Bernard Hinault's win in ‘Neige-Bastogne-Neige’ in 1980. Charly Gaul on Monte Bondone in 1958. Eddy Merckx on Tre Cime di Lavaredo in 1968. Andy Hampsten's goggles on the Gavia in 1988. They were all a mere dusting of the white stuff by comparison.
The fourth Milan-San Remo is what the snow-shortened 2013 edition of La Classicissima might have looked like had it taken place outside the Extreme Weather Protocol and around one century earlier. That's to say that the snow blizzard-blighted 1910 edition was unequivocally of its time. No race since has come remotely close, nor ever will.
Where snowfall on the Passo del Turchino forced the riders of the 2013 edition to bypass the climb in the comfort of heated buses, slashing 50km from the route, their counterparts in 1910 were sent up what the eventual winner would describe as ‘the Pass of Death’.
Organisers plot Primavera reform
Here, riders were seen swigging neat brandy, swallowing eggs and chewing on grass to stave off fatigue as snow and freezing winds engulfed those who had not already given up. After taking refuge in a mountain hut and borrowing a new pair of trousers from the owner, Frenchman Eugène Christophe eventually rolled over the finish in San Remo almost 12-and-a-half hours after setting off from Milan. It was a marathon that La Gazzetta called "not a race as such, but a demonstration of the specialist qualities needed to fight against the fury of the elements".
"It's a hell of a story," says David Guénel, a French cycling expert whose recent book recounts the life of Christophe's contemporary Lucien Petit-Breton, winner of the first edition of Milan-San Remo in 1907.
"The fourth edition of Milan-San Remo was probably the toughest bike race ever,” he continues. “Christophe needed six months to recover – think Hinault after Liège in 1980, but worse."
The Frenchman was the first of only four official finishers; the three others who crossed the line later were disqualified for hitching lifts in cars or taking trains. With the snow so thick that the riders were forced to push their bikes up the Turchino, you could hardly blame them.
"It just sounds like the maddest race ever in terms of weather," says Peter Cossins, author of The Monuments. "The riders were completely unprepared for what they were doing – riding in wool jerseys and shorts, with nothing to protect them from the elements."
Here is the story of a day the likes of which we will never again witness in pro cycling.
Who was Eugène Christophe?
Born in the Parisian suburb of Malakoff in 1885, Eugène Christophe was a French cyclocross champion best known today for being the first person to wear the Tour de France's Yellow Jersey. That was nine years after his Milan-San Remo heroics, and six years after he entered cycling folklore when breaking his forks on the Col du Tourmalet, resulting in his now-famous trip to the forge.
From his tight shorts to his trademark long moustache, Christophe took a maniacal care in his appearance – something that earned him the nickname ‘The Rooster’. His adventurous spirit saw him abandon his professions of blacksmith and working 60 hours a week in a sawmill after witnessing the first Tour de France in 1903. Three years later, he was one of 78 riders who took to the startline in the Tour, eventually coming ninth.
He was renowned for his methodical care and tidiness. Not only did this mean his workshop was a treasure trove of souvenirs from his time as a racer, but also that he kept a detailed diary describing every stage or race he took part in – down to his impressions, results and expenses.
Indeed, Christophe's now legendary account of his Milan-San Remo debut in 1910 was reproduced some days later in Miroir des Sports magazine, and forms the backbone of all that we know about that hellish race.
In 2013, the same year that snow put the brakes on the 104th edition of Milan-San Remo, the French sportswriter Jean-Paul Rey published a book about Christophe's life. Le Damné de la Route (loosely translated as ‘The Cursed Rider’) is the result of meticulous research, archive-scouring and a detailed study of Christophe's personal documents, including his own race diaries.
But it is also, it must be stressed, a fictionalised first-person account. For instance, the chapter that covers the narrator's refusal to give in to the cataclysmic conditions on the Turchino contains material that was not mentioned in the Miroir des Sports piece, material that Peter Cossins did not have at his disposal when writing his book, The Monuments.
"It's weird reading that Rey text,” he explains. “I'm always really suspicious of cycling history books by French authors because they're so inclined to make things up and put words into people's mouths. You think: ‘How much of this is accurate here?’ Or: ‘Is it completely made up? Maybe 50 per cent made up?’
