The Moment The Race Was Won: Milan-Sanremo

Milan Sanremo Kristoff sprintAn old route but a new winner as Alexander Kristoff leads the sprint down the finishing straight. This was the moment the race was won.

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.

Sanremo rain

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.

Swiss Guard
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.

Sanremo Festival
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.

Sanremo sprint lungomare

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.

The Verdict
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

63 thoughts on “The Moment The Race Was Won: Milan-Sanremo”

      • Common comment is cavendish went too early – is that so or are we really talking simply didn’t have the thrust to be sanremo’s Sire

        • Yeah, Cav was forced to go pretty early when the wheel he was following (can’t recall who it was) just didn’t have the legs, so he was kind of on his own from too far out.

          Saying that, we’ve seen him win with a long sprint like that plenty of times before. Perhaps (as Inrng suggested before the race) the lack of training targetting this race due to the last minute route changes had him on the back foot from the start. Or perhaps it’s just that a monster like MSR just isn’t within his grasp anymore.

          • Cav got over the climbs and had almost, but not quite, enough left for the sprint. Many of his big-name sprint rivals didn’t manage that – Griepel, Degenkolb, even Sagan.

            He was quoted as saying he was “reasonably happy” with how the team rode. Petacchi, Renshaw, Keisse, Trentin and Kwiatowski all abandoned.

          • Degenkolb had a flat during the descent of the Poggio, which he had climbed and passed among the first riders, so I don’t think the case is he was worn out… The team even stopped Geschke to help him come back, thus I suspect he felt good legs.

  1. Great entry, again. As the peloton was speeding alog the coast I was thinking about how many hours Kristoff has spent training in that kind of weather in Stavanger.
    That’s Lars Petter Nordhaug leading over the top of the Poggio, not? I think he’s the only Belkin wearing green Bonts.

  2. Thank you Inner Ring, have been loving this blog for years now! Keep up the great work! Kristoff is a monster in the toughest races and is getting better every year. And wow Ben Swift really surpised me today..what’s your thoughts on him?

    • Import year for Swift, no more track racing and now it’s 100% road it seems. He’s fast in the sprint but better on hilly days and often shorter distances so today’s podium is a surprise and I suspect he would have signed for that this morning.

      • Any idea what happened to boassen hagen? With sky’s focus on GC and their contracts up at the end of this year, guys like swift and Eddie, would they be looking to other teams?

          • Haha yeah it does seem every body is being linked, it’ll probably get worse once alonso announces his sponsor in the coming months.

            Also, great to hear about rachel heal doing the ds role (especially given de maar’s performance) has there been many instances of females taken a senior/management role in the mens peloton? Could be a good post for the future!

        • Swift said in a post race interview that the two of them had agreed (after the Cipressa I presume) that EBH would mark moves on the Poggio and Swift would go for the sprint

      • Stybar spent a lot of time in the run in looking for Cavendish, who was far side of him,and looked exposed. Lost sight of him off the Poggio, but wasn’t Cav chasing back on? As all of sudden he re-appeared in about 15th coming into last couple of corners. Liked Kristoff riposte to Dan Lloyd’s question about the sprinters! Bit different after 300 than 200k’s. Tough fella

  3. Well done to Kristoff but Swift and Lobato a bit of a surprise for most I reckon. Glad they’re in my Podium Cafe team!

    Thanks for all the posts inrng. Definitely my favourite cycling blog! And thank god the comments are still civilised!

  4. “What happened to Cav?” Quote from him on the OPQS website says he doesn’t think he had any choice but to go when he did, even if it was perhaps too early he felt he had to follow Modolo. Then when he sat down after his initial jump he just had nothing left.

  5. After Van Avermaet’s missing glove in De Omloop, now there’s Kristoff as the only rider with full gloves. You do lose a lot of heat through your hands, so I wonder if if matters?

    Also, in that photo Cancellara seems to sprint in a peculiar way, with his torso slightly pushed up and narrow shoulders.

    • At least his hands are on the drops this time 🙂

      It does seem like something that Cancellara could practice more. He seems to pack a pretty good sprint relative to the field at the end of really long hard tough races, but as you say his body positioning is not great.

  6. Nice article. The race was hard but a little disappointing. Cancellara was the strongest man, and played well. Could’ve won. But with Le Manie we have a clearer, more watchable race. Mr. Vegni: the 2015 MSR should be 330km long and have no Pompeiana, just Le Manie.

    • Btw, I just saw the replay, Gilbert’s lead-out for where-is-he-now-he’s-always-in-front-except-when-he-should Van Avermaet is hilarious… and when the guy eventually shows up in front, and is about to launch a long sprint à la Merckx, he misses a gear change, doesn’t he? Bad luck, or bad Shimano… They really made a splendid comical number.

