Just to get this out of the way nice and early in the review: we wrong with our picks for Milan-Sanremo. But then again, who wasn’t? It wasn’t just that the winner was a shock, it was that most of the top ten were names we hadn’t guessed would feature. Let’s cast our minds back to the events that ruled out some of the key contenders, and lead our way back up to the finish line.
The first thing to note is that there were a huge number of fallers and casualties at the back of the peloton this year. Everyone was twitchy, and a number of unfortunate incidents knocked out key domestiques and plucky young riders who were around the back of affairs. Maybe it was psychologically bad for the riders that the longest race of the year was unexpectedly longer than ever, just scraping in at 300km thanks to a huge landslide just south of the Passo del Turchino climb. Whatever to was, the toll was big: twenty riders did not finish, exactly 10% of the field.
Michael Matthews was caught out earliest of the big favourites, along with Sky’s strong attacker from last year Geraint Thomas. They both came down as part of a large crash roughly 5km before the action really warmed up on the Cipressa, thanks to an apparent touch of wheels at the front of the pack. Serge Pauwels was also knocked down, and wasn’t getting back up in a hurry. Matthews, along with most of Orica-GreenEdge, did an amazing job of fighting back, but they were last seen at the foot of the Poggio, losing touch with the leaders once and for all after a brutal 290km ride.
On to the Cipressa itself, and Katusha were leading the charge for Alexander Kristoff, with Sky tucked in behind and Astana not far out of the picture. Already the favourites were beginning to appear at the front, and Greg Van Avermaet and Peter Sagan were both up and amongst the leaders here, eyeing up all attackers. Edvald Boasson Hagen and Fabian Cancellara weren’t far back, with EBH glued to Cancellara’s wheel — it was clear who he took to be the danger man. Neither man had many teammates around, but it was looking like a good day for the big favourites.
After a full day out on their own, the breakaway was finally caught as their lead of 16 seconds at the bottom of the climb was devoured by the peloton within minutes. Suddenly, Movistar took what would be their only roll of the dice all day: Giovanni Visconti shot out from behind the Katusha train, and only Ian Stannard showed interest in the move; presumably Sky were hastily writing a new plan for late attack victory after Thomas had hit the deck. Stannard chased over to Visconti, and the two went up the remainder of the climb like a pair of rockets — it was strikingly reminiscent of the brilliant pairing of Daniel Oss and Geraint Thomas, who attacked on the Poggio last year. BMC and Tinkoff both tried to get men across to the duo, but nothing stuck. They peaked the Cipressa with 12 seconds in hand.
Stannard went hard on the descent, with Visconti riding his slipstream, but the pack wasn’t far behind either. Their effort would be almost annulled by the time they arrived at the long, flat stretch leading up to the Poggio. But that was not before they were joined by last year’s attacker Daniel Oss, with Fabio Sabatini and Matteo Montaguti in tow. The gap held, but barely, ahead of a Katusha-lead peloton. Meanwhile, Sabatini barely worked in the front group, revealing that Etixx had their hopes elsewhere. Because of this, the gap was finally closed; it was altogether at the foot of the Poggio.
BMC took the front on the Poggio, alongside Katusha, and it was Oss and team leader Van Avermaet taking up the charge. However, the pace didn’t pick up as quickly as we were all expecting; the riders rocked under the effort of the climb, but no one was pushing too hard for the sprinters. It was here that Matthews nearly got back on, before once more disappearing from the camera’s sight. Despite this, it really was the most relaxed, and least strung out peloton we’ve seen take on the Poggio in many, many years. Perhaps it was the nerves from earlier that had spread amongst the bunch, but no one was forcing the pace, no one was making a move. Katusha, at this point, must have been delighted.
Towards the top, we were finally treated to some attacks. Andrea Fedi, from pro continental team Southeast Venezuela, was the first to go, before a sprightly Tony Gallopin easily leapt out of the bunch and chased him down. With 6km to go, and just before the climb crested, Michal Kwiatkowski shot off the front and went into the lead position. This was no move to be taken lightly, and Vincenzo Nibali rode after him with Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellara. Now it was the favourite’s time to play. Kwiatkowski led down the otherside of the Poggio by around 10 seconds, and was the first to make it onto the flat final few kilometres.
It was set to be a frantic run-in. Nibali caught Kwiatkowski and led the charge, but a stampeding, simmered down peloton were concentrating their efforts on the attackers. Matteo Trentin and Tony Gallopin made it up to the leading pair, but only seconds before an absolutely huge attack came from Fabian Cancellara. If he was going to win it, he was going to win it now. Boasson Hagen, who’d been on his wheel all day, went with him, and Greg Van Avermaet was hot on his heels. Boasson Hagen managed to gap Cancellara, who we must now add to the list of favourites who weren’t going to see the top ten — he only went backwards from then on. It was Edvald Boasson Hagen leading round the final few wide corners and into the last 500m, with Van Avermaet on his wheel, and Matteo Trentin gapping across with the world champ Peter Sagan. Behind them were all the key sprinters, save for Matthews.
Disaster struck. As the chasing group drew alongside the leaders and swamped them, Fernando Gaviria, who had done astoundingly well to stay up at the head of affairs, seemed to touch wheels with Van Avermaet. He slid out completely, falling with his full weight onto the tarmac, and disrupting many riders. He held up a larger chasing group, and took Peter Sagan entirely off his line — the world champ’s chase was over. The group who had been to the right of the unlucky Gaviria were relatively unperturbed by his fall, and the sprint opened almost from that point onwards. What this meant is that a pocket of riders including Arnaud Démare, Nacer Bouhanni, Jurgen Roelandts, Alexander Kristoff, Ben Swift, and Greg Van Avermaet got by Gaviria unscathed, but had to throw themselves unexpectedly into their sprints.
They all went early, and not everyone went on cue. This explains the fact that Jurgen Roelandts, somewhat amazingly, came third, ahead of Bouhanni, Kristoff, and Van Avermaet. Ben Swift had been quite far back in the group, but brilliantly stayed with the wheel in front of him, and managed to worm his way out of a tight situation (we encourage you to watch him on the replay, it’s something to behold). Of course, the one person who did better than Swift is the rider he was following: Arnaud Démare crossed the line ahead of everyone else, out of a horribly messy sprint, and looked just as surprised and delighted as the rest of the cycling community. It was a reminder of John Degenkolb’s face last year –triumphant, shocked, ecstatic. Milan-Sanremo is truly a race that rewards patience, and few have been more patient than Démare, who has had to answer questions about his performances ever since his superb victory in the under-23 world champion road race. This represents a continuation in the pattern of his rising form, and marks him out as one to watch this year.
Many others were unlucky, though, and we didn’t get to see the sprint we wanted. We’d have to fault Edvald Boasson Hagen for mistiming — too early to sprint, too late to ‘go long’. This might also have been Cancellara’s issue, though he was unlucky to have the dogged Boasson Hagen marking his every move. Matthews crashed and chased hard, but, as this image of his handlebars shows, he was suffering throughout. Sagan must have been gutted to lose his line after Gaviria’s fall, though he was lucky to stay upright, and he won’t be feeling as bad as one person: Gaviria himself. Bouhanni, it turns out, had a chain-slip on his way to the line; he can be seen in the replays banging his fist down on his bars. But let’s not take this away from Démare. Démare negotiated that final messy knot of riders expertly, and caught a draft for a crucial few metres in the wheel of Roelandts. Sneaking round him, he showed that he had held back just enough energy to fight hard for the final 50 metres — after 300km in the saddle. He had the kick when it counted, and that is, after all, what Milan-Sanremo is all about. A deserved win, and a spectacular one.