"I'm guessing he pieced it together from all the reports. I know he had access to all Christophe's diaries, perhaps newspaper cuttings. The first-hand account must have come from somewhere else. I'm guessing [the French illustrated sports magazine] La Vie au Grand Air or something like that. Probably not L'Auto, the paper behind the Tour. But it must have been a magazine like that."
Christophe's account of the 1910 Milan-San Remo has filtered through many contemporary books on cycling and also forms a chapter in Les Woodland's Cycling's 50 Craziest Stories. And the Frenchman wasn’t even given much time to prepare for his career-moulding triumph.
Setting the scene: dreams of a debutant
Just a week after finishing on the podium in Paris-Roubaix, Christophe was told by Alphonse Baugé, his manager at the French Alcyon team, that he would be trying his hand at Milan-San Remo. The weather had been good at the start of the week, but had deteriorated as the day approached. On the eve of the race, Christophe did a recon of the first part of the route with teammate Gustave Garrigou, the skinny climber who had finished runner-up three years earlier in the first official edition. The weather was so bad that they only managed the opening 30km of the 289km route.
Reports came in of expected snow on the Turchino overnight. Christophe's French teammates joked that this would favour him and Octave Lapize, another accomplished cyclocross rider on the Alcyon team. With rain and biting wind also forecast on the approach to the Apennines, there was talk of the race being cancelled. These foul conditions meant that only 71 riders out of the 256 who had registered for the race turned up at the start line, at 6am on April 3rd 1910. Among them was defending champion Luigi Ganna of Italy, and 1908 winner Cyrille Van Hauwaert of Belgium, another Alcyon teammate of Christophe's.
Racing through frozen sludge and snow
Confirmation of heavy snow falling on the Turchino ensured that a further eight riders did not even start the race. The peloton was made up of only 63 riders as it edged out of Milan.
The white dusty roads had turned to mud and frozen sludge, requiring the skills of an acrobat to negotiate at high speed. Despite these conditions, the circus covered a lot of ground at a seemingly unsustainable pace.
"We had to bounce along in the ruts, riding on the verges between the posts that were spaced every 20 metres as far as Pavia," Christophe later said in his account. "We rode the first 32km in 56 minutes; the 53km from Milan to Voghera in an hour and 50 minutes. There was attack after attack and it was more like a course des primes [a points race] than a long-distance race."
Christophe stuck to the back wheel of his teammate Ernest Paul, a stage winner in the previous Tour de France and half-brother of the then-current Tour champion François Faber. As they approached the foot of the Turchino, the freezing rain and hail turned to snow.
The Pass of Death
Nowadays, the Passo del Turchino – 26km long, but just 532m high – has very little impact on the outcome of Milan-San Remo. Long gone is the era where a classy rider such as Fausto Coppi could use the long grind as a springboard for solo success on the Ligurian coast.
"The significance of the Tuchino has gone now," says Cossins. "Apart from the fact that it takes some juice out of people's legs, it's not even a hard climb for them anymore. Today, Milan-San Remo is ridden very differently: you have to survive until the Poggio, get over that, then, if you're anywhere near the front, you have a chance of winning."
In Cossins's long career as a cycling journalist, he has only once covered the first Monument of the season on site – in 2013, the year the inclement spring weather saw the riders bundled into buses to bypass the snow.
"I remember driving up on the motorway parallel to the Turchino pass and wondering, in my rented Fiat Uno, whether I was going to make it to the top, because the snow was coming down so hard," he recalls.
Back to 1910, and Christophe was riding with his compatriot Paul ahead of the climb, the two prepared to let the others speed ahead while riding at their own pace for self-preservation. At the feed zone at Ovada, they had seen their Flemish teammate Van Hauwaert, who'd held a three-minute gap, warming his hands on a bowl of tea. They also learned that Lapize had refused to continue despite riding with Ganna in a chase group behind Van Hauwaert because he felt the Turchino was impassable.
"In the hours that followed, my mind often returned to that steaming mug of tea warming Van Hauwaert's hands, and I regretted not taking Lapize's lead," Christophe says in Jean-Paul Rey's fictionalised version of events. It's a nice line. Did Christophe think it? We'll never know. Maybe.
