Something about San Remo

This post first appeared 12 months ago. But given there are so many new people following carbon addiction now, thought we’d run it again in the lead up to 2014’s first Monument….

2012. Simon Gerrans. Winner.
2011. Matt Goss. Winner.
2009. Heinrich Haussler, 2nd. Allan Davis, 4th.
2007. Allan Davis, 2nd. Robbie McEwan, 4th. Stuart O’Grady, 5th.
2005. Stuart O’Grady, 5th.
2004. Stuart O’Grady, 4th.

(1992. Scott Sunderland, 5th)

Yep. Over the years Australian riders have performed rather well at Milan-San Remo, including multiple top-5 finishes and the last two victories. In fact, Kevin Rudd was still Prime Minister the last time anyone other than an Australian won la Classica di Primavera, the Spring Classic.

While we have a proud record, the consistently strong results in Italy are at odds with most of the other European Classics, and Monuments in particular. Because aside from Stuart O’Grady (who won the 2007 Paris-Roubaix and placed 5th a year later) and Cadel Evans (who has finished in the Top 10 twice at the Giro Lombardia and three times at Liege-Bastogne-Liege), it’s been slim pickings elsewhere.

So what is it about the first Monument of the season that is so suited to Aussie riders?

Gerrans MIlan-San Remo 2012

Poetically just shy of 300km, Milan-San Remo is the longest one-day race on the UCI calendar. But, somewhat counter-intuitively, most of the top riders say it’s also the easiest. To finish, that is. Not to win.

It’s a fair bet the timing of the race has something to do with the strong Antipodean performances. Given the January scheduling of both our National Championships and our lone UCI World Tour Race, the Tour Down Under, a lot of Aussie riders tend to hit their straps pretty early in the season. But rather than just speculate, I thought I’d ask an expert.

Gossy Gossy Gossy
Gossy Gossy Gossy

Scott Sunderland, ex-European pro and dual Paris-Roubaix-winning Directeur Sportif, knows more than most about the Classics. He came 5th himself in the 1992 Milan-San Remo and finished Top 20 on three other occasions. According to him, the Aussie weather is a real factor, for the Southern Hemisphere is a lot more conducive to training through the off-season (what’s left of it, anyway!). This allows riders to arrive at early season races better prepared than many of their snap frozen Northern Hemisphere rivals, and even teammates.

But Sunderland also suggests Australia’s success has much to do with the style of riders we tend to produce.

“Australian-bred riders are often well suited to race likes like Milan-San Remo and Tirreno-Adriatico. Traditionally, we’re strong over intermediate-terrain parcours, more so than the high mountains.” He went on to add, “We’re also good at manoeuvring and close-quarters racing, which is often exactly what you get at Milan-San Remo.” Translated, I think he simply means we’re tough, something reinforced as recently as last night by Matt Goss’s win in abysmal weather at Tirreno, leading home Cavendish and Greipel amongst others.

Managing the peaks and troughs.

Of course, peaking early in the season for races like Milan-San Remo can lead to other problems later in the year. “In the old days they’d just race you and race you and race you until you lost form, “ says Sunderland. “You’d be dead, and it would take you six weeks to recover, but you’d never get back to the same level.”

These days things are different, which explains why someone like Cadel Evans rarely races in his home country, to the great disappointment of many. (Although obviously 2014 was different, and the fans loved seeing him in Adelaide.)

“In the off season you sit down with your team and identify your Major Goal, or race, for the year. You then work backwards, identifying Intermediate Goals to help you get there in the best possible form.” In other words, there’s not a whole lot of point hitting your straps in January, or even March, when your main goal isn’t until July.

Sunderland nominates Robbie McEwan as a rider who was outstanding at managing his schedule. “Robbie would always start the year well. Then he’d virtually shut down during the Classics, and reappear around the Giro which he’d use to get his form back in time for June and July.” With over 100 professional wins on his palmares, including 12 Tour de France stages and 3 Green jerseys, it’s fair to say McEwan’s strategy worked pretty well.

Robbie McEwan. As fast and as tough as they came.
Robbie McEwan. As fast and as tough as they came.

Of course, given no-one can race at the highest level for 365 days a year, it’s ultimately all about priorities; something Sunderland uses the recently (and, yes, somewhat dubiously) retired Stuart O’Grady whom he coached at CSC, to demonstrate.

O’Grady rode the Nationals and Tour Down Under as much as any other Aussie in the peloton. Sunderland remains convinced that if O’Grady had chosen to target other major races like the Tour of Flanders at a younger age, he’d have achieved even more Classics success than his single win at Roubaix in 2007. But because his initial focus was usually on January in Australia, his form invariably tapered by the time the European Spring rolled around.

Sunderland isn’t for a moment suggesting O’Grady should have turned his back on the TDU, mind you. Rather, he uses it to demonstrate how a rider’s priorities – whatever they happen to be – will naturally see them performing better at certain stages, and races, each season.

Milan-San Remo continues to be one such race for many Australians in the pro peloton. Here’s hoping the green and gold can triumph once again this year.

The Nationals. To race or not to Race?

Without even realising it, my chat with Scott Sunderland drifted seamlessly into a discussion about the Australian National Road Championships. It’s a great race these days. One of the true highlights of the domestic road racing calendar, especially now it’s broadcast live on every cyclist’s favourite TV channel, SBS. But as Sunderland explained, it’s still as hit and miss as it’s always been.

Targeting a big race so early in the year is a big risk, with no guarantee of success. For starters, the vast majority of riders arrive straight out of their off-season. There are no major lead-up races to assess your form. There’s only one Champion and if you come second, which Sunderland himself did in 2000 after a rumoured mid-race deal between Britain’s Jeremy Hunt and Australian Jamie Drew, you may just have wreaked havoc on the rest of your season – for not very much gain. (If you’re interested, Hunt won the 2000 race narrowly, ensuring he took the winner’s cheque back to the UK, whilst Drew happily finished second to claim the coveted Green and Gold jersey. Behind them Sunderland won the sprint for third on the road, thus claiming the official silver as the second Australian across the line.)

The arrival of Orica-GreenEDGE in 2012 has further compounded the difficulty of winning this early-season race for any rider not on their Aussie-packed roster. As Sunderland spoke, it reminded me a bit of the Davis Cup; where many of the World’s top players forgo the honour of representing their country so as not to jeopardise their individual playing schedules. Quite the dilemma considering how patriotic we Aussies tend to be…

Scott Sunderland. A fine rider, and even finer Directeur Sportif. Today he runs TripleSMC, a sports management and consulting business, including one-one-one coaching and intensive training camps.
Scott Sunderland. A fine European pro in his own right, and even finer Directeur Sportif. Today he’s back home and runs TripleSMC, a sports management and consulting business.

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