Re-Cycle: When Sean Kelly's perfect Poggio plunge won his second Milan-San Remo
Felix Lowe looks back at Sean Kelly's second Milan-San Remo victory, when the Irishman reeled in rival Moreno Argentin on his fearless descent of the Poggio before kicking clear for the final big win of his illustrious career.
Cycling hipsters might suggest Matej Mohoric. But for anyone older than a millennial, Sean Kelly's daredevil drop off the Poggio in the 1992 edition of Milan-San Remo will forever remain the reference point for all-out descending.
In what was one of the most memorable finishes to a Monument in the past 30 years, Italy’s Moreno Argentin was beaten by a barnstorming Kelly, then 35 and entering the twilight of his career.
It was such an iconic moment for Kelly, that it is where his autobiography, Hunger, picks up, with him overturning a 15-second deficit on the in-form Argentin on the road into San Remo.
" What was I thinking as I plummeted down the descent of the Poggio in pursuit of 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. For me, it was more than dramatic enough.""
Setting the scene: Argentin, the champion elect
It was not as if Kelly's career was grinding to a halt at that point. The Irishman might have been approaching his 36th birthday, but he'd won his third Giro di Lombardia just months before and had already notched a couple of early successes in his 16th year as a pro.
In fact, Kelly was adamant that he still had what it took to keep competing with the best – which was why he fell out with his former PDM team when they refused to prolong his contract at the end of the 1991 season, despite that Lombardia victory.
"I probably had a bit of a chip on my shoulder that year with the PDM team,” says Kelly. “They didn't give me the contract I wanted because they said I wasn't worth that. So, going into that 1992 season with the Festina team I wanted to prove something.
“I had already shown some good form in the earlier races, winning the Trofeo Luis Puig at Benidorm, so I was coming good. But Milan-San Remo was the big one."
It wasn't only his former employees on whom Kelly wanted to turn the tables. His sweeping up of the falling Lombardian leaves was already long forgotten by those dictating public opinion – and Kelly was a proud man.
"A lot of the cycling press had written me off,” he explains. “They were saying: ‘Kelly had got too old,’ and that: ‘At this point in his career he was not capable of a big win anymore.’
“So, I had something to prove there. It was a number of things that motivated and pushed me to train hard over the winter."
But Kelly had opted to keep his powder dry in Tirreno-Adriatico, just days earlier, as he explains:
"I felt very good, and I said: 'Now, I'm not going to show my cards here. I'm just going to keep riding my race without doing anything major.' Because otherwise – at San Remo – they'd say: 'Watch Kelly, he's coming into good shape.' So I kept quiet."
While Kelly preferred to ride Tirreno that month to condition his legs, Argentin went full-gas. The then-31-year-old Italian won all of the final three stages and was eyeing a maiden San Remo triumph to go alongside his four Liège-Bastogne-Liège wins and victories in both the Tour of Flanders and Giro di Lombardia. Sure, the in-form Ariostea rider had never finished higher than fourth at San Remo, but the race was being talked up as his coronation.
Add to this another critical ingredient: Kelly's almost salty dislike of Argentin. Asked whether he used to get on with the Italian, there's a long pause before he delivers his answer. One word: "No." After another equally long pause, Kelly offers some context:
" I had never been in good relations with him since the 1987 World Championships in Austria. When we got into the final two laps of the race, he started sitting on my wheel."
And he stayed there, effectively marking Kelly out, latching on to his every move, sticking to him like a persistent mosquito. When Kelly’s compatriot Stephan Roche forced the decisive break, Kelly preferred to sit back in the chase group rather than drag Argentin back into contention. Roche won the race that day, so there were celebrations in the Irish camp. But, for Kelly, it was tinged with regret – for that was as good an opportunity as he'd ever get to chase down those elusive rainbow bands. "I did think of that when I was on the Poggio,” says Kelly.
" This guy, how he hurt my final of that World Championships. I think that pushed me that little bit more to try and catch him and beat him. That was something of a sore point with me after that Worlds."