The clouds closed in and the temperature plummeted. The snow made turning the pedals harder and many riders opted to walk while shouldering their bikes. Christophe soon dropped Paul and continued his pursuit of Ganna and Van Hauwaert in the Dante-esque conditions. Through the gloom, he soon saw the unmistakable shape of Ganna, the defending champion.
"His whiskers had turned into a thicket of frost," Christophe said via the probably-embellished pen of Rey. "He was so close to total exhaustion that he couldn't even look at me. I couldn't believe my eyes. This gave me an injection of heat and I suddenly forgot the cold, the snow, the wind, and pushed harder on my pedals."
Rather than thinking about winning the race, Christophe was now in survival mode. Soon after dropping Ganna, he came to a standstill. Rey has him musing how he later heard that other riders had urinated in their palms or directly into their trousers to warm up their legs – not inconceivable given the conditions.
"We were no longer men but animals," the Frenchman said, on the brink of capitulation.
Returning to Christophe's actual version of events, and the 25-year-old spoke of his "rigid fingers, numb feet, stiff legs. I was shaking continuously, so I began walking and running to get my circulation back. It was bleak and the wind was making a low, moaning noise. I'd have felt scared if I hadn't been used to bad weather in cyclocross races."
What kept him going was the thought that if Ganna had not managed to rejoin him, that meant the Italian was also suffering just as much, if not more. Van Hauwaert, meanwhile, had reached the summit, apparently passing two bemused skiers on his way up.
Christophe battled on to the top before taking refuge in the old railway tunnel. He asked an unfortunate soigneur who was stationed at the summit how far behind he was. Rey had him raising six fingers, which Christophe interprets as either six minutes or six riders (the latter ending his chances of victory, in his mind's eye). Other accounts have the gap at 10 minutes.
In any case, it was apparently not long until he encountered Van Hauwaert, the so-called ‘Wolf of Flanders’, with a cloak draped over his back, pushing his bike. "He told me he was packing it in," Christophe later said. "I was beyond feeling happy about that, and I just got on with going down through the snow that lay on the road on that side of the mountain. The view was totally different now. The snow made the countryside beautiful. The sky was clear."
The pendulum swung, and soon it was Christophe who was in difficulty – this time with stomach cramps brought on by pushing his bike in the sections where the snow was eight inches deep. He resorted to shouting out at the top of his voice. He then collapsed onto a rock on the side of the road, fearing that his race was over.
What happens next is not wholly clear, mirroring the confusion that must have reigned amid the continuing blizzard. Rey's account has Christophe joining forces with the ghost of Van Hauwaert. With a stalactite of frost dangling from his moustache, the Belgian had apparently lost his shoes, which had stuck to the bottom of a frozen pothole:
"He was unable to utter a word, dead on his feet. He tried to speak through his blue lips, but it was just a noise."
Christophe might still have been in possession of his shoes, but his trousers had sagged to his thighs because of the snow. He also had no feeling in his fingers. Soon they were joined by Paul, the latter having returned to the fold despite crossing the summit some 19 minutes behind. They walked together in silence. In retreat, like Napoleon's army from Russia. "It was Berezina all over again," Rey's version of Christophe muses, referring to the French Emperor's infamous defeat in the winter of 1812.
Saved by an auberge
The three leaders got back on their bikes and tackled the descent with mixed success, Christophe edging clear to open up a lead. He started to think about what winning such a race might do for his career.
"I blotted out the pain and thought about getting to Sam Remo first," he said. "I thought of my contract with the bike factory. I'd be able to double my wages if I won, and there'd be another 300 francs in prize money."
While dreaming of glory, he suddenly spotted a man who urged him to stop and pointed to the smoking chimney of a nearby house.
"He led me to what was a tiny inn. The landlord undressed me and wrapped me in a blanket. I murmured 'acqua calda' and pointed at the bottles of rum. I did some physical exercises and started to get some feeling back in my body.
"I wanted to go on, but the patron wouldn't hear of it and pointed to the snow still falling outside. Not long after, first Van Hauwaert and then Ernest Paul came in. They were so frozen they put their hands in the flames. Ernest Paul had lost a shoe without noticing."
