WORDS: ROULEUR | PHOTOS: OFFSIDE/LEQUIPE
It must be the distance – almost 300km from the city to the sea – and the herculean effort that brings out the rawest of emotions on the finish line in Milan-Sanremo.
The effect of racing for seven hours and the lifting of the lid on a day-long exercise in concentration produces an explosion of delight and exhaustion on the faces of the riders who emerge triumphant on the Italian Riviera.
Mix this in with the total pandemonium that only Italy can conjure, and Milan-Sanremo is almost guaranteed to produce some of the finest images of celebration from the entire season.
First up is Laurent Fignon – young and carefree in the spring of 1989 – as he celebrates two comically oversized additions to his trophy cabinet with the insouciance of someone who has battled for seven hours in the final throes of winter’s worst weather and can pull whatever face he wants to pull.
Eddy Merckx, 1976
One of the most iconic finish line shots in cycling history, Merckx throws his hands in the air after winning his seventh and final edition of Milan-Sanremo.
Even at the age of 30 and after countless career wins, the Belgian displays the consummate swagger of a serial winner and the genuine delight of a man addicted to the thrill of victory.
Eddy Merckx, 1966
Compare and contrast. Ten years earlier and the youthful joy of Merckx’s biggest win to date – his debut Milan-Sanremo and his first taste of big time success – is clear to see.
Aged just 20 years-old, March 20, 1966, was the bright dawning of a new era in cycling: the era of the Cannibal.
Mark Cavendish, 2009
The emotion bursts out of Mark Cavendish as the significance of his last gasp lunge to the line to overhaul Heinrich Haussler hits home. Meanwhile former winner, Mario Cipollini, offers his congratulations and shares in Cavendish’s joy.
Alessandro Petacchi, 2005
Even the experienced can shed a tear on the Via Roma. Amongst the crowds of tifosi on the famous finish line, teammates battle to congratulate the Italian while photographers jostle for that key shot.
Germain Derycke, 1955
Mobbing by fans, press, entourage and police officers is a common theme in the pandemonium of the finish area in Sanremo.
Classics specialist Derycke, who also won Liege-Bastogne-Liège, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in his career, shows his displeasure at having a giant panettone shoved in his face by an unknown assailant.
Alexander Kristoff, 2014
There is barely space to swing a telephoto lens but somehow Luca Paolini fights through the scrum to find his teammate Kristoff and embrace over the fence surrounding the finish line enclosure.
The eagle-eyed among you may be able to spot Rouleur columnist Matt Rendell, clinging on as the tide of bodies threatens to sweep him away.
Roger De Vlaeminck, 1973
In some instances, riders can do nothing but let the adrenalin and exhaustion overcome them. De Vlaeminck is wheeled to the podium after his breathless solo break to the line held off the sprinting pack.
Marc Gomez, 1982
The form book might as well be thrown out of the window for the roulette wheel of tactics, skills, strength and fortune that rolls in the finale of Milan-Sanremo.
In 1982 Marc Gomez won La Primavera only three months into his debut season as a professional. Riding over the crest of the Poggio in an improbable two-man breakaway, his companion and compatriot Alain Bondue slipped on the greasy tarmac, handing him a solo ride to the line.
There’s something Merckx-esque about the orange jersey, upturned white casquette and podium scene. The cream stucco building with shutters half open is even in the same place as the shot from 1976.
But rather than standing proud, the improbable champion, practically lost in a sea of faces, is almost swept away by the maelstrom of activity on the podium.
Sean Kelly, 1986
Sometimes, after the longest day of racing on the cycling calendar, all that matters is making it to the podium and throwing your hands in the air for all to see.