    • May look strange to say something like this about the second-placed rider, but I feel Cancellara wasn’t anyway near to winning. So close, so far.

    • Neither am I so convinced Cancellara played his cards well.
      But, again, it’s something awkward to assert when he got second on a course that – apparently – isn’t totally fit for him.

  7. I don’t understand the criticism of Cannondale. They were one of the strongest teams. The forced the pace on the Turchino, dropping a lot of riders, they rode on the flat, they forced the pace on the Cipressa (again dropping parts of the bunch) and on the flat bit between Cipressa and Pogggio. That was excellent work, alone Sagan couldn’t finish it. His season has been a bit weaker than in previous years, maybe that was no coincidence.

    @gabriele: yes, Paolini is the real winner.

    The parcours has to be changed, Le Manie would do fine. I wouldn’t mind Pompeiana either.

    • Cannondale did a great job, I agree.
      Anyway, maybe the problem is that they worked too much, that is, they couldn’t find a way to spare, for example, the impressive De Marchi to help Sagan in the finale.
      In many possible scenarios, Sagan would have needed a teammate by his side (… as any other rider? More than other riders, IMHO, because it would be harder for him just to race on other riders’ wheels, everyone would expect him to be the one closing gaps and so on …).
      Possibly, Cannondale should have played a more conservative – and risky? – game, trying to find a better balance between wearing out the sprinters and forcing other teams to work.

  8. Good effort by Ben Swift on the longest race of the calender. I thought the cold conditions got to a few riders legs in the end. Enjoyed it but it looks so much better under bright sunshine.

  9. Super race.
    Its March 300km 180 miles.
    A bit of weather and the distance.
    This was a ‘classic’ course plenty tough enough for the best bike riders in the world.
    Do we need more hills I think not … true bike racing fans this is the most open unpredictable race on the calender please leave alone.

      • I liked this course better than the one with Le Manie. Much more unpredictable finale with a mix of sprinters and ‘classics’ riders. There are plenty of races with hills. And couldn’t Paolini have won! Or is he not Italian enough for the organisers! He was the difference in the end as all the other pairs of riders left weren’t able to work together properly for a variety of reasons.

        (PS I was the anon who commented on Swift and Lobato before.)

  10. Cannondale did a good job, they just ran out of horse power in the last 4K., Gabriele has it above

    Love the white tape on Kristoff’s bike “old school”

    Wonderful job Inrng.


    • Everyone knew Sagan was favourite and that meant that the onus was on Cannondale to set the pace but I wonder if they could have chosen the times to put the effort in better. Someone above said they set a tough pace up the Turchino. If that is true it was wasted effort since the Turchino is long but not steep enough to trouble the sprinters. Better to have saved the real push for the Cipressa where it could be made to count more. Instead of really pushing on the Cipressa they set a pace that was ideal for the sprinters as they could just about live with it but nobody could attack off the front (well except Nibali).

      Contrast that with the canny way Katusha marshaled their resources. I only remember seeing them on the front once, when Nibali threatened to get a little too far up the road. Otherwise they sat tight and kept together so that when they reached San Remo, Paolini was fresh enough and in the right position to give their sprinter the perfect set up.

      • I agree, as I said before, with the idea that Cannondale may have managed their resources better. Nevertheless, they did well on Turchino: you won’t drop the sprinter, but you’re “cooking” them (and their teammates).
        Any slightly climbing road should be used to do that, if you want to hope you can do something in the last 30kms.
        The fatigue that sprinter are accumulating “not to be troubled” pays good shares in the finale, when top watts are lower: which means a lot of things (more importance of weight against power in Cipressa & Poggio; slightly slower average speeds while climbing, that is… slightly reduced importance of the slipstream; final sprint accessible to riders with lesser muscular horsepower, and so on). They’re subtle effects, but their combination may reshape the competition.

  11. Great race, great recap. I had friends over and we watched it on bootleg feed while eating breakfast. Looking forward to the Belgian classics!

  12. I really enjoyed this year’s race. A real hard man’s affair because of the rain. It was a very tense race, and we were kept guessing right until the end about who would win. I can’t imagine we’ll get the same sort of suspense in future years with the additional climb. I think the magic of M-SR will definitely be lost.

    • Jezzery & Denny – I’m with you here.
      Because of the length and potential weather, and the two bumps at the business end of the race, it has it’s own uniqueness. We watch Cav/Greipel/Sagan etc battle it out on full gas all year, so I found it fascinating firstly checking and rechecking who was surviving the carnage, loved Nibali’s glory or bust effort (amazed no-one else went with him… but I can understand Cancellara not wanting to tow yet another group to the line) and then to see the gritted teeth gutsing out the slomo sprint – totally awesome. Please leave it alone!