The question of who lost a shoe – Van Hauwaert or Paul – underlines the need for the pinch of salt with which Cossins takes Rey's fictionalised account. Rey had Christophe stating that it was the Belgian who encountered this problem, while the eventual winner's official account attributed this plight to Paul. Perhaps they both did. Either way, it's safe to assume that the two of them were a sorry sight when they entered the inn. And they had worked up quite an appetite.
Cossins describes Van Hauwaert as "this strapping, typically Belgian type of bloke, a beast on a bike who didn't speak a word of anything but Flemish and would eat everything that was put in front of him". In this instance, the innkeeper rustled up an omelette. Van Hauwaert ate voraciously, having made up his mind that he would not be getting back on his bike. After 25 minutes, and with the innkeeper preparing some dessert, Christophe, still caught between two worlds and monitoring the road from his stool, detected some movement:
"I saw four riders go by, or at least four piles of mud. I decided to press on."
Both Paul and Van Hauwaert said he was a lunatic, while the innkeeper was reluctant to let him go. Christophe assuaged his fears by promising he would descend only to Voltri, from where he would seek medical assistance or catch the train to San Remo. Before leaving, he took some dry clothes, most notably a new pair of trousers to replace his own ruined pair. The race was back on.
Finishing the job
The four Italian leaders were Pierino Albini, Giovanni Cocchi, Eberado Pavesi and that man Ganna, the winner of the first Giro d'Italia in 1909, whom Cossins describes as "a complete fiend on the bike who cheated all the time and had fans who attacked his rivals".
Invigorated by his break and in his new trousers, Christophe caught Cocchi and Pavesi before the end of the descent, the latter throwing in the towel at Voltri, the penultimate feed zone. While pursuing the two remaining riders up the road, Christophe heard a car horn toot behind him. Here, as the Frenchman's manager Alphonse Baugé rejoined his rider, Rey takes things up with a bit of poetic licence.
"What the hell are you doing, Cri-Cri?" Ray has Baugé shouting to his rider, using another one of his nicknames. "Where are Ernest Paul and the Wolf? I thought you guys were in the lead. We waited for you but saw nothing."
"You can't talk!" Christophe replied. "We almost died on the Turchino. Where were you when we needed you?"
It turned out that the Alcyon manager and his driver were following the Italians on the climb, whom they suspected of foul play. They saw Ganna place his bike on the Atala team car and hitch a lift by standing on the side board. When Christophe catches the leaders, Baugé told him, he must not stick with them but ride straight past because they were clearly on their last legs. At this point – and once again, this is a wholly unverifiable account and likely just added to inject a bit of colour – Rey has Christophe ask Baugé to find him another pair of trousers; the ones he borrowed from the innkeeper were too big.
On the edge of the town of Arenzano, Christophe caught Ganna and then Albini, both of whom were unable to latch on. There was still 120km to go until the finish, but Christophe felt the victory was in his grasp. At the final checkpoint at Savona, where the lone leader enjoyed a slice of gruyere cheese (another Rey flourish), his advantage was a whopping 15 minutes on Ganna and a further 11 minutes on Albini. He swapped bikes, taking one that had belonged to his teammate Louis Trousselier.
"At the control point at Savona, everyone was astonished to see me alone," Christophe later wrote. "The crowd didn't know me. I didn't stop long, and took Trousselier's spare bike because I knew he and Garrigou had abandoned before Ovada. I was sure of my victory, and with only 100km to go I felt a new strength. The idea of crossing the line brought back all my energy."
The advantage was large, but that's not to say Christophe did not have any concerns. First, his trousers sagged so much they kept on exposing his backside to the elements. They also regularly became entangled in his chain. Then there was the fear of getting lost, with the carpet of snow making the countryside indistinguishable.
"You can follow the road along the coast pretty easily now, but I imagine, back in those days, it wasn't hard to get lost or to wander off up a back street, not realising where you were going," says Cossins. "Before you know it, you're climbing up the Poggio without it yet being on the race route!"
With Baugé having dropped back to ensure Ganna wasn't up to any tricks, a local man on a bike came to his aid, riding with him for 20km and making sure he stuck to the right road to San Remo. Approaching the town, he had to cross numerous level crossings – and each time he asked the train guard to help pull up his trousers. He eventually cut them down to shorts with a borrowed knife and tightened them around his waist with some string.
