Cancellara and Milan-San Remo: 'It's like a bottle of champagne'

In a normal cycling season, Saturday would see the running of the first Monument of the year – Milan-San Remo. Of course, the spring season, from Strade Bianche to the Giro d'Italia, has so far been decimated by the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.

As a result, the 111th edition of the yearly battle between puncheurs, sprinters and all-rounders on the longest day in cycling has been put on hold until autumn or possibly even 2021. Rather than witnessing a charging peloton battle for placings and attacks flying over the top, the famous Poggio hill stays quiet on Saturday afternoon.

Look back through the race's history in recent years and the roll of honour is populated largely by sprinters, or at least riders with a strong finishing kick. In the past few years, the likes of Julian Alaphilippe and Vincenzo Nibali stand out among the Alexander Kristoffs and Arnaud Démares of the peloton. There's a stand-out name in 2008 too, nestled between Mark Cavendish and Óscar Freire.

It's Fabian Cancellara, who took his second Monument win at the race on his third participation 12 years ago, kicking off a string of top results in San Remo. The Swiss rider, retired since 2016, talked about the race – and the reason for its cancellation – to Cyclingnews this week.

"I feel sad for the riders, I feel sad for the spectators and I feel sad for the organisers," Cancellara said about the race's postponement.

"I feel sad for cycling too, but all sports have this problem. All sports have been affected so there's nothing to complain about. We're talking about our health and our world, so we have to take care. We can't think about watching our bike races. If people still think like that then they're too selfish."

Cancellara himself has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. The launch of his new Gore Wear clothing range was set to take place in Flanders on Wednesday, his birthday, but the public event and this weekend's 'Chasing Cancellara' ride were both cancelled as a result of the lockdown measures put in place across Europe.

"This weekend we were supposed to have Chasing Cancellara in Flanders for the first time. We have to postpone it because it's not just watching a bike race on television, it's interacting with people from all around Europe who would be coming," Cancellara said.

"You wouldn't be able to talk to people, make a high five, or anything like that. There are so many things you can't do. Even before E3, Gent-Wevelgem and all the restrictions came out, we had to make the decision to postpone it.

"There was going to be a sports science conference, a kid's event, our Gore Wear Cancellara launch. It was quite a big weekend coming up, but in situations like this we have to think of health. We have to follow the guidelines and be united for what is coming."

Cancellara also noted that the rescheduling of various events and races – as several organisers have pushed for – is going to be tough, both for those in charge of the calendar and events, and for the riders competing.

"With a cycling event, you can't just postpone from one day to another. Riders are working for months for those goals and dreams. Nobody knows what will come, we just have to stay home and follow the government's rules.

"We have to delete those weeks that will come and then regroup, bring the stakeholders together and figure it out. And you have to think about the small races, who have it even more difficult than the biggest ones. It's sad for every race that is cancelled but it's a situation where we have to make the best of it."

Cancellara today, in the new Gore Wear C7 Cancellara Collection

Cancellara today, in the new Gore Wear C7 Cancellara Collection (Image credit: Gore Wear)

'Winning alone like that is another satisfaction'

So, with no Milan-San Remo on the menu, why not get an in-depth look at the race with one of the most consistent finishers in its recent history? After his 2008 win, where he outsmarted an elite group including Freire, Philippe Gilbert and Davide Rebellin to solo home, he went on to finish on the podium on four more occasions.

There was 2011, where Matthew Goss beat him in a head-to-head dash for the line, the next year it was Gerrans who outpaced the Swiss from a three-man lead group. He was third behind Gerald Ciolek and Peter Sagan at the infamous 2013 edition, and finally, in 2014, it was Kristoff who sprinted to victory as Cancellara banged his bars behind.

"For me, San Remo means a lot because first of all the way I won was really special," Cancellara said. "For me, it was all those years being on the podium, it was special. And it's really a hard race to win because it's difficult.

"There are multiple difficulties in the race, and you always face them. That's why it feels bad not to see it being run and being on television this year. It's special."

The difficulties of a race which often lasts seven hours and traverses 290 kilometres are, indeed, numerous. But if you watch the race and think that powering up the Poggio or keeping cool on the final run-in would be the toughest moments, Cancellara has a different answer.

"It's like a bottle of champagne, it's seven hours of riding and fatigue plays a part. There's the length, almost 300 kilometres, and then there's the last kilometres on the Poggio, the downhill and the finish on Via Roma. The closer you get to San Remo, the more it gets exciting.

"From Milan it's hard. You have to focus all day. I think the hardest part is keeping up that concentration and trying not to lose any power throughout the day. That's the priority you have to consider. You have to take care about that and keep an eye on the progression. It was always the priority for me to not lose any kind of power for the end.

"It's a tactical race, especially when you get to the final and the Poggio. The attacks come in the last kilometre there, so you have to be at the front. The race has changed over the years, tactically. It's not just for the pure sprinters."

In 2008, he managed to do just that. Cancellara was among an elite group of riders who jumped away on the Poggio following Rebellin's attack. The 12-man move included reigning champion Freire, FDJ man Gilbert, Paris-Nice winner Rebellin and 2006 race winner Filippo Pozzato, among others.

Plenty of fast men, then. But Cancellara had other ideas. After some back-and-forths and minor attempts on the flat run to San Remo, Cancellara blasted away from the lead group following a jump by Euskaltel-Euskadi rider Iñigo Landaluze. He left the Spaniard, and the rest of the group in his wake, enjoying a solo win not seen since Andre Tchmil nine years earlier.

"I mean I was never a real sprinter but the way I won in the year with the Strade-Tirreno-San Remo triple, it was amazing," Cancellara said. "When they gave me a few metres on the front it was done, and it took the victory.

"Winning is the best feeling, but winning alone like that is for sure another satisfaction.

"I've also made certain mistakes in the race, being too nice, or having too much ego or being too strong, and yes I think I had two great opportunities that I missed. But on the other hand, in bike racing you either win or you lose, and I can be really proud with my one win and so many podiums."

There isn't one particular podium placing where Cancellara said he should've won, though the loss against Simon Gerrans in 2012 was a frustration. The duo got away on the Poggio along with Nibali, but Cancellara admits that he underestimated the Australian's sprint finish.

"I mean I should win every edition where I was on the podium!" he joked. "I think that one I was more of an underdog when I went away with Nibali and Gerrans. I did underestimate Gerrans a bit, though.

"There have been different types of races. There have been situations where I've been the favourite, others where I haven't really been the fastest sprinter but still super strong in the finish. I have to be happy for what I achieved, and a little bit disappointed for what I haven't achieved. But you win flowers, or you lose flowers – it's OK now."

Unsurprisingly, the 2013 edition, hit by snow and halted midway through, was the hardest, he said. The race saw 117km of riding before riders stopped in the freeziing conditions to board their team buses, only starting again an hour later. Cancellara still took third place though, despite the brutal conditions.

"2013 was crazy. I was like 'wow'," he said. "I have to say I thought it was not going to continue, I'll be honest. But the race went on and I wasn't really on top form but I still went full gas afterwards.

"Yes, it was my hardest San Remo. Honestly, my legs were tingling with the cold. It was crazy. For me, the race was over after we stopped, but then I had to re-motivate myself, it was just like normal, in a way."

We can only speculate what would've happened at this year's Milan-San Remo – until a possible rescheduled race, at least. Would there have been another solo win, the first since Cancellara got away back in 2008? We can't say, but this Saturday we can at least entertain ourselves with editions past.

"Fabian Cancellara is a GORE® Wear ambassador. The Cancellara Collection, which unites top technologies with incredible cycling insight is available to purchase at (opens in new tab)"

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