Vincenzo Nibali attacks on the Poggio and only Simon Gerrans goes with him. Behind Rabobank’s Matti Breschel looks over his shoulder but on the left of the image you can see Fabian Cancellara about to make his move.
It would be wrong to distil a 300km race into one camera flash but the image above does capture the most strategic moment of the day. Milan-Sanremo is a long “race of elimination” where small mistakes along the way see riders fall out of contention.
We should salute Cheng Ji (Project 1t4i), Juan Pablo Suarez (Colombia-Coldeportes), Dmitriy Gruzdev (Astana), Angelo Pagani (Colnago-CSF), Vergard Stake Laengen (Team Type 1), Juan Jose Oroz (Euskaltel), Pierpaolo De Negri (Farnese Vini), Michael Mørkøv (Saxo Bank) and Oleg Berdos (UtensilNord). All went in the early move. Their escape attempt was doomed but they gave their all and their teams can take some satisfaction.
The first big event of the day was the climb of Le Manie where Mark Cavendish was dropped. This wasn’t a case of losing a few places or a small gap opening up, instead he was visibly in trouble, wrestling with his bike in a way we’re not used to seeing. His team committed riders to help but he was dropped so early on the climb that the ensuing gap was at one point reported to be two minutes and the main bunch was driven by BMC and Omega Pharma-Quickstep in order to ensure he was out for good.
The race continued in normal format to the Cipressa. A crash here and there – spare a thought for Carlos Quintero of Colombia Coldeportes who was taken away in an ambulance – but it was routine racing. The Cipressa itself steady. Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil-DCM) and Francisco Vila (Utensilnord-Named) went clear but were soon caught on the fast descent. Hooglerland is “lively” but the kind of guy you’d want to play poker with because he’d show all his cards from the start.
It came down to the Poggio. The final climb of the day, it is not steep but a just enough of a climb to prise open a gap. Liquigas’s gregario Valerio Agnoli was the first to move. He was soon followed by the punchy Angel Madrazo of Movistar. But just as they got past the hard first two kilometres it was Vincenzo Nibali who jumped and Simon Gerrans was right on his wheel. Full marks to Gerrans here. With Sagan ready for the sprint an attack by Nibali was highly probably and the Australian didn’t hesitate when Nibali moved.
But the bunch did ease up and now Fabian Cancellara came across. It is perhaps to simple to say riders were waiting given the intense pace but only Fabian Cancellara had the power to bridge across to Gerrans and Nibali.
The trio had a slender lead. But hopefully they’ve studied races past because whilst five seconds on the Poggio might not seem much, it has been the margin needed by others to win in the past because you can pull out a lead on the way down, riders chasing behind are at breaking point. Cancellara led them over the climb and on the descent…
…and Cancellara led them all the way to the finish line. The Swiss rider make a gesture for the others to come through but they didn’t seem keen on cooperating and the TV images only showed Gerrans coming through once. But this is professional bike racing, a game of chess on wheels as opposed to a school of good manners.
“Racing is licking your opponent’s plate clean before starting on your own”
So said Hennie Kuiper, winner of Milan-Sanremo in 1985. The Dutchman was describing how you finish off your rivals. With Sagan and Goss behind Gerrans and Nibali were able to hang bank. Above all, they knew the Swiss train never stops and Cancellara drove them all the way to the line. Some might say Gerrans and Nibali should have joined in the effort but if this is true, perhaps Cancellara should have reduced the power too and tried to outfox the others?
The lead was coming down. 12 seconds, then 7, and with less than a kilometre the trio started to look around and they could see the chase behind. In a race famed for the intensity of its finishes, this was adrenalin via TV. The sprint started and Gerrans went level with Cancellara and then passed him with enough of a lead to sit up and celebrate before the finish line.
This marks the second year in a row that Cancellara was outsprinted by an Australian in Sanremo after Matthew Goss won last year. But within a minute of crossing the finish line Italian TV displayed the new UCI rankings. You might not care for the arithmetic but the riders do and the lead trio all knew they could cash in if they just made it to the finish. The ranking system incentivises certain behaviours, in this case it’s better for Cancellara to ride to a certain third place or better than risk being swamped by the chase and losing the valuable points.
Vincenzo Nibali was the boldest rider thanks to his big attack on the Poggio. Fabian Cancellara was the strongest rider with vast power on the latter part of the climb and then the descent and the entrance into Sanremo. But victory isn’t always for the boldest or the strongest. The only rider able to match Nibali, Gerrans was the cleverest on the day.
Note even the official race poster highlights the gamble, risk and calculation that goes with the longest race of the year.
1 Simon GERRANS AUS GEC 6:59:24
2 Fabian CANCELLARA SUI RNT +0
3 Vincenzo NIBALI ITA LIQ +0
4 Peter SAGAN SVK LIQ +2
5 John DEGENKOLB GER PRO +2
6 Filippo POZZATO ITA FAR +2
7 Oscar FREIRE GOMEZ ESP KAT +2
8 Alessandro BALLAN ITA BMC +2
9 Daniel OSS ITA LIQ +2
10 Daniele BENNATI ITA RNT +2
11 Xavier FLORENCIO CABRE ESP KAT +2
12 Luca PAOLINI ITA KAT +12
13 Simon GESCHKE GER PRO +12
14 Oscar GATTO ITA FAR +12
15 Matthew Harley GOSS AUS GEC +20
16 Giovanni VISCONTI ITA MOV +20
17 Jacopo GUARNIERI ITA AST +20
18 Francisco José VENTOSO ALBERDI ESP MOV +20
19 Koen DE KORT NED PRO +20
20 Johnny HOOGERLAND NED VCD +20
21 Mark RENSHAW AUS RAB +20
22 Tom BOONEN BEL OPQ +20
23 Björn LEUKEMANS BEL VCD +20
24 Sacha MODOLO ITA COG +20
25 Edvald BOASSON HAGEN NOR SKY +20