  13. In the Paris Nice v Tirreno Adratico debate on preparation for Milan San Remo, the top ten chose as follows:
    Paris Nice – the winner, Kristoff and Stybar (7)
    Tirreno Adriatico – runner up Cancellara, Cavendish (5) Colbrelli (6) Modolo (8) Ciolek (9)
    Neither – third place Swift, Lobato (4).
    Colbrelli and Ciolek didn’t have a choice as their teams didn’t ride Paris Nice.

  14. IMHO, nationalism is not, nowadays, the leading factor towards the change. When they introduced Le Mànie it was because of some landslide trouble on the traditional course, but we just had been watching four Italian victories over the previous six years… And no Italian won again since then! Why didn’t they immediately go back to the older course?

    Nibali is the strongest Italian rider, at the moment, but he’s so bad at sprinting that he should arrive alone, and no Pompeiana could grant that (by the way, Nibali’s lack of actitude in sprinting is one of the motives that made me wonder so much about the fact that no one followed him… I can understand the captains, but what about the second lines?). Maybe he could get away in the descent, but, once again, Pompeiana wouldn’t shuffle so much the cards (less riders to chase, that’s true, but nothing like a revolution): for Nibali, you should, if everything, place elsewhere the finish line. What is more, you could do that with much less controversy in the cycling movement (perhaps, more controversy in the city hall).

    At the present, the (faltering) strength of the Italian movement lies more in numbers than in top quality. See inrng charts about nationality of riders.
    Moreover, they’re mainly a bunch of young guns and old wolves now made underdogs. If we look at the “albo d’oro”, the new course with Le Mànie appears to be giving chances precisely to that kind of riders…
    If RCS chose to opt for a “harder” course, Nibali would be the only possible Italian winner (give a look to Liège’s top-tens in the last 4-5 years…), whereas the various Battaglin, Colbrelli, Puccio (great ride yesterday, although it was a *hidden job*), Modolo, Felline, Gatto, Apollonio could fancy that they would sneak to victory with a less selective course. Not to name the old Pozzato or Paolini.

    All these reasons make me deeply doubt that the organizers are deciding from a nationalistic point of view.

    I would suggest that the real problem is that even if the result is unpredictable, the script is. Especially without Le Mànie, attacking before the last 2kms (not ten nor five!) looks just silly or desperate. Therefore, a vicious circle is established, because when someone dares to attack, no one believes in the move, further reducing any hope of success.

    In 2007 we had just lived a decade in which 7 out of 10 races ended in bunch sprints.
    If you include late “finisseur” attacks as *theme and variations* on the bunch sprint leit motiv, from 1997 to 2007 we could enjoy a kind of different triumph only when Bettini, Paolini and Celestino made it in 2003. Celestino was possibly the best Poggio descender ever, he was a great descender (now enjoying MTB!) and he knew that road as no one else. We saw yesterday how good is Paolini on this course, and Bettini, well, he was Bettini, one of the best – and most offensive – one-day racer in the last fifteen years (or more). You just can’t rely on such a combination to see – sometime! – a bit of changing from the usual development of the race.

    Sanremo’s charme lies in the fact that you actually believe that something *different*, something *special* may happen. I’m not speaking of *who* wins, I’m speaking of *how* the race is won. It’s so unlikely, but you go on hoping for that while the probabilities are falling down and down. You can expect everything on La Cipressa, or before, than things get clearer and clearer, while the world of possibilities is being crunched to a few options.
    With the usual pre-2008 course, the improbable had become so similar to impossible that you really didn’t expect anything, you didn’t really believe in attacks and the race had lost some of its magic.
    Le Mànie changed that, attacking on the Poggio started to make sense again. You could have a (more or less reduced) bunch sprint, like in 2009 or 2010, or a small group of riders making it to the finish line.
    That’s reasonable, and that really means any kind of riders could win.
    Otherwise, you have a race where everyone is deceiving himself about the possibility of any kind of rider winning, but… reality it’s just not like that.
    Unless it’s freaking cold, and hailing and raining and snowing (perhaps), but it can’t rain all the time, they say.

    That’s why I’m not convinced about Pompeiana, I’m afraid it’s too selective, even if I believe that’s not enough to grant Nibali a solo victory: it would cut out many sprinters, and thus change too much the race’s logic. I’d like to see some more years with the Mànie-Capi-Cipressa-Poggio setting, and follow up the statistics to decide whether it’s time for a change. The last six years say “no” (or “not yet”).

