There is a pace and pattern in a start village before a race that is pretty special to be a part of. I was lucky enough to get an all areas press pass for Milan San Remo (Thank you Specialized!) that gave me access to areas that, as a fan, I spent most of my time questioning what I was doing there. It is a little uncanny standing next to the current world champion and the previous one, and hearing them talk about the upcoming classics over the next few weeks. We arrived in Milan at 8.30am long before the first team bus and cars had arrived at the start area. It was already starting to buzz with Tifosi and press. Phase One of the pre-race begins with the lumbering arrival of the buses and team cars into the start area. Curtains drawn, they pull up one by one, with fans rushing to peer through the curtain cracks, hoping to get a glimpse of a rider – I actually heard one guy claim “that is Ballan’s leg!” Mechanics remove bikes from racks and the parade of bikes begins. Perfectly built and pristine, bikes are lined up for public viewing by the team buses (but no touching – the unsaid rule). This moment, maybe more than any, is the biggest sales pitch for any brand in the bike business. I wanted to buy 4 bikes after that first hour.
Then, just as the fans are distracted by the bikes, Phase two begins, and there is a mad dash to sign-on. Riders emerge from the buses and in one movement are on bikes and off. In these instances I saw some of the best bike handling skills I have ever seen. Riders track-stop and hop their way through gaps in the crowds that they have no business getting through. Some go slow, soaking up the adoration (Ballan). Others move slow, looking for people they know (all the Italians). Some are “escorted” and have their race face on (Posatto and Cancellara). Others are magnets for everything and everyone (Boonen and Thor), and some riders go sit in a car and contemplate the pain that is about to ensue.
Phase three is a general milling around, as riders wait for the call-to-line. Some use it as a time to talk with ex teammates, and some use it as a time to apologize to riders they took down in a crash the previous week (actually heard that). The more popular riders get mobbed by press or fans, or both. Some riders you want to go up and hug and tell them it will all be ok (Henrich Hausler made me cry once after losing this race by the width of a tub and then collapsing on the road in tears). Others like Greipel look like they might punch you in the face (although I told him after the race “nice ride” and he didn’t, so he is ok). Then before you know it, the general milling turns into a start line and the team cars are lined up and ready to roll. It was at this point that I found myself stuck in the middle of a very large group of riders behind 6-foot barriers. The best way out might have been to get a “backy” with George Hincapie to the end of the neutral zone, but instead I found a gap and ran for our follow car. Next thing you know I am getting nauseous in the back of car for the next 6 hours.