Argentin makes his move on the Poggio
After Argentin's Ariostea team shackled all his rivals on the Cipressa, the first of the two famous climbs that make up the Milan-San Remo finale, Frenchman Eric Boyer was first ahead of a large group of riders as the peloton headed towards the base of the Poggio. Boyer's cameo was extinguished after Argentin lived up to the hype and shot off the front, pushing a massive gear in a series of accelerations.
Despite not being a natural climber, Argentin had the ‘big engine’ so celebrated in cycling. He was also renowned for his brute strength. Like Peter Sagan today, he was capable of sustained uphill bursts. A climb such as the Poggio was putty in his pedals, even if he'd never win on a hellish slog like the murderous Mont Ventoux.
Italian newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport reported that Argentin "shredded the group with five attacks from the anthology of cycling… He seemed to be moving as easily as the motorbikes in front of him, such was the rage that he was putting through the pedals."
Maurizio Fondriest, the former world champion who would win La Primavera the following year, led the chase on his compatriot as Argentin's Danish teammate Rolf Sørensen did his best to shadow any moves. The one rider who didn't try anything, however, was Kelly. He explains:
" Before the Poggio I tried to conserve as much energy as possible. Then on the Poggio I said: 'I'm feeling okay; I'll just sit back a little and not get involved in the racing too much up front in the top 10 riders.' I just wanted to try and follow in 10th or 15th position and see how I get up the Poggio. "
" And as I went up, I was feeling better and confident. Of course, we all saw that Moreno Argentin was in excellent shape at Tirreno-Adriatico, where nobody could touch him. This was an Italian race and he was the outstanding favourite. He attacked a number of times on the Poggio and there were guys trying to chase him. He did that one, two, three, four times – and I just let the other guys try to chase him."
" I had to be very clever, tactically, not to make any unnecessary effort on the climb. Because you only have to make a big effort for 200 metres and that puts you in the red – and then you never recover. I had that all pre-planned before the race, and I put it into motion on the Poggio."
Argentin crested the summit with seven seconds on Fondriest and Sørensen, with Kelly a further few seconds behind. It should have been enough for a maiden victory on the via Roma. But Argentin had not read Kelly's script.
Kelly drops like a stone on the Poggio
If Kelly admits today that the stories of him touching the walls with his elbows and breaking the 100kmph barrier are an exaggeration, that's not to say that his descent of the Poggio was anything short of spectacular.
"When I got to the top, I said on the descent that it was time to do something,” he says. “So I just went as hard as I could."
The Poggio descent is made up of a series of high-speed straights punctuated by narrow hairpin bends where the wailing of brakes and the screech of rims echoes against the banked walls. While the regularity of the switchbacks keeps a check on speed, any false move can see riders skid off into those walls or, worse, over the edge and onto the greenhouses catching the Ligurian sun.
"It's not that fast a descent, because there are a lot of corners and you have to regularly knock off your speed,” Kelly explains. “You don't have these big, long straights with huge speeds. But I would say I got to 70kmph – you can get to that very quickly."
Kelly tried to pass Argentin's teammate Sørensen on the right side on the first corner, but the Dane closed the door and pushed him dangerously close to the wall. That did not perturb Kelly, however, and with the TV images claiming the gap was up to 15 seconds for Argentin, Kelly rode clear of the group after the second corner.
Looking closely at the footage now, it might seem more than a little brazen that Kelly and Fondriest are the only two riders out of the group of favourites who wore helmets. Not that a helmet would have made much difference if your crash landing were to be cushioned by a greenhouse. Did that thought bother Kelly?
"There were a few of the corners where I was probably going on the limit, or maybe a fraction over the limit, because, on two corners at least, there was a bit of noise from the tyres on the sidewalls going around,” he says. “But you're in the zone, the adrenaline is flowing and you're just thinking about getting around this one, then the next, as quickly as possible.
