“I can’t feel my feet.” Vincenzo Nibali could barely talk either, as he climbed on the Astana team bus in Ovada, on 17 March 2013, only 117km into the 104th edition of Milano-Sanremo. The Italian fuoriclasse has raced la Primavera eleven times through his career, he went on to win the race in 2018 with a masterful ride over the Poggio, but 2013 was a unique edition, demanding everything from the riders participating in the first Monument of the Spring.
Since its first edition, won by the Frenchman Lucien Petit-Breton in the rain in April 1907, only the two World Wars had halted Milano-Sanremo (the race wasn’t held in 1916, 1944 and 1945) until the Covid-19 pandemic prevented organisers RCS Sport from holding it this Saturday. But the Primavera, kick-starting the Monuments campaign, is not immune to extreme weather conditions such as the snow storm and the low temperatures that froze the peloton on its way to Sanremo seven years ago.
It was three years before the UCI introduced the Extreme Weather Protocol, and as Mark Cavendish put it on that day, four years after his historic win on the Lungomare Italo Calvino: “F… freezing!”
So far, so good…
The looks on the 200 participants’ faces were already grim as they gathered on the rain-soaked Piazza del Duomo for the start in Milan. Among them, MTN-Qhubeka’s Songezo Jim was the first black South-African rider to face a Monument. This crazy day was yet to deliver many more historical feats, for Africa and for the whole world of cycling.
The dark sky didn’t prevent the bunch from heading to the plain of Lombardy and a handful of brave men jumped in a breakaway they foresaw as a 298km attempt at glory. Italian youngsters Diego Rosa (riding for Androni Giocattoli at the time) and Filippo Fortin (Bardiani-CSF) were among the early attackers with their more seasoned compatriot Matteo Montaguti (AG2R La Mondiale), Russia’s Maxim Belkov (Team Katusha), Denmark's Lars Ytting Bak (Lotto Belisol) and the very experienced Spanish road captain Pablo Lastras (Movistar Team).
The Milano-Sanremo’s etiquette prevailed in the early stages of the race: with so many kilometres to be covered through Lombardy, Piedmont and on the Ligurian coast, the gap quickly increased, over 10 minutes in less than 30km. So far, so good…
But while the attackers held a strong pace as they headed South towards the coast, the organisers were facing much more pressing circumstances: snow had hit the Passo Turchino (km 142), endangering the riders’ safety… Race direction had to move quickly: the race was suspended after 117km and a bus transfer organised to reach Arenzano.
Cancellara: “We’re all winners”
Take 50km off of la Primavera, and you make it a race like others? Definitely not on that day. The riders might have escaped the Turchino (as well as La Manie climb) but this Milano-Sanremo was still a 250km ordeal through extreme weather conditions.
Reaching the halt was a challenge in itself. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) were not the only freezing ones. Sports directors described riders “crying on the bike” and everyone climbed into the buses as fast as possible, to take a warm shower, take hot drinks, try to dry clothes and remove the blocks of ice from their helmets.
The action resumed early afternoon and, with 130 cold kilometres to go to Sanremo, it was written the main protagonists would be some of the more resilient Classics riders. Unable to warm himself, Nibali had to abandon on the Capo Berta climb, with 45km remaining. The early attackers were caught at the bottom of the Cipressa. Cobbled Classics experts Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto Belisol) got on the move for a thrilling finale.
The Frenchman, a usual suspect for late attacks on the way to Sanremo, went away with Ian Stannard (Team Sky) on the Poggio and they were joined by a royal quartet: Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard), Peter Sagan (Cannondale), Luca Paolini (Katusha) and Gerald Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka). Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing Team) was right behind them as they stormed to the finish line… it was Ciolek who narrowly dominated the sprint ahead of Sagan and Cancellara to bring his African team a historic Monument victory.
“We had horrible conditions and I was almost crying when I sat on the bus but at the end of the day it’s a great success for me and my team”, said Ciolek.
Suffering from the cold, his teammate Songezo Jim abandoned 50km from the finish. Admitting to phases of wondering why he was racing, he concluded: ““But then I thought this is what I’ve dreamt about. If I want to be a professional in Europe I have to endure days like this. Gerald winning was just unbelievable. I can’t believe I was a part of it all.”
As for Cancellara, he was first “upset” not to get the win… “But in the end, we’re all winners. After making it to Sanremo in such conditions, we can go home happy.”