Only Milan-Sanremo can provide such a thrilling finish. The race seemed locked down until the Poggio when Peter Sagan accelerated. Sonny Colbrelli and John Degenkolb tried to chase but as you can see in the photo above, they could only watch as the world champion rode away from them, just as Michał Kwiatkowski and Julian Alaphilippe launch their move to get across.
A break of 10 went right from the start and quickly took a lead of four minutes which they’d hold for several hours. The peloton, led by FDJ, refused to let them get any further ahead which must have felt hard for the fugitives, never could they dream of a win à la Gomez. The best they could hope for was to make it on TV once the coverage finally started. That wasn’t certain either as thegap halved on the Passo Turchino as riders in the bunch jostled to get into position for the descent but grew again on the coast as the TV began. The move was notable for Mirko Maestri who was in the same move a year ago; for Umberto Poli as the youngest rider in the race out to make the point that a diabetic race with the best for 300km; and for Toms Skujiņš and Will Clarke of Cannondale-Drapac, World Tour riders on a team trying some long shots as they search for a World Tour win since Davide Formolo’s stage win in the 2015 Giro.
From then on the coastal processional was uneventful, there weren’t even the usual maxicaduta mass crashes as the tension ratchets up. The weather helped, it was benign with a slight tailwind on the coast blowing itself out the closer they got o Sanremo. Alexis Gougeard went en chasse patate over the capes as the breakaway’s lead was brought close to a minute. Behind several teams were lined up in formation, each setting the pace and protecting their leaders, this wasn’t spectacular racing but look closely and the bunch tensions were high as riders used every bit of space across the road to stay in position.
The day’s breakaway was finally caught on the Cipressa climb with Ivan Rovny holding out for longest to help justify Gazprom’s wildcard invitation. Team Sunweb set the pace at first with Søren Kragh Andersen and higher up Tim Wellens tried an attack but couldn’t get much more than 50 metres, especially as he had Androni’s Mattia Cattaneo doing cattenacio on his wheel.
Tony Gallopin took over from Wellens with an attack once the race finished the Cipressa descent but he and a handful of companions had strigiform necks as they all kept looking back to see what the peloton was doing, a sign they knew they weren’t going clear of a bunch led by what was left of Bora-Hansgrohe.
The race sped onto the Poggio and Tom Dumoulin got to work, presumably to set a pace firm enough to deter attacks and to put some sprinters in the red. It made for a fast climb, there was no hesitation as Dumoulin kept toiling with a crowd of Sky riders on his wheel. Finally Dumoulin could toil no more and pulled over.
Peter Sagan attacked. Only this wasn’t a huge “come follow me” declaration of war because at first he surged clear while seated in the saddle, accelerating but the act of not lifting his rear off the saddle meant his move wasn’t telegraphed for the briefest of moments giving him a slight advantage in timing and a small gap. Only then did he rise up and stomp on the pedals. Behind Sonny Colbrelli and John Degenkolb followed but as sprinters it wasn’t their role to chase and perhaps they just couldn’t either. Michał Kwiatkowski and Julian Alaphilippe knew this was their chance and if anyone had the explosive power to catch Sagan it was them. Greg Van Avermaet looked to be close but either couldn’t or wouldn’t.
They quickly formed a trio, at least in number rather than effort as Sagan drove the pace over the top of the climb. This was a crucial moment because the Slovak was towing the move clear, giving them a valuable advantage as crested the top of the climb less than six minutes after beginning it. Sagan kept the lead through all of the bends and it was only near the end of the descent that Kwiatkowski and Alaphilippe could help take turns and by now they led with 17 seconds as they finished the descent and rode into Sanremo.
Sagan kept working hard while Alaphilippe moved back, perhaps knowing he could legitimately play the ace card of Fernando Gaviria – “if we’re caught my team mate Gaviria wins so you’d better work” and perhaps Kwiatkowski knew Elia Vivani was behind too, not as strong a card but a better hand than Sagan who had no team mates in the group behind. As they reached the final kilometre Sagan was still leading and flicking his elbow in the forlorn hope someone else would lead out the sprint but had to keep going. He launched his sprint with 200m to go and opened up a small gap but it wasn’t enough to shake Kwiatkowski out of his slipstream and slowly the Pole began to close the gap and with a bike throw he passed Sagan to win by less than half a wheel in the photo finish.
An intoxicating finish but even before the podium bottles of Prosecco have yet to lose their fizz let’s admit the race felt flatter than usual until two thirds of the way up the Poggio. Yes it’s always a slow burner but this was a contained race as early break was kept on a tight leash, even Tim Wellens couldn’t go clear on the Cipressa and the approach to the Poggio lacked the usual tactical uncertainty as a move drifts away while the teams watch each other and all but five riders finished when it’s common for 50 to quit along the way. Not that we can demand fireworks, just to remark that the race was so controlled that only Sagan could unlock the race. His move thwarted the sprinters for the first time since 2013 and only Kwiatkowski and Alaphilippe could follow. As the trio reached the finishing straight regardless of the order they’d finish in a satisfying podium awaited.
Sagan told RAI behind the podium that “results don’t count for anything, the most important thing is to put on a show” and there was a prize for showman he’d win, for generosity too as he worked more than his two rivals. Only there isn’t an once more Sanremo eludes him, this is his fifth top-10 but perhaps his best result? It’s harsh to be critical of Sagan today but if he could replay the finish with some hindsight too he’d note he had time on his side, or at least a few seconds to play with, and could maybe have bluffed one of the others into launching their sprint but this still feels tentative because Alaphilippe had Gaviria as insurance and Kwiatkowski’s not the kind of rider to crack either.
Kwiatkowski becomes the first Polish winner of Milan-Sanremo, the first to win a