Crossing the line
Christophe finished the race in 12 hours and 24 minutes – although he was not 100% sure of his victory because he thought he'd taken a wrong turn outside San Remo. With an average speed of just 23kmph, it remains, to date, the slowest edition in the race's history.
"I got to San Remo well behind the scheduled time," he recalled. "It was 6pm when I stopped underneath the blowing banner that showed the end of my Calvary." To this statement, Rey's Christophe cutely adds: "…but, above all, the start of my career."
Further flights of fancy come not from Rey, but an Italian journalist called Luca Pulsoni in a piece that featured in Allez Magazine in 2018. According to this account, after crossing the line, Christophe warmed himself up by drinking a coffee or two.
"Suddenly," Pulsoni writes, "he sees a beautiful woman and it's the classic love at first sight. They lock eyes and share a few provocative smiles – and his moustache, that seductive weapon of his, takes another victim. The two find themselves in the woman's room and make love."
Here, Pulsoni has the audacity to attribute the following quote to Christophe: "I would have taken her away with me and married her on the spot for her beauty alone."
But this was no love story. There was a price for everything, and the winner of Milan-San Remo finds himself having to pay for his tryst with his Alcyon jersey and a spare tyre. Or perhaps the whole scene was imagined, and those items were what Christophe used to pay the barman for his coffee while his mind strayed? Who knows. The mystery grows greater with every retelling.
In any case, having supposedly saddled up again after 12 hours on the road, Pulsoni's Christophe returns to the finish line where there was still no sign of his opponents. Not wishing to speculate on Christophe's staying power, but the story is certainly, temporally speaking, possible – for the next rider to cross the line was indeed Ganna, just under 40 minutes in arrears.
Quizzed about the likelihood of such a climax to the race, Cossins admits that it’s surely an embellishment; it's certainly not something he came across while researching the history of Milan-San Remo for The Monuments.
"Judging from the stuff I've read," Cossins says, "Christophe was so cold that even taking a bath caused him to scream in pain. I can't imagine that he had the ability to bed anyone – apart from himself."
Ganna might have crossed the line second, but he was later disqualified for that episode with the car. Cocchi was awarded second place, 1hr 01m later, 16 minutes before Giovanni Marchese. Another Italian, Enrico Sala, arrived just over two hours behind, for fourth place.
Cossins reports in The Monuments that two other Italians were disqualified: one for taking a train between Pavia and Novi Ligure early in the race, and a rider called Sante Goi, who finished outside the time limit. Presumably, the Italians Albini and Pavesi never made it to San Remo. Some reports had Van Hauwaert coming fourth, while others included him in the list of disqualified riders.
In Rey's account, Christophe is thawing out with Garrigou (who had taken the train to the finish after abandoning on the Turchino) in the bath in the Mollinari hotel when Baugé, his manager, burst into the bathroom, crying: "Here are your trousers!"
"Not soon enough!" Christophe replied. "Look at my bloody backside. Did you break down or what?" Baugé then explained how they had become embroiled in an argument with Ganna and his directeur sportif after they spotted the Italian hitching another lift on the approach to San Remo. This would perhaps explain how the defending champion managed to recover enough to take second place.
(Not) celebrating Christophe's win
The winner was given something of the cold shoulder from his French teammates, most of whom complained that what Christophe had won did not actually qualify as a bike race. When Cri-Cri was invited to a special banquet the next night, they complained bitterly because they wanted to return to Paris.
"What will we do while he peacocks around town all day?" Rey has them ask in Le Damné de la Route. Only Van Hauwaert, in his broken French, congratulated his teammate. And when Christophe caved in and turned down the invite to the party, it was the Flemish former winner who told him he'd made a mistake, showing him his golden watch that he received as a prize two years before.
By the time Christophe had changed his mind about the banquet, it was too late – the hosts had made other arrangements. As for Ernest Paul, the other rider who had taken refuge in the inn, he was apparently so distraught and ashamed at having thrown in the towel that he insisted his contract was torn up.
The next day's edition of La Gazzetta dello Sport led with the sell: "A blizzard of rain and wind wreaks havoc among the competitors. Christophe at the head of the few survivors."
