John Degenkolb sprints on the Via Roma. He was the fastest in the sprint but in order to contend he rode an impressive final kilometre to get into position, going in the wind to overtake several riders after a clever ride in the final kilometres, with ideal positioning on the Poggio.
Just like last year a start in the rain. An 11 man group quickly established a lead of over 10 minutes, one way to keep warm. Just like last year Matteo Bono, Martin Tjallingi and Jan Barta were in the move too. No sooner did the move reach a double-digit advantage than Trek, Tinkoff-Saxo and Katusha started setting the pace, signalling no freedom for the fugitives. It’s easy to imagine a huddled bunch moving as one, 188 like grains of rice in the same pot but there’s variety in the peloton when it comes to wet weather clothing, either sponsorship and supply or rider preference and so the effects of hundreds of kilometres in the rain vary. What price a billowing rain jacket extracts versus a damp but slimline “Gabba” is hard to measure but there’s bound to be an effect.
Once the riders hit the coast the weather began to get better and the peloton began a slow striptease with overshoes, jackets and more being ferried back to team cars, a sign of the better conditions but also that the race was heating up too. The effort to drop back to the car is significant and it’s a curious use of resources when teams use up riders just to stash some clothing. Still for a while the clothing was the action. There’s talk of geo-location for TV broadcasts, the ability to pinpoint where every single rider is. It can’t come soon enough for Milan-Sanremo where long scenes for viewers show little more than men pedalling along the coast. Knowing who is sitting near the front and who is languishing at the back would help explain what’s happening when things might not appear to be happening. Even speed would bring some context. Michał Kwiatkowski was visible at the front thanks to his rainbow jersey, Arnaud Démare at the back because of his tricolore.
The action got obvious on the Capo Berta where the breakaway was thinned down to four riders. Behind Team Sky set the pace but a series of crashes upset the race. First some riders slid into the wall, then others right near the front of the bunch fell leaving just three Sky riders in Luke Rowe, Geraint Thomas and Ben Swift. Rowe set to work towing his team mates and they took a gap on the bunch but it was an awkward move, hard to take time on the bunch but to have sat up would have been to end the option they had at the front of the race. Still they were caught on the Cipressa where a series of attacks from BMC Racing didn’t see their riders go clear but it ruined the day for several sprinters.
As soon as the Cipressa descent was over Daniel Oss took off and had Thomas for company. The pair took up to 30 seconds, helped by BMC swarming at the front of the bunch to monitor the chase. Eventually Katusha and Trek bought the gap down to 17 seconds for the start of the Poggio. Thomas, more at ease on the climb, took off solo. Behind Katusha set a goldilocks tempo behind: not too slow to let Thomas get away; not too fast to harm Kristoff’s chances.
Philippe Gilbert attacked on the Poggio – he wears a trinket given to him from the La Guardia chapel on the climb – but was covered by others, notably Zdeněk Štybar and Peter Sagan. Look closely at the image above and you’ll see John Degenkolb perfectly placed on Fabian Cancellara’s wheel. Greg Van Avermaet tried too, first getting a gap and forcing Sagan and Michael Matthews to chase, costing energy for both. But the bunch regrouped over the top of the Poggio as Thomas was brought back… but only just, the bunch stretched out like a wheezing concertina. A crash by Gilbert down the Poggio saw him smack into a safety mattress and the fall took out Kwiatkowski and Gerald Ciolek too.
Rolling into town Peter Sagan was hovering off the front of the bunch, a minor mistake when he should have been finding a good wheel. A sprint was coming up but this is not to be confused with the finish of a flat stage in a grand tour. The distance is obvious and the group was only 30 strong. Luca Paolini led out for Alexander Kristoff who launched with 300 metres to go. Too far? Perhaps but if Kristoff was beaten, the podium was a triumph after the images of him on the Cipressa showed “The Bull of Stavanger” looking more like a carp on the penultimate climb, his mouth wide open.
John Degenkolb won with more than sprint, his positioning on the Poggio was ideal, he didn’t attract attention like Peter Sagan and waited for the right moment. His final kilometre through Sanremo was a festival, at first he was in the wind overtaking others before finally launching his nodding-dog sprint, it looks forceful like a track rider pumping out of a starting gate but the legs were turning quickly and he was clearly the fastest. Among the others Niccolò Bonifazio was sat on Kristoff’s wheel, the 21 year old finished fifth although each Lampre-Merida rider sprinted for themselves, he and Matthews have plenty of time on their side. Meanwhile Peter Sagan misses out again, arguably wasting too much energy in final ten minutes. It’s as if he wasn’t confident in his sprint but wouldn’t commit to an escape in Sanremo either.
John Degenkolb takes his fifth classic after collecting races like Gent Wevelgem and Paris-Tours and an impressive team effort, not just today but the way his ambitions and those of Marcel Kittel are managed, it’s all (seemingly) so harmonious. He had seemed off the sprint pace in Paris-Nice but come Sanremo his long power served him well, the effort that saw him place sixth in the prologue rather than his final 50 metre burst. Incidentally the whole podium came out of Paris-Nice.
You can’t have the excitement at the end without the procession before, the 250km introduction is essential to soften up the race so that when the final climbs come the racing can be selective and aggressive. The finale had all the usual tension but with few openings, the Poggio wasn’t the trampolino to victory, in fact nobody was able to go clear ahead of the descent. We got sprint finish and for a moment a repeat from Kristoff looked likely especially as Katusha looked the most coherent collectively until Degenkolb surged past for the win. So long Sanremo? Not quite because the Giro starts here in under 50 days.