.408 km/h.
  • 1944 No Race WW2
    1945 No Race WW2
  • 45th M-SR 1954: Belgian superstar Rik Van Steenbergen out-sprinted a stellar field, which included Fausto Coppi, Gino Bartali, Louison Bobet, Loretto Petrucci and Germaine Derijcke, for the victory. It was one of the best sprint finishes in M-SR history. 1954 was the first televised M-SR.
  • 51st M-SR 1960: To avoid the repetition as mass sprint race, the organizers added the climb of the Poggio di San Remo, to the route 3.7 km from the finish.
  • 57th M-SR 1966: A young a 20 year old Belgian named Eddy Merckx, racing for Peugeot, blew the race apart and dusted his breakaway partners in the sprint for his first of 7 M-SR victories.
  • 68th M-SR 1977: Dutch newcomer upstages Merckx and Moser. Holland’s Jan Raas executed a brilliant attack in the final kilometers and out-sprinted the two champions for the victory.
  • 83rd M-SR 1992: Kelly’s last hurrah! Irishman Sean Kelly caught solo leader Moreno Argentin on the descent of the Poggio, taking great risks on the twists of the run in to the Via Roma in San Remo, Kelly out sprinted Argentin for his last major victory of his career.
  • 92nd M-SR 2001: Zabel Time 4. Defending World Cup champion Erik Zabel started the 2001 season by sprinting to his fourth M-SR victory.
  • 95th M-SR 2004: Zabel!… oops! Spanish sprinter Oscar Freire’s last second burst nipped a surprised Erik Zabel on the finish line, robbing the 4-time winner of his fifth M-SR victory.

The Records
Most Wins

Eddy Merckx (Bel) 7 wins
Costante Girardengo (Ita) 6 wins
Gino Bartali (Ita) 4 wins
Erik Zabel (Ger) 4 wins.


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