" You don't really just take a moment to think: ‘What if something goes wrong?’ Because if something goes wrong when you hit the corner then you end up in the glasshouses beside the tomato plants. But I was closing on Argentin. So I had to take all the risks possible to catch him. I pushed all the way down the Poggio, and I was getting that little bit closer all the time. Of course, when you look back at the footage you think it's unbelievable and crazy, but during the race you're in the zone and thinking about winning Milan-San Remo."
And that is exactly what Kelly did.
Canny Kelly triumphs on the via Roma
When it came down to a sprint, he wasn’t called ‘King Kelly’ for nothing.
As Peter Cossins says in his book, The Monuments: "Although Argentin is no mug in a sprint, he is no match for a specialist like Kelly."
For Kelly, however, at this stage in the race, victory was far from in the bag. "Well, it's still Milan-San Remo,” he says.
" And when you do the descent full-on – like he was doing, and like I was doing trying to catch him – then anything can happen. He was still a danger depending on how he was feeling. And that's what it's all about: how much energy you have left in the tank at the end of a big, long, difficult of the race."
Speaking to La Repubblica afterwards, Argentin let it slip that he had no idea Kelly was closing in on him. "When I saw the banner for the last kilometre, I was just thinking of having made it," he said. "Instead, Kelly suddenly popped up behind me. I had not seen him, otherwise I would have reacted in time."
The catch came just beyond the flamme rouge, with less than one kilometre remaining. But instead of powering past, Kelly made the decision to stay on Argentin’s back wheel and force the Italian rider to keep setting the tempo, clearly revelling in turning the tables on the man who had sandbagged him in Villach in the 1987 worlds.
"He looked around. He wanted me to take to the front a couple of times, but there was not a chance, I wasn't going to do it,” says Kelly. “If I had taken to the front with 800m to go and he was in my wheel, then he would have got that little bit of recovery time in my slipstream. And that just counts for a lot at the end of such a long race."
While this was a gamble on Kelly's part – with the chasing pack was closing in – the prospect of being caught by the field ramped up the pressure on the man who had seemed destined to solo to glory.
"I made sure I moved over to the left so he could definitely see the group behind coming up – just to make him panic a bit more and continue on pushing, setting quite a good pace," says Kelly.
After another forlorn look over his shoulder, Argentin was forced to take it up as the riders swung around the final bend. Just as a nasty crash behind took out Fondriest and a handful of pursuers, Kelly kicked clear to seal the inevitable – pumping his arms in the air to reveal a huge Festina watch etched across his chest in all its glory. Perfect timing, personified.
The dark blue of his jersey clashed with his black shorts and their questionable purple and red blotches. Truth be told, it was a truly horrendous colour scheme made all the more apparent by the mushroom-like white, domed helmet and accompanying pallor of Kelly's arms. But Kelly didn't care. Six years after his first title there, he'd doubled up in San Remo.
As Cossins says: "As the Irishman celebrates what will be the final big win of his career, Argentin appears paralysed by shock. He will never win La Primavera."
Argentin blames the motorcycles
It didn't take long for the favourite to reel off his excuses, with Argentin claiming that the race motorbikes not only hampered his attacks, but aided Kelly's descent. In the immediate aftermath, he told reporters:
" On the hill, when I attacked, I was immediately caught up behind the photographers' motorbikes. I had to slow down and then attack again. You all saw what happened. With all the motorbikes behind, I couldn't see Kelly. I guess he was also aided by them."
This was backed up by Stefano Colage, who rather tenuously claimed that Argentin's repeated attacks, in response to being held up by the motorcycles, meant he couldn't follow his wheel. These gripes were quickly dismissed by another Italian, Francesco Moser. The winner of the 1984 edition of the race gets straight to the point: "He went too slow downhill.”
Argentin also went with the old chestnut of claiming his rival wasn't the strongest that day, merely "one of the cleverest". It's a charge Kelly seems happy to accept today.
