The Spring Classics.

Youtube footage of Sean Kelly’s astonishing win in the 1992 Milan-San Remo.

 

Readers in the UK may remember Mark Cavendish being slightly disparaging towards Gold medals in the Olympic Velodrome. Great Britain had a wonderful Olympics in the velodrome at both Athens and Beijing, and many non-cyclists regard this gold-medal haul as the ultimate achievement for a cyclist.

But on the continent, the home of cycle racing, this is the time of year when all eyes turn to ‘ The Classics ‘, the oldest and most prestigious one-day races in the world, some of them older than the Tour de France.

There are, I think, eleven ‘Classics’ each season, finishing with the Tour of Lombardy in the autumn, known as the tour of the falling leaves. The five greatest of these are the ‘Monuments’, the Grand Slam one-day races of cycling: Milan-San Remo; Tour of Flanders; Paris-Roubaix; Liege-Bastogne-Liege; Tour of Lombardy.

The ‘Monuments’ have thrown up their share of legends:

Bernard Hinault had to have his frozen hands prised from the handlebars after 7 hours riding through blizzards in the 1980 Liege-Bastogne-Liege . There were only 21 finishers from 174 starters, and ‘The Badger’ won by almost 10 minutes.

In 1919, in the Tour of Flanders , Henri “Ritte” Van Lerberghe had to walk the lap of the veldodrome to the finish line because he could no longer ride his bike. He’d carried his bike through a train parked on a level-crossing and stopped in a pub for a beer in sight of the finishing velodrome, and still won by 14 minutes, shouting at the crowd “Go home, I’m half a day ahead of the others!”

I’d like to tell you about my favourite ‘Monument’ victory, Ireland’s Sean Kelly in the 1992 Milan-San Remo.

Held in the third week of March, M-SR is always the first Monument of the season. Mark Cavendish won the Milan-San Remo in 2009, the UK’s first Monument winner since Tommy Simpson won the Tour of Lombardy in 1965.

It’s a monster of almost 300 Km, but as bunch finishes into San Remo became the norm the organisers added a climb near the finsh, the Poggio, now one of cycling’s iconic climbs, not because it’s especially difficult, but because the riders are knackered after almost 300 Km.

Even so, bunch sprints returned, so a further climb, the Cipressa, was added just before the Poggio in 1982. Now, most successful breaks will take place on one of these climbs near the finish.

The incomparable Eddy Merckyx won the Milan-San Remo an astonishing 7 times, but perhaps the most famous victory was by irish rider Sean Kelly. Kelly, winner in 1986 and the oldest man in the field, had previously said that anybody who led by 100 metres over the Poggio would win the Milan-San Remo. On this day, much-fancied Italian rider Moreno Argentin led by a lot more than that as he started the descent to the finish line on the Via Roma in San Remo.

It’s said that you can’t win a bike race on descents, but you can lose one. That rule got thrown away as Kelly descended unbelievably fast to catch Argentin at the base of the descent. You can watch the whole saga on Youtube . This was in the days before multi-media coverage of every metre of every race. The crowd at the finish knew that Argentin was a long way in front, and as news arrives that Kelly has caught him you can hear a massive collective sigh on the Youtube clip.

Kelly was one of the best sprinters that ever raced, a 4-time winner of the Tour de France Green Jersey, and although they play cat and mouse along the finishing straight, with the peloton screaming along behind them, in the final sprint there was only going to be one winner. It’s an amazing bit of footage.

You have to imagine yourself in a descent of just 2 or 3 miles, and you’re 300 metres behind one of the fastest riders on earth. There is no chance, but Kelly pulled it off, and it’s a fabulous clip.

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