Cipollini rode ‘La Classicissima’ in each of his 17 seasons as a professional, with neither illness nor injury stopping him from setting off for the 300km ride to the Mediterranean coast.
Milan-San Remo became ‘his’ race after seeing for the first time in 1982 with his father on the Turchino.
“My brother Cesare was in the early break and my dad was really excited and proud of him,” he told Cyclingnews. “But when we next caught up with the race on the coast in Varazze, Cesare had been dropped and my dad was really disappointed, so much so that we didn’t even go to San Remo to see the finish. That’s when I fell in love with the race and I promised my dad I’d win it one day.”
Cipollini had to wait 14 years before finally winning Milan-San Remo in 2002, when he made it over the Poggio in the front group and then powered up the Via Roma to win the sprint ahead of Fred Rodriguez and Markus Zberg. He won the world title in the same year and ended his career with 189 victories but victory in Milan-San Remo was the best day of his career.
“I love everything about Milan-San Remo,” he said. “It’s the way the race is so finely balanced and the how the tension and adrenaline grows during the long ride start from early morning cold in Milan to the finish in the sun in Sam Remo. It’s also close to the date of my birthday on March 22 and so was always a special day for me.”
Cipollini retired in 2005 but still follows the racing with a critical eye. He spent three days at Tirreno-Adriatico and studied the favourites for this year’s closely.
“I think it’s going to be a great race this year. There’s no big favourite and everyone seems at about the same level,” he said. “It’s the first race where everyone comes together for the first big show-down of the season.
Cipollini is never afraid to speak his mind. Here is his exclusive form guide for this year’s race:
Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad)
“I’m a big fan of Mark because of the way he sprints and because his character but I’m disappointed to see he’s so far behind with his preparation.”
“He doesn’t seem mentally or physically at his best and doesn’t seem able to compete with the best sprinters. He’s only won one minor sprint at the Tour of Oman and I was surprised to see him sit up in both sprints at Tirreno. I don’t know what his problem is but if he has won Milan-San Remo and loves the race as much as he says he does, then he should be at his very best. But I don’t think he is. Of course I’d love for him to prove me wrong on Saturday.”
The Garmin-Cervelo Dilemma
“The Garmin-Cervelo team will have more tactical options than any other team thanks to having Thor Hushovd, Tyler Farrar and Heinrich Haussler in their line-up but that could also cause them a dilemma.”
“Hushovd and Farrar worked well together in the finale of the two sprints at Tirreno. Farrar won the first one well but then Haedo got the better of him quite easily the day after. Farrar is fast but I think Milan-San Remo might still be a bit too much for him to handle this year. I think Hushovd is more of a guarantee for a result. He’s proved he’s fast after 250km by winning the world title and I’m sure the team would love to see him win in the rainbow jersey. The problem could be Haussler. If he wants to ride his own race it could lead to some confusion. It’ll be up to the team’s managers to sort that out before the race.”
Oscar Freire (Rabobank)
“A lot of people seem to have forgotten Oscar Freire this year but they made the same mistake last year and he won. He’s been quite so far but he’s won three sprints and was often in the front group in Tirreno. I think he’s been hiding and saving himself. He’s won Milan-San Remo three times and has been world champion three times. He knows how to prepare for it perfectly and is smart enough to know how to take advantage of other teams and riders. I’m sure he’ll be up there if there is a sprint.”
Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto)
“A lot of people are talking about Gilbert but I’m not totally convinced. He won a stage at Tirreno and won it well but struggled on the two uphill finishes in Chieti and Macerata, which were in theory suited to him.”
“Gilbert’s big handicap is that if he wants to win he’s got to try and get away with a group on the Cipressa or the Poggio. If someone like Pozzato wakes up and is on a good day and goes with him, then it could work out, especially if the likes of Fabian Cancellara, Alessandro Ballan, Lars Boom and Edvald Boasson Hagen go with them too. The problem is that there is always a team ready to chase a break down for their sprinter and nobody gets away on the Poggio anymore.”
“As well as the riders I’ve talked about, we can’t forget some outsiders like Alessandro Petacchi, Tom Boonen, Andre Greipel, Giovanni Visconti, Daniele Bennati. I'll also be keeping my eye on Matthew Goss and Michael Matthews, they're both tough Australians and are fast too. All of these riders have got a chance but exactly how much of a chance will depend on what happens on the day and how they feel after 300km.”
“That’s what so great about Milan-San Remo. Every one sets off from Milan dreaming about winning it but in reality very few riders have the talent, tactics, fitness and the fast finish to be first over the line in San Remo.”