In 1992, Sean Kelly was approaching his 36th birthday.
His days as King of the Classics seemed to be fading. But there was still time for one last hurrah, and one of the most daredevil descents in cycling history.
In his autobiography, Hunger, Sean tells the story of his crazy pursuit of the Italian Moreno Argentin at the end of Milan-San Remo, his last Classic victory.
What was I thinking as I plummeted down the descent of the Poggio in pursuit of Moreno Argentin? Was I really a man possessed, as they said? Had I abandoned all thoughts for my safety? Did I care whether I ended up toppling over the low wall and shattering through the roof of one of the glasshouses below?
None of this mattered. I was thinking of winning, nothing else. I was going to give everything to catch Argentin and win the race. If I finished the day lying on my face among the tomato plants and shards of glass, so be it.
Over the years the story of the 1992 Milan-San Remo has developed a life of its own. I’ve heard it said that my back wheel skidded around every corner and that I bounced off the walls on my way down, leaving scuff marks on the shoulders of my jersey. That wasn’t the case. Perhaps people feel the need to embellish the drama. I don’t. For me, it was more than dramatic enough.
I had recently joined the Festina team and Milan-San Remo was my first big race in their colours. The week before the race, I did Tirreno-Adriatico, where everyone watches everyone else for little clues. Who is in good shape? Who will be the men to watch?
That week, Moreno Argentin, the 1986 world champion and one of the best Classics riders of his generation, was in blistering form. He made no effort to disguise how well he was going. He attacked the climbs so hard, won three stages and left the rest of us shaking our heads. The press were convinced they were looking at the winner of Milan-San Remo. We were too. It seemed he would make mincemeat of us on the Poggio.
The night before the race, we were chewing the fat over dinner and someone told the story of the 1979 race, when the boss of the Gis ice cream company that sponsored one of the top teams promised his star rider Roger De Vlaeminck he could have his Ferrari if he won. The next day, De Vlaeminck won. He took a shower, collected the keys to the boss’s Ferrari and drove his prize all the way back to Belgium.
My team-mate Acacio Da Silva turned to the Italian rep from Festina Watches and said: “What do we get if we win tomorrow?” The rep promised us a top-of-the-range watch.
Milan-San Remo is about waiting for your moment, saving energy and avoiding having to make a big effort. On one of the small hills before the Cipressa I was in a good position – near the front but not at the front. There was a little scooter parked on the edge of the road and the Italian rider Davide Cassani clipped it and crashed. His bike bounced off the wall and spun up into the air. Suddenly it was flying towards me. Instinctively, I put my arm up and pushed the flying bike away. That was my near miss.
Argentin attacked on the Poggio, the final climb just before San Remo, as we all knew he would. He went once, twice, then got away the third time. It was a searing acceleration and although it was tempting to go after him I knew not to panic.
The pace was fast but I preferred to sit in the bunch and keep things steady rather than make my effort here. I decided to wait until the descent.
Over the top we went. One of Argentin’s team-mates, Rolf Sorensen, did a great job of blocking me from going past by cornering wide and steadily. Eventually I got past Sorensen and set off in pursuit of Argentin.
I could see his red and yellow jersey on the road just below me. The closer I got to the bottom, the more I knew I could push it through the corners, but this was not a wild kamikaze descent. Everything was under control. I’d asked my mechanic to make sure my tubular tyres were glued on really well and now I was pushing them close to the limit.
As I reached the flat road at the bottom I was close to him. When he looked round and saw me coming he must have had the shock of his life. Victory must have seemed certain.
When I reached his back wheel, he said ‘Tira’, meaning ‘pull’. He wanted me to go to the front but there was no chance. I needed a few seconds to recover from the chase, and he knew that.
I moved over so he could see the chasers closing down on us. That persuaded him to open up his sprint. He moved across the road to force me to go the long way round but I had the strength to do it. As I crossed the line, there was almost silence. The Italians had seen their boy beaten.
It took Acacio several months and a few calls to Festina HQ but he eventually got our watches. But I wasn’t thinking about a watch as I descended the Poggio. I was just thinking about catching my prey and satisfying my hunger.
The Milan-San Remo takes place on Sunday March 23 and will be broadcast on British Eurosport and Eurosport Player.
- Sports & Recreation
- Moreno Argentin
- Milan-San Remo
- Sean Kelly