It’s 5.30am. I was awake at 3.00 as well. There is something unique about this day. Maybe my unconscious relates back to the first time I was speaker at this race, in 2011. I had been asked to do a test as a speaker at Milano San Remo.To see if they could bring an English speaker into their team of Italian speakers, with the aim of becoming the first English speaker in the history of the Giro d’Italia.
It was a bold move by them, I spoke no Italian and as far as I could tell Stefano Bertolotti spoke no english and Paolo Mei had partaken of a few lessons.But my abiding memory of that race was meeting Mauro Vegni. He is the Race Director of the major Italian races and he’s legendary.He was also quite scary to meet. As he couldn’t speak any english at the time (he does now) he used his assistant Giusy as interpreter.“Anthony it is very nice to meet you. Welcome to Milano Sanremo.I will be listening to everything you say tomorrow. Everything. And if I feel no passion for cycling and hear no passion in your voice then it has been very nice to meet you once.”
So that kind of welcome and warning probably does live with you and make you nervous and excited.
Milano Sanremo is a race like no other. 299km. A little like an opera, starting steady and building to a crescendo.
We are in Milano at the start before 8. The role of a race speaker is to bring the race alive. It is a different discipline to a TV commentator. Our brief is to create atmosphere, to introduce the riders, work with the music, to link with the race organisation and to ensure that the event rolls the way it is supposed to. That includes making sure teams are introduced in teams, in the right order as laid out by the commissaires.Working on the start line with the Race Director to ensure the race starts on time and of course to make sure the sponsors and dignitaries are introduced and made to feel welcome.In these Covid times you may ask yourself, well whats the point of you being there?There are no fans. Well we carry out our role in the same way, as if there are.Our fans and viewers watching are you sitting at home. By creating the usual buzz of a race the TV show sounds a little the same and by doing rider introductions and everything as normal the race looks and sounds the same.We just miss the roar of fans. But Mauro’s wish for passion of cycling is still there and indeed today feels just as special as it did in 2011, maybe even more so.
Teams introduced in order, we stand on the start line. We build up the race, Trek Segafredo are notable by all being at the front of the grid. Paolo and I note a keenness to get started by the team in red white and dark blue. They have had a great season so far, but today is all about Wout, Mathieu and Alaphilippe isn’t it?
Race underway, we have our own race to do.300km, in the car to San Remo. Today will be a good weather drive.I always think back to 2014, Turchino Pass as we encountered thick snow. That was the day the riders had to get in the buses, a day that Ciolek delighted a South African team by taking the win. But today as we reach Turchino to our side the sun is out, the sky is blue. The TV pictures are going to be beautiful.
After the rapid drive, we all stand on the Via Roma. It’s empty. Normally it’s full of fans by now. But it won’t matter, we will greet the winner of the race with the same passion as if the Via Roma is full.
With 50km to go we start. We commentate on all the action. The soigneurs, the TV companies, the support crews and a small group of sponsors and VIPs get our usual blow by blow account of the race. Paolo with his urgent race style, Stefano with his booming big voice like that of an opera lead, me busking off the back of their updates.
Cipressa, the race is on. We are getting excited. Jumbo Visma push for Wout.Mathieu doesn’t look so good. Alaphilippe is there. Is the battle of the titans going to play out?
Ineos have control now. They are riding for their 21 year old new signing Pidcock. Can he really win Milano San Remo on his first attempt? He looks so controlled.
Poggio, I have goosebumps. We marvel at the ride of Caleb Ewan. Apparently in the winter he had Zwift set up to try and replicate the closing stages of this race.He has finished second, now he wants the win. Now he is climbing with the punchy stars of the peloton. If they take him to the finish this race is his.
Pidcock tries, we all raise our game even more. We change formation. Sometimes Stefano goes first, sometimes Paolo. Always me off the back of one of them. As speakers we play with the music. You work with the DJ.Max has worked with us for years. He instinctively knows when we are going to stop talking, he knows when Stefano is about to give it full throttle, he knows when Paolo is about to signal an attack. It is a team of 4 people working completely in tune. Eyes meeting, a nod, it’s time for you to go. I have spotted something, Max up the tempo of the music. All of this is practiced, it is now instinctive, it worked well in 2011, now it is like an orchestra of voices.
The finish is closing in, Stuyven makes a move. We all join in, I spot Søren Kragh Andersen. Surely this is just that last ditch go for a non sprinter to beat Caleb Ewan who is now in prime position. I take the commentary further, Max is now mixing for all he is worth on the decks. Stefano is loving this race. He will later say it is the best finish he has commentated on at San Remo.
They are being caught, the do or die effort is going to be over and then it is anyones day. But Jasper Stuyven has other ideas, we react to his final push. Always Paolo or Stefano take the race the the line. We are in Italy. It is their home. It is fitting that an Italian voice bring home La Classicisima. Stuyven wins! I counter the announcement of the winner. It has become our way of doing the finish. Italian announcement, English repeat.
We are tired, elated, excited. What a day. Paolo then conducts the victory ceremony. The protocols are followed to the letter. He is so focused when he does the podium ceremony. This is the moment for the sponsors of the race to get their return, for the riders to celebrate.
And then it’s goodbye. This race never gets old. It creates a unique feeling, it is humbling to be part of. Passion is everything in Italian cycling.