In a race that’s always uncertain this was a vintage finish with attacks over the Poggio, moves on the descent and more attacks on the way into Sanremo. Even the sprint finish was uncertain after Fernando Gaviria crashed and Nacer Bouhanni’s chain jumped with 150m to go. It left the way open for Arnaud Démare to deliver his long sprint and the first French win in Sanremo since 1995.
The early break went with a familiar feel thanks to the presence of Matteo Bono, Jan Barta, Maarten Tjallingii and Adrian Kurek all of whom were in the breakaway last year too. The same move but hoping for a different outcome? As ever just going clear brings TV airtime which is valuable and some of the survivors were only caught on the Cipressa. Trek-Segafredo placed Marco Coledan in the move meaning they got an easy ride for the first 200km. The breakaway’s lead was kept in check with eight minutes at the foot of the Passo Turchino.
Up ahead a rockfall covered the road in Arezano. This often happens, it’s the reason why the Pompeiana climb was announced but dropped before the race could climb it in 2014 and in 2008 a landslide blocked the coastal road so they climbed up to Le Mànie to bypass the roadworks. This time the race was cleverly diverted onto the Autostrada, the riders didn’t have to pay at the toll booth but the price was an extra five kilometres.
As they crossed the three capes there was a series of crashes at the back of the bunch which highlighted the tension as riders fought for space across the whole width of the road. Then with 10km before the Cipressa a wave across the front of the peloton sent several well-placed riders down including Arnaud Démare, Geraint Thomas and Michael Matthews.
Normally this would be game over for anyone. Nevermind any injuries, it’s being dropped at this crucial point in the race as the bunch speeds away. The Cipressa, normally the graveyard for the sprinters, wasn’t enough to get rid of Démare. He started chasing again with FDJ team mates including William Bonnet who led him to the foot of the Cipressa and Mathieu Ladagnous who paced him up the climb; then Ignatas Konovalovas and Kévin Reza helped him on the descent and he rejoined the peloton on the road to the Poggio. Bonnet deserves a special mention, he broke his neck in the Tour de France last year resumed racing this spring and was now back in the thick of the action.
Nobody’s published the climbing time of the Cipressa yet but it didn’t look like it was climbed too fast and this allowed Démare and others to get back. Certainly there were no attacks on the steep part and it was only on the balcony section across the top of the climb that Movistar’s Giovanni Visconti and Team Sky’s Ian Stannard got away. Team Sky seemed to be repeating their tactics of before by constantly sending a rider up the road.
Visconti and Stannard were joined by three more riders but the quintet never got 20 seconds, this was at best a tactical ploy to force others to chase and give the likes of Team Sky and BMC Racing a chance to cruise while other teams had to pick up the pace. The coastal road allowed Katusha to gather at the front of the bunch and pull the race back together. But who else was there? We’re still in the dark ages of technology with no way to identify the riders beyond their dorsal numbers only the television helicopter was flying so high that even this was difficult. Fernando Gaviria was spotted and if Katusha were working then Kristoff must be there too. Before the Poggio Arnaud Démare was spotted too.
Onto the Poggio and the identity crisis continued when a Southeast rider attacked and the TV graphic flashed up saying it was Pippo Pozzato only for it to be a faux-zato and Andrea Fedi instead. Tony Gallopin tried an attack but was reeled in and then Michał Kwiatkowski attacked and got a gap.
You don’t need much of a lead over the top of the Poggio to win and the Pole was a serious contender, after all this is how he became world champion in 2014. Vincenzo Nibali was among those leading the chase but try as might to deploy his descending skills there was a queue of riders on his wheel.
The Poggio descent ended and we were no clearer to knowing what was going to happen. A bunch sprint? Perhaps not as Gallopin went again. Then Fabian Cancellara attacked and was marked by Matteo Trentin and just as they were caught Edvald Boasson Hagen took a flyer with Greg Van Avermaet on his wheel. The pair knew they could not afford to wait for the sprint given the opposition lurking behind them. Indeed Boasson Hagen looked around and saw Fernando Gaviria and Peter Sagan had got across and cut his effort knowing the game was up. He looked around again and drifted across the road, making Van Avermaet track him who in turn cut across Gaviria’s wheel, sending the Colombian crashing onto the Via Roma in sight of the finish line as Peter Sagan somehow shapeshifted diagonally to avoid falling. It was terrible for Gaviria who looked so powerful seconds below but we’ll never know what he could have done in the sprint.
250m to go and still the winner was unknown. If Michael Matthews had crashed earlier, Alexander Kristoff was supposed to be the big sprint threat. He was still racing but out of position and later lamented the lead out saying perhaps he should have just ridden for himself rather than relying on team mates. Jurgen Roelandts led out and a trio of sprinters appeared in Nacer Bouhanni, Ben Swift and Démare. Bouhanni was on level terms with Démare until suddenly his chain jumped with 150m to go leaving Swift and Démare. The Frenchman was leading and deployed his trademark long sprint, his démarrage.
Pure Sanremo. The sun was shining and the result was uncertain until the end thanks to late moves from Kwiatkowksi, Cancellara and Boasson Hagen. A pity we never got to see Gaviria and Bouhanni in the sprint but Démare had his troubles too and FDJ delivered another impressive team effort to get Démare back in contention on Cipressa.
Démare’s win came after he abandoned Paris-Nice on precaution, having won a stage his knee began to ache and there was no point staying on for the mountain stages given the form was already there. Does it count as another Paris-Nice rider winning Sanremo? No, in fact this whole Paris-Nice vs Tirreno-Adriatico prep story has arguably become a bit a trope, the confusion of correlation and causation. On firmer grounds was the enormity of Démare’s win for French cycling, the first Monument win for a Frenchman since Jalabert’s 1997 Lombardia. FDJ team boss Marc Madiot was believed to be watching the race at home and we can only imagine the reaction, he’s probably wrecked his Ocaña sofa by jumping up and down on it with his cowboy boot heels. But for all Madiot’s theatre and hysterics there are the unseen heuristics. FDJ have been working patiently behind the scenes and investing in sports science, for example ending Francis Mourey’s cyclo-cross contract – given Madiot adores CX this must have hurt – so they could spend the savings on a training camp in Gran Canaria and so on. See how FDJ were third in the Tirreno-Adriatico team time trial the other day, beating the likes of Tinkoff and Sky.
Démare has been caught in recent years between sprinting and the classics, first making a name for himself as a sprinter but then trying for the spring classics. It meant a reduction in results, swapping quantity for quality. It paid off. He’s only beginning his spring classics campaign with races like Gent-Wevelgem (2nd in 2014) and Paris-Roubaix bound to suit too.