    So, why Pompeiana? I suspect RCS really wants a supposed big name to win. They didn’t like Goss-Gerrans-Ciolek, because the guys couldn’t deliver (enough) in the following, or the previous, months/years. I’m afraid they won’t appreciate so much Kristoff, either. It’s not nationalistic thinking, it’s marketing-wise: nationalism is a subcategory of marketing (Nibali would be great, Colbrelli would be fine), but any rider capable of winning in the short term a Liège or three-four Giro/Tour stages or a World Championship would do.
    I understand it, but from a technical point of view I can’t approve.
    I don’t know what the Mànie road was like this year (big landslides there, too), but I’m afraid they were starting to think… if it can’t be Valverde or Cancellara, let it be Cav or Greipel, please 🙂
    [conspirative mode OFF, it was a joke!]

    • +1 I remember watching MSR’s of the recent past where Pompeiana was discussed, so the pressure to put this in has been around awhile. Zomegnan didn’t want to mess with a classic and I have to agree with him..but since he’s been axed we have the current “social-media” headless organization willing to fool around with pretty much anything in search of short-term profits. In June we’ll follow the route including Le Manie just to have some variety and peaceful roads above the coastline, but for La Primavera I’d have no issues with running this classic on the post-1960/pre-2008 route forever.

      • A lot of the changes with RCS came with Zom, see the Zoncolan and Monte Crostis in the Giro, it was always more and more hills and circus. They axed him… only to find people on Facebook asking for the same things culminating in the “Everest” stage of the Giro a couple of years back.

        • Zomegnan broke RCS out of their lethargy for sure. But that’s different from the headless “let the twits decide” stuff done since he was forced out. My fear is the pursuit of a fickle audience doesn’t gain much, but instead tosses tradition and history aside, the result being the alienation of the old farts like me, but with nothing gained on the other end. This is the same with UCI putting races in places where nobody cares while races with passionate fans and heritage go wanting.

    • Finetto & Battaglin I think… Bardiani is promoting itself as “the green team”, but really looks like a shade between the Cannondale greenies and the Vini Fantini Yellow Fluo :-S

      By the way, speaking of green, Specialized “copied” the Celeste Bianchi (it’s more a “turchese” today) for the Omega bikes, just as Trek did in the past for Team Leopard!!!
      That’s soooo unfair!!!!!!!!!

  15. Surprised to see Paolini’s time gap at the finish, over a minute down, yet he seeemed to be leading into the last corner. Thought maybe he was one of the riders who went down in the turn.

    Also surprised to see no booties on any of the riders. Man, I’d have been wearing neoprene booties in those conditions.

    After Het Neiwsblad and this race, verdict is spring racing in Europe ain’t for sissies this year. Let’s see what conditions await for Flanders and PR.

    • Yeah, that was pure racing back then. The descending Kelly did in that finish.
      Probably one of the last to be won with toe-clips as well…

  16. One more thing. With so many teams wearing black jerseys, the illegal use of black rain jackets made the whole race much more difficult to watch. The UCI should get serious about it!

  17. Yes. Every commercially successful sport I know of either has the athletes NAMES on their uniforms (football, football, basketball, hockey etc) or involves so few competitors that the viewers knows who is who (tennis). Cycling has a mass of 30-60 riders, in a fluid mass, faces obscured by helmet and glasses, seven of them all dressed identically, moving at high speed with TV cameras often far away or aerial. Even the commentators can’t keep straight who is who. I don’t care if they all wear black rain capes, but come on, let’s have big contrasty NAMES on the backs, the legs, and the fronts of the helmets – please.

  18. Just watched the race on my HD. I was surprised given the conditions and his ability to climb and out descend nearly everone in the wet, why Nibali didn’t wait til the Poggio to launch a big attack. He was doomed to be caught on that flat section but may have held on in the last 2-3 kms to the finish.

    • I think he knew he wouldn’t get away from the peloton on the Poggio. It’s much less suited to climbers. If someone had got away with him on the Cipressa, he could hope (just *hope*) to attack and drop those two, three, four riders… on the Poggio; whereas, escaping from a big group on the Poggio is much harder, and even in the case anyone had remained with Nibali, he wouldn’t have had further occasions to distance them before the sprint (the descent? Less kms to the line, but even a less selective descent).
      Reality is that Nibali is short on form, he was aware of that, therefore he decided to try something that could leave a mark on the race, besides offering him a – little – chance of victory. His options were scarce, with any strategy, so he decided to go showy and see if something unexpected happened.
      Obviously, he expected, at least, that someone would join him: he hinted at big names, but I’m pretty sure any fast gregario or second line would do for him.

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