" When you look back, I played it very well. Every second he was shouting 'tira' – ‘pull’ – and I just shook my head, opened my mouth big time and, you know, looked like I was in oxygen debt. He pulled on a bit, then slowed down again, looked around and gave me, you know, the wag with the top of his head, for me to come to the front. But as I said, if I went to the front, he would have been in control. So, I stayed put and made him lead out the final 600m. I was definitely in the better position, so tactically I played it well. I played it cool and it worked out."
As for Argentin's claim that Kelly benefited from the slipstream and cover of the motorbikes, Kelly readily admits that he might have had a point there, too.
"I might have had motorcycles for a time – I'm not going to deny it,” says Kelly. “But back in those days there were always lots of motorcycles alongside the peloton. He, of course, had a lot of traffic following him – motorcycles and cars – that's true.
"It's a difficult one, the Poggio. It's already hard to look back, but to look back and not have the vision because of the cars and motorbikes behind you… yes, he probably had a point in saying that. But again, I took all the risks I could, and it just worked out for me."
Despite everything, Kelly is adamant that he won that day because he played his cards right. He had a plan, stuck to it, took the risks, measured his efforts, and put in the attacks when he needed to.
If the in-form Argentin was going to win, he was always going to do it with a devastating attack on the Poggio. But that, ultimately, also proved his downfall. As Kelly graciously concludes:
" One thing I'd say is that he had probably made a huge effort attacking on the Poggio, and so he was probably that bit more fatigued and didn't do the greatest descent. When you do the Poggio full-gas, there's no time to recover. And if you're a little bit in the red going over the top, then it does affect your descending a little bit."
What happened next
Having failed to snatch his best chance to win Milan-San Remo, Argentin never added La Classic-issima to his palmares. The Italian continued his career for another two seasons, adding a third Flèche-Walone title to his name and three more Giro stages – but he never rode San Remo again after his heartbreak in 1992.
For Kelly, funnily enough, it all went downhill after his Poggio masterclass. The 35-year-old added just two more pro wins to his palmares and could muster only 39th place when defending his San Remo crown 12 months on. Instead, the Italian Fondriest bounced back from his fall in the 1992 race to win on the via Roma. An Irishman wouldn't take another Monument until Dan Martin's victory in Liège-Bastogne-Liege in 2013.
Perhaps Kelly's former team PDM had a point, after all.
"After that win at Milan-San Remo I found it difficult to motivate myself and continue the training regime that you need to do to be competitive," says Kelly. "I seemed to lose it a bit. I hadn't the form that I needed to continue. I wasn't hungry anymore."
But if Kelly's career took on a rapid decline before his retirement in 1994, it was not as if the Irishman hadn't sensed the clock winding down, as he explains:
"I knew going into that Milan-San Remo that my time to win more Classics was running out quickly. I knew it was one of the last opportunities for me to win one of the big Monuments, so I had to grab it with both hands tactically and not make any unnecessary mistakes.
“I had to get everything right. That's what I did. I got everything right and it went perfectly, and I won my second Milan-San Remo."
Peter Cossins, in The Monuments, picks out Kelly's win as going against the grain of what fans usually associate with a stand-out performance in the sport.
" Cycling's annals feature endless tales of brilliance on climbs, but on very few occasions does a rider's astounding ability going downhill rate a reference. Kelly's performance on the descent of the Poggio that afternoon is the one that does."
While the Poggio climb provides the focal point of the first Monument of the season, it's the descent that often proves as decisive. It is, however, prone to landslides and the declining condition of the road might force the race organisers to skip the Poggio in future editions of La Primavera.
"It would be a big disappointment if they didn't do the Poggio," Kelly says. "The Cipressa and the famous run into the climb, then the descent – that's the history of Milan-San Remo. If you lose that, it would take away big time from the race, it wouldn't be the normal Milan-San Remo that we have got used to."
Kelly remains hungry for another memorable edition of the race – at least as a spectator. It was that same hunger that defined a career that yielded 160 wins. And the same hunger that was finally sated after serving up what proved to be the last big dish of the Kelly era.