The editorial of co-founder Eugenio Costamagna read: "The fourth edition of Milan-San Remo was not a race as such, but a demonstration of resistance of the human fibres that reveal the specialist qualities needed to fight against the fury of the elements."
It continued: "Just one man, blessed undoubtedly with a certain amount of extra substance, withstood all the pitfalls, every brutal expression of nature at its most violent. He is a Frenchman, a son of the great Latin race, a strongman whom lovers of the sport must recall with admiration. His performance exemplifies the battle between man and furious nature on this appalling day."
According to Rey's account, the Italian press also came up with this eulogy of the winner:
"It appears that Christophe is one of those men whom nothing can topple, who push on to the death – that's the exact term – and who know how to overcome all suffering, every physical and mental hardship, every difficulty thrown at him, as long as there's a chance of a little glory at the end of a debauchery of effort which, for some, was considerably more than others. He is, in short, a man of steel."
What happened next: two years in the cold
Alcyon did indeed double Christophe's salary, but his breakthrough win came at a cost. It took the Frenchman a month in hospital to recover from frostbite to his hands and further bodily damage from the bitter cold. And it took another six months before he recovered to his original health and two years before he was competitive again.
"Two years without success, miserably trailing along at the back of the peloton," he later harrumphed.
Christophe seemed back to his best for the Tour de France in 1912, which he came close to winning after three consecutive triumphs in the Alps, including the longest solo breakaway ever, at 315km. A year later, he gained notoriety for that fork breaking on the descent of the Tourmalet. After trudging 10km down to Sainte-Marie de Campan, he did the repairs himself in a smithy's forge – only to be penalised further because he'd allowed a boy to pump the bellows (an action deemed as outside assistance).
On two other occasions, a broken fork denied Christophe when he was in a commanding position to win the Tour – making him one of the most unfortunate riders in the race's history. The first came in 1919 when Christophe, who had become the first man to wear the fabled Maillot Jaune, lost the jersey on the penultimate day. The second was in the Pyrenees in 1922 and resulted in him having to borrow a bike from a priest. Rey certainly got one thing right: Christophe was indeed cursed.
On balance, though, it was Christophe's first pro win in the blizzard on the road to San Remo that made all this possible. The circumstances of that epic triumph in 1910 also helped cement the burgeoning reputation of Milan-San Remo, which over time would become one of the biggest one-day races in the calendar and one of the five Classics to attain Monument status.
Two more French wins followed – Gustave Garrigou in 1911 and Henri Pélissier in 1912 – leading to one French newspaper making the catty quip that "even a mediocre French rider can beat the Italians". In 1913, Belgium's Odile Defraye became the first reigning Tour de France champion to take to the start – cementing the race's status when he promptly went on to win, having predicted he'd do just that. The joke was soon on him: he never won anything major again in his career.
There followed a period of Italian domination that lasted until the middle of the 1950s, during which time those champions of champions Costante Girardengo, Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi won the race 13 times between them. But never again did anyone win Milan-San Remo in quite the same way as Eugène Christophe in 1910.
Did the Frenchman's victory come in the toughest race of all time? It's impossible to tell – especially given there exists so few pictures of the events that day. Vintage cycling specialist David Guénel, however, believes it did. He puts it in the same bracket as the opening stage of the 1914 Giro d'Italia, Stage 14 of the 1919 Tour de France, Paris-Tours in 1921, Stage 10 of the 1926 Tour de France, or the third stage of the infamous Tour of the Battlefields that took place in northern France after the First World War.
It was certainly far worse, he says, than Hinault's 1980 snowstorm victory in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, after which the Badger suffered for many years with a lack of feeling in his hands and a gammy knee.
"I am not a big fan of the precautionary spirit that rules our lives today," Guénel says on cycling's Extreme Weather Protocol, which saw the Turchino taken out of the 2013 edition of Milan-San Remo because of snow. "I think in the case of bad weather, we should let the riders decide if they want to keep going or to quit – especially in Classic races. Organisers, the UCI and team managers just don't want to take any risk, which is viewed as evil in modern society.
"But, in my opinion, what makes cycling so unique and its history so amazing and beautiful is precisely these moments, where riders like Eugène Christophe were pushed beyond their limits. It's sad to think that, to experience such a race as the 1910 Milan-San Remo again, we can only open history books or, if we're lucky, watch old footage."
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