The night before a race, the last thing I do before I climb into bed is to prepare my bag for the next day. Each rider has a suitcase and a race bag. The suitcase travels to the finish in the team truck and we carry the race bag, which holds everything we’ll need for the day, in the bus on the way to the start. With everything ready to go, tucked in bed, I look over the race book one last time before closing my eyes.
Prior to each event we receive a small booklet that outlines the course, the difficulties, the past champions, brief rules and the prize list. As I did as a child when I had memory work for school, I glance at the book before falling asleep, knowing it will leave an imprint for my thoughts to work around through the night. The Milan-San Remo book was nicer than most, with some gaudy Italian art on the cover commemorating the 100th edition of the race, detailed descriptions of the climbs, and a list of winners on the last page. For many, winning the race had made their careers and for the others their victory was confirmation of their class.
Before I shut the light, I carefully tucked the book away. I rarely keep the race books but although thin, this one had weight to it. Maybe I am getting sentimental or maybe I felt it would one day tell a story.
Milano-San Remo is more than a bike race. On the start line in Milan, there is an aura to the event. As we drive through the empty Milan streets in the bus in the early morning, the air in the bus still slightly crisp from the cold spring night, there is a nervous tension of excitement, stress, pressure and fear.
The distance, the climbs, the dangers are before us and the rich history of the race creates an anticipation and knowledge that, in this race, we are a part of something greater and for that our lives may never be the same. We sit on thousands of start lines during our careers but few invoke the kind of emotions that bring goosebumps and butterflies: Paris-Roubaix, the Giro d’Italia, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Tour of Flanders, the Tour of Lombardy, the World Championships and Tour de France.
Two days before the race I arrived at the team hotel in Milan. My teammates were already there — some were getting massaged while others sat in their rooms, snacking on food and chatting. Mark Cavendish was getting massaged. Immediately, like models in a dressing room, cyclists look at each other’s weight. Mark shook my hand, and after some small talk he said, “you look skinnier.”
I was, but the last month of racing had changed Mark noticeably. In Tirreno-Adriatico he had lost his youthful pudge. His legs looked lean, yet muscular.
Mark knew that to win in San Remo he would need to climb better than he had in his career. He couldn’t simply rely on his dominant sprint to win but needed to make it over the climbs without burning too much energy. On the massage table he looked confident, happy, and different than he had been a month before at the Tour of California.
With a veteran’s work ethic and a massive workload he had prepared himself well. The extra push that would get him to the finish first was already there as well: most discounted his chances, which, for Mark, only pushes him farther. Don’t tell him he can’t do something; he won’t back down.
During the seven hours of racing there are few moments to relax. The race formula unfolds: riders attack from the start as we leave the industrial areas at the edge of Milan for the flat rural roads that lead south to the coast. The racing is intense from the first kilometer as each team wants to be represented in the early break (which has no chance of making it to the finish for first place) and many riders simply want to be in front to leave their mark on the race, giving their families at home some entertainment as they follow the race on T.V. This year it took an abnormally long time for the break to form: two hours over which we averaged 50kph.
Once the break is established and gone, the peloton relaxes, riders stop to pee, eat and strip off clothes as the sun begins to warm the colder morning air. The breakaway’s time gap balloons as the peloton relaxes for ten to fifteen kilometers before the chase begins. Slowly the speed escalates, the peloton thinning into a line while a few domestiques tug the group along. When we finally reach the coast the peloton is flying. And, there are still 160 km to go.
On the first climb of the day, the Passo del Turchino, it was evident that Mark was on form. A month ago he labored when we began to climb, fighting the bike and looking uncomfortable with each pedal stroke. With fewer kilograms of fat to carry he moved freely on the bike, pedaling fluidly, calmly, and powerfully.
The fight for the front begins well before we hit the second major difficulty of the day: the Le Mànie. Unlike the other hills on the course, which are not difficult because of their distance or gradient but because we race up them after 270 kilometers, Le Mànie is steep and tough. As if the finish line were at the bottom, teams charge into the climb to place their leader on the front as positioning is more crucial than having good legs. A focused consistent effort from our team placed Mark in the front on each climb of the day. For the domestiques the effort is sapping while for the leader it makes all the difference.
After 250 kilometers every error made in the first hours of the race begins to be noticed. If a rider hasn’t eaten enough, he is depleted. If a rider has ridden in the wind too much, his legs are painfully sore. In a 300 kilometer race it is not only a rider’s legs that cramp but also his arms and back. Some riders lose focus, forget to fight for the front, and their race is quickly over.
To win, a rider can’t waver. Each moment he needs to be thinking about the race ahead, his position in the peloton, his nutrition, and steering clear of danger. For many, it takes years before they race without error and win. This was Mark’s first Milan-San Remo, which only emphasizes his quality.
There are moments of emotion in an athlete’s career that usually become lasting memories. Our work done, my teammate Bernhard Eisel and I rode to the finish together, listening to the race unfold over our race radios. As our director voiced his instructions over the radio we could quickly tell where Mark was in the peloton and how he was climbing over the Cipressa and Poggio.
Our director, Valerio Piva’s voice and tone told the story: he was riding well and was in the front. Over the top of the Poggio, Bernie and I were confident he would win as long as he had a clear run at the line. With selfless class that comes from years of experience, George ensured that happened.
We heard cheers, a scream, and a yell over the radio. My arms tingled, my heart filled with emotion and Bernie punched the air in triumph. With an innate tenacity that makes a champion, Mark had transcended the cycling world’s expectations lifting his performance to heroic.