A fast start with 47km covered in the first hour as the bunch refused to let the first move go; and why not keep warm too? Eventually the day’s break was made of seven riders with Belkin’s Martin Tjallingii, Garmin-Sharp’s Nathan Haas, UnitedHealthCare’s Marc De Maar and NetApp-Endura’s Jan Barta as the biggest engines. An ideal move for the peloton, a harmless and small group drifting up the road. The magnificent seven were always going to be outnumbered by the bunch, encircled by the weather and defeated by the distance. One by one the riders dropped off with special credit to De Maar and Tjallingii who made it over the Cipressa. A mention of UnitedHealthCare too who had Rachel Heal as a director, the first woman for such a role in a major race.
In a race that sees its profile get more wrinkled every year, this year’s route was a rejuvenation, restyled to its pre-2008 route and a more sprinter-friendly course. The chase tempo was set by Trek, Cannondale and Giant-Shimano who each had a man on duty. The break took 11 minutes which sounds like a lot but low for a race this long.
Conditions were awful. Again. Did the riders enjoy the tunnels this time for their temporary relief from the rain? At one point Luca Paolini was filmed pouring hot tea onto his gloves to warm up his fingers; a best a temporary relief and he would have done better to consume it. Last year’s race was dominated by the snow and conditions were so grim they allowed riders to climb into buses and, proving their fingers had warmed up, we got a chorus of Twitter selfies including Sagan who posted an image of himself eating a sandwich.
One year on and Sagan had a lot more to chew on. His Cannondale team were working hard but come the Cipressa and Alessandro De Marchi was left to set the pace. It was meant to eliminate rivals but it was hardly the stuff of Team Sky. De Marchi was valiant but alone and this repeated itself for the rest of the race, Sagan didn’t have much other help. Indeed the pace allowed Vincenzo Nibali to jump away. It looked like a weak move, as if he knew he wasn’t going to win so why not take a risk, put on a show and see what happens?
Nibali the catalyst
Let’s pause for a moment to celebrate Vincenzo Nibali, the man puts the agony in protagony. Every classic play has an antagonist, a villain who has to be overcome for the hero to triumph. Nibali is no baddie but his acts frequently help liven up the show, help crown a champion and make the race more worthy. Just as he attacked too early on the Angliru in the Vuelta his move on the Cipressa looked doomed.
Back to the race and when he sprung nobody followed. He didn’t seem to pull away… but suddenly his lead jumped and he started the descent with a good gap and his reached 49 seconds on the way to the Poggio. Behind the chase was hesitant, teams with several riders seemed reluctant to chase as De Marchi alone tried to chase. Could Nibali do it? Just as you began to wonder the cameras showed Sky, Lotto-Belisol and Katusha chasing on the road to the Poggio and there was an invisible headwind too.
The Poggio started with Nibali in the lead but his lead was the retractable kind used for dogwalking and the group behind decided to pull him in fast. We were expecting a move from a big Swiss rider from Trek on the climb… and off went Gregory Rast. It allowed Cancellara to sit tight. Bardiani’s Giro stage winner Enrico Battaglin bridged across to Rast and then took over all the work with Rast now playing policeman. But the move used up most of the Poggio. An attack by Philippe Gilbert saw him accompanied by Daniele Bennati but it was extinguished. At the top… Belkin’s Lars Petter Nordhaug tried a late attack right before the descent but this looked more like insurance, a means to take the descent first rather than gain time but excitement for Norwegian fans.
The race sped into Sanremo, a dig by Colbrelli saw him take no more than 20 metres and riders were tracking Cancellara’s wheel in case he launched a counter-attack. He didn’t. Now the riders were like shoppers in busy supermarket working the best checkout line to queue on as they jostled for wheels. Paolini led through the final bends with Kristoff second but the order was to change. As they entered the final straight the remnants of the bunch spread across the road part-sprint, part-traffic jam. Having been on the front Kristoff briefly vanished from sight as Mark Cavendish suddenly looked sharp but Kristoff reappeared in the middle of the road, surging to the line as the others faded to finish two bike lengths ahead.
This wasn’t a sprint finish with the science and method we’re used to to seeing. No sprint trains with riders in a line it was an old fashioned fight with riders all over the road. Their faces said it all.
Kristoff finally gets the big win, tipped for some time he’s been lurking. He won the bunch sprint in the London Olympics to collect the bronze medal and he’s a versatile rider who was eighth in Milan-Sanremo last year with fourth in the Tour of Flanders and ninth in Paris-Roubaix.
Consistent? Yes but Cancellara’s record is better. Enraged with second place, the Swiss rider’s finished on the podium of each of the last ten Monuments he’s finished. Behind Ben Swift of Sky took the final podium place. Movistar’s Juan-Jose Lobato impressed with fourth place, you cannot fluke these rides. Lobato’s an Euskaltel refugee but no Basque and aged 25 he’s Spain’s fastest sprinter.
The race Twitter feed said every finisher deserves a medal and it’s a bit mean to point out losers as it’s more nuanced. But Sagan didn’t have what it took, neither in the legs nor his team. As he makes plans for the future he’ll be worrying as much about his salary as the riders who will be employed in his service. BMC Racing were strong in the finish but in the finale we saw Greg Van Avermaet go one way and Philippe Gilbert go the other way. Otherwise it’s hard to point to other plans that didn’t work out, seeing Mark Cavendish outsprinted seems rare but he tried to the end.
It was a team win for Katusha. As the race hit the three capes it was Cannondale who cranked up the pace but Katusha were pulling too. Other teams seemed more reticent and as they swept into Sanremo it was Paolini who led Kristoff into the finishing straight after a very long turn that was reminiscent of his pulls in the Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.
A gruelling race where viewers, digesting their lunch, might have found repeated images of the peloton riding through the rain boring but quite different for participants. Every pedal rev meant rotating a shoe full of water for competitors.
The race took shape on the approach to the Cipressa and Nibali’s raid was great to see. The Poggio was damp in more than one way, il trampolino didn’t let a serious move jump away. The tension was huge as the race went into Sanremo, a collection of sprinters but without their leadouts and the result wasn’t certain until Kristoff crossed the line. This year’s edition might have been the last chance for the sprinters but it could be one of many classics for Alexander Kristoff.
1 Alexander Kristoff (Nor) Team Katusha 6:55:56
2 Fabian Cancellara (Swi) Trek Factory Racing
3 Ben Swift (GBr) Team Sky
4 Juan-Jose Lobato (Spa) Movistar Team
5 Mark Cavendish (GBr) Omega Pharma – Quick-Step
6 Sonny Colbrelli (Ita) Bardiani-CSF
7 Zdeněk Štybar (Cze) Omega Pharma – Quick-Step
8 Sacha Modolo (Ita) Lampre-Merida
9 Gerald Ciolek (Ger) MTN-Qhubeka
10 Peter Sagan (Svk) Cannondale