How can a foam mattress, intended to enhance sleep, inflict so much pain? When it flies off a truck and gets stuck in your front wheel.
That is what happened to Matti Breschel after the final stage in Oman as we rode back to the hotel. Although he did have a slightly softer landing than if it had been, say, a tree, it still resulted in a messed up wrist. Not ideal when your early season aim is juddering around on cobbles, contending for the Classics.
This unfortunate turn of events led to me to replacing Matti at Milan-Sanremo, the first Monument of the year. I felt terrible for Matti, but also excited about being given the opportunity. Like everybody else, I had seen and heard about the insane events that unfolded last year [the snow and ice storm of 2013 that led to a last-minute change of course]. I told myself that, no matter what, it couldn’t possibly be as bad this time around. How wrong I was.
The 48 hours leading up to the race didn’t quite go to plan. The night before flying to Italy, my girlfriend was laid low by a tummy bug (I made dinner that night, but that couldn’t have had anything to do with it, right?)
I was nervous on the way to the airport and soon began feeling the typical symptoms of man flu: aching muscles, hot and cold spells and general lousiness. Once there, I located the juice bar and tried to bulletproof my immune system by ordering belligerently-named smoothies such as “IRON MAN”, “GO AWAY DOCTOR” and “IMMUNITY”. If anything was going to do the job, this had to be it. I boarded the plane confident I’d be fine, vitamin-boosted up to the eyeballs.
We had been airborne for no more than 20 minutes before it began. Without revealing all the gory details, let’s just say that “IRON MAN” was no longer held internally by the time the fasten your seat belt sign had been switched off…
Man flu had been replaced by reality and cold fear. Having a stomach bug in a confined space is not a pleasant experience. The passenger next to me was rather unimpressed, huffing and puffing every time I asked her to be let out. I had to remind her that throwing up in the toilet was a better option than her lap.
Arriving at the hotel, I quarantined myself in a single room and crawled into bed. My girlfriend was already on the mend and I was optimistic that a good night’s sleep would do the job for me. I couldn’t admit defeat so close to Milan-Sanremo.
My optimism was well founded: by Saturday morning I was almost back to firing on all cylinders, ready to take on the infamous pre-Sanremo feast that I had heard so much about. I know I spent the last blog talking about food, but this really is the meal of all meals. Feats of carbohydrate consumption from past editions have become Sanremo myth and legend.
“I once saw a rider eat four plates of pasta as a starter.”
“Oh yeah? Well, I once saw a rider eat the equivalent of Pozzovivo’s weight in spaghetti!” (Having seen Pozzovivo, that’s probably not much food.)
I’m sure that the amount of rice and pasta we ate between the eight of us on the eve of the race could easily have fed a small town. For a week. Then again, the engine needs a bit of fuel if it’s going to get through 300 kilometres (never before have those neutralised kilometres seemed so important), most of them, from what we were hearing, in the rain.
At first, it seemed better than forecast. No rain, relatively mild, and I was flying high from the incredible atmosphere at the start: a classy Italian speaker introducing the riders onto the podium, the crowds cheering all the big names (I failed to hear mine being shouted by anyone: must have been standing in the wrong place) and the electric buzz of this great race.
But after 60 kilometres, I noticed the weather. So did my feet, my hands and practically every other part of my body. I was in for a very long day.
I had been told that riding through the tunnel at the top of the Turchino signifies the transition between the rainy part of the race and the beginning of sunny coastal roads. And, as if by magic, this was exactly what happened.
Euphoria! Every rider probably had this hope in mind whilst being soaked to the bone, and the relief was apparent as most of us made quick work of removing all unnecessary items of clothing.
However, as the bunch tore along the sweeping coastal road, we were met with the grim prospect of dark clouds promising a second lashing of rain. When the first drops fell, I refused to acknowledge them. Who cares? There’s only 80 kilometres to the finish. Then, like many, I quickly conceded defeat to Mother Nature and returned to the car, picking up my beloved rain jacket once again – but not my gloves. Big mistake.
I couldn’t complain about the freezing pain in my fingers because almost all of the others riders were in the same situation. I just gritted my teeth and got on with it. We’re a tough breed, bike riders. If you crash, you instinctively get straight up and hop on your bike. If your fingers are cold, you just keep going.
Now, it may be difficult for people to understand this next bit. However, I was desperate to regain some sort of feeling in my digits. I was also bursting for a pee. I therefore decided to combine the two. Call it multi-tasking. The relief when the hot urine showered my fingertips cannot be compared to anything I have ever experienced before. If you are thinking “Ugh! That’s disgusting”, then riding Milan-Sanremo isn’t for you – and maybe don’t shake my hand, should we ever meet.
Into the decisive section, the tempo increased and I quickly found the going rather tough. I had read a quote from Cavendish, saying “Sanremo is the hardest race to win, but the easiest race to finish.” Approaching the Cipressa, I quickly agreed that yes, winning is hard enough when just finishing is no walk in the park, either.
As soon as we hit the Cipressa, my legs went to jelly. My 260 kilometres at the front of the race were over. Looking back, maybe I should have peed on my legs too. It might have kept them a little warmer.
I made it over the top, zigzagging a little (surely reaching that nice, round 300km wouldn’t be much of an issue now), found a small group and stuck it out to the finish.
It was dry there, and my spirits were high. My first Milan-Sanremo – check. I have the utmost respect to the riders who are capable of sprinting for the win after such a gruelling race.
Now I’m a lot warmer and dryer and looking forward to the cobbled classics that begin this week. I’m too scared to check the weather forecast though…
And the source of that stomach bug? That mystery will remain unsolved. I still don’t think it was my cooking though…
This article was originally published in 2014