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A day to remember: Milan-San Remo 2017

17 Mar 2020

What trying times these are. As the World Health Organisation officially declares the coronavirus outbreak a ‘pandemic’ and the virus continues its spread across the globe, governments have decided to shut borders, health officials are taking action, people continue to suffer, and whole countries have banned recreational cycling.

If we're being honest, all of this has also shown the ultimate insignificance of pro bike racing. After all, it is just sport. What is it to be compared to the importance of human life, the most precious commodity for any of us?

Yet conversely, it is at moments like this that we are reminded just how important sport is to so many despite all of that. Entire football leagues voided, rugby matches scrapped and cycling races pushed back to later undecided dates... with every passing day and week, these events that give our lives direction are being taken away from us.

And while one’s life is infinitely more important than a football match or bike race, their absence makes us realise that the moments within those sports we cherish and love add colour and meaning to our lives.

This year, it looks like we will not have many of these moments – the high drama, controversy, adulation and sheer bliss of sport serving as collateral in the wake of something much bigger.

So it leaves us no option but to remember these moments from the past.

Moments like the one above, in 2017 at Milan-San Remo, one of cycling’s great Monuments and a race we are probably unlikely to witness again until 2021. It should have taken place this Saturday but instead, we will be missing its first edition since 1945 – the closing months of the Second World War.

It’s a cliche to say a picture paints a thousand words, but the one above could genuinely paint two thousand.

A metre beyond a finish line that came after 291km of racing through northern Italy’s countryside and coastline for seven long hours, three incredible athletes are separated by the tread of a tyre.

Crossing the line, momentum brings all three together into a close clinch with Peter Sagan throwing his body weight theatrically to the right to avoid a post-race pile-up with winner Michal Kwiatkowski as Julian Alaphilippe does the same to his left.

Knowing Sagan and Alaphilippe as we do, two of cycling’s most natural entertainers, I can only imagine both exaggerated this accordion-like actions for the camera lenses. Either way, it produced a moment etched into our cycling minds.

It was the closest of margins that handed Kwiatkowski his first and Team Sky only their second-ever Monument, gave the great Peter Sagan another dose of San-Remo heartbreak and introduced us to a superstar-in-waiting, Julian Alaphilippe.

Sagan was the strongest that day, Kwiatkowski the smartest. Sagan did the grunt work, the race-winning attack on the Poggio. Kwiatkowski did the thinking, catching Sagan near the Poggio’s summit before letting him ride on the front until the finish line. He even let Sagan, the faster man, launch his sprint first as he perfectly timed his own bullet to round the Slovakian at the very last moment.

On the podium, Kwiatkowski smiled like a schoolboy who’d just woken to the news a flurry of overnight snow had cancelled school. Sagan looks distance as if knows San Remo will never be his. Alaphilippe seems content, almost as if the cosmos had been in touch to tell him his time would come just two years later.

All three look tired but then you would do after racing for seven hours. Especially when it all came down to a tyre tread. What a moment it was, a moment we all remember, a moment we may not get this year.