If the Milan-Sanremo is called the Classicissima – the “most classic” –today, it is because for over a hundred years it has built a history of its own, often bordering on legend, especially thinking back to the beginnings of the cycling race that has been run in spring every year since 1907.
Pirelli was there, for the first edition, like two years later at the first Giro d’Italia. From the fog of the Po Valley to the sun of the Ligurian Riviera, over the Turchino Apennine pass (the Cipressa and Poggio passes will be added later), the Milan-Sanremo was over 280 kilometres long, mostly on dirt roads and all the most famous cyclists wanted to put themselves to the test.
At 5:17 in the morning on 14 April 1907, it was raining hard on the heads of the 33 daredevils who set off on their bicycles from the Conca Fallata tavern on the banks of the Naviglio Pavese in south Milan. Sixty-two had signed up, attracted by the epic nature of the challenge and the prize money offered by the bike manufacturers, but only just over half of them turned up at 4.30. They started at the crack of dawn to finish before dark and avoid crowds at the start of the race.
The organiser of the race was journalist Armando Cougnet, the man who will be the great creator of the 1909 Giro d’Italia with his colleague Tullo Morgagni, under the watchful eye of the enterprising director of the Gazzetta dello Sport Eugenio Costamagna.
The contenders were mostly French and Italian. Among them was Giovanni Gerbi, nicknamed the “Red Devil” after having won the Giro di Lombardia two years earlier, who, legend has it, found himself during one of his fabled breakaways in the middle of a religious procession sporting a red jersey.
He was the first to take the lead wheeling through mud and puddles shortly after entering Piedmont. On the Colle del Turchino, Gerbi had about three minutes’ lead over the trio formed by Ganna, Galetti and Garrigou, while Lucien Petit-Breton, Gerbi’s teammate at Bianchi, was lagging behind because of a puncture.
The race proceeded and the weather had improved by the time the exhausted cyclists reached Liguria. Garrigou caught up with the Red Devil in the lead, while Petit-Breton, who would win the Tour de France the following year, was closing in. Gerbi decides to wait for his teammate, who was back in the race thirty kilometres from the finish. The race would be played out by this trio.
The chronicles of the day told of heated discussions between the three cyclists in an attempt to strike a deal for sharing the prize money (the first to cross the finish line would win 300 lire, the equivalent of little more than 1200 Euro today), but the two Bianchi riders, believing they could get ahead with their teamwork, began a sequence of sprints to wear Garrigou down. He responded valiantly each time, despite having 11 hours of racing in his legs.
With less than a kilometre to go, the Red Devil physically blocked Garrigou, pulling him by the jersey and clearing the way for Petit-Breton who raised his arms to the sky of Sanremo in victory in front of his teammate Gerbi and Garrigou. However, the latter’s appeal was upheld and the jury demoted Gerbi to third place, ahead of Ganna, who crossed the line fourth half an hour after the leading trio.
Rain, sun, fatigue and foul play marked the beginnings of one of the five monumental classic races, destined to become an unmissable appointment for fans and open to the glory of all cyclists, from sprinters to “stage collectors” and even the odd climber, like Nibali, in 2018. The 1910 edition held in foul weather would be even more epic so much so that of the 63 cyclists who started only four would reach the finish line while the race of many others ended in the taverns along the way where they stopped to warm up. But this is another chapter of the legendary Milan-Sanremo story.