An Italian winter?

The official records note that the 1946 Milan-San Remo, the first edition of the race following Italy’s devastation in World War II and thus a historically significant running of the race, was won by one Fausto Coppi. But ‘won’ is slightly misleading. If the goal of any professional cyclist is to win a major race in the clear, alone in the finishing photograph, Coppi’s ride that year gave new meaning to the notion.

Coppi attacked some 200 kilometres from the finish, well before the strategically important Passo del Turchino, the climb just before the route turns onto the coast. As William Fotheringham recounts in his book, Fallen Angel, Coppi left the last of his breakaway companions behind on the Turchino itself. The last of them, Lucien Teisseire, looked down to change gears and when he looked up Coppi was gone.  Coppi rode alone for the last 147 kilometres of the race and his winning margin in San Remo was 14 minutes. Arriva Coppi, the crowd chanted at the finish. That day, there was Coppi and then there was everyone else.

The Italian winter

In his training manual, Greg LeMond laments the typical Italian rider’s winter. “The Italians always take two months off their bikes,” he said. “They put them in the basement and never touch them for the entire winter.” LeMond went on to say that no wonder they had to start with small gears when they got back into training, that for every week off the bike it takes about three weeks to get back into shape. LeMond notes that Franceso Moser ignored this approach for the 1984 season and went on to several notable victories, including Milan-San Remo and the Giro d’Italia (with some help from the organisers in the latter to beat Laurent Fignon).

The axiom is that if you want to ride fast in the spring, you have to put the work in over the winter. A glance at the results of the early season races suggests that the the Italians traditionally struggled with the more demanding events. In the first stage race of the year, Paris-Nice, run in early March, Italian riders faced a multi-decade long drought with Dario Frigo’s win in 2001 (Frigo was later expelled from the Tour de France for EPO doping) the first since 1946. The only other Italian winner in recent times was Davide Rebellin in 2008.

Sean Kelly, well known for his winter training, won the race seven times from 1982 to 1988. Kelly was regarded as a sprinter early in his career,  with good wins by the end of 1981 but without any of the major race victories for which he would become known. In 1982 he found new direction in the small Sem France-Loire team under Jean de Gribaldy, who saw something else in Kelly to nurture. As David Walsh recounts, he arrived at the first team training camp of the season already “very fit” and soon showed his form with a win at the Tour du Haut Var.

In Paris-Nice, Kelly had just a one second lead early in the race. Just before the Col d’Eze mountain time trial, this had become a four-second deficit. Expectations were that French racer Gilbert Duclos Lasalle would hold this lead as Kelly could apparently neither climb nor time trial.

But on the 11-kilometre climb, Kelly produced a performance, according to Walsh, of “power and class… trading entirely on raw strength.” By the summit, Kelly had put 44 seconds in Lassalle and Kelly’s first major stage race win was in the bag. His winter preparation had paid off.

Kelly taking the time trial and overall at Paris-Nice in '82

Coppi’s winter

In all fairness, Italian riders have typically placed more emphasis on Milan-San Remo in the spring rather than Paris-Nice. In La Primavera, their record has been much more consistent. Moser’s win in 1984 followed Guiseppi Saronni’s win the year before (although there was a drought of wins in the 1950s and 60s) and since then Italian’s have been regularly on the podium.

Still, in preparation for his ride in 1946, Fausto Coppi left nothing to chance. Having spent the latter years of the war in a British prison camp, Coppi had to recover his form. By March 19, the race day, Coppi had completed 7,000 kilometres since the start of the year. After three weeks of light work, distances had jumped to 250 kilometres per ride. In the last two weeks, the speed work started; Coppi would ride solo for 150 kilometres before meeting up with a group of amateur riders who would attack him constantly for the 100 kilometres remaining on the ride, simulating racing conditions.

This punishing regime gave Coppi both speed and stamina. His early attack was audacious, catching the rest of the race by surprise. But he had the conditioning to hold it all the way to the finish and to utterly dominate the event. It would be the template for the rest of his career.

So, for any amateur rider approaching their local spring season with delusions of grandeur, what sort of Italian winter did you have?

A familiar sight - Coppi riding alone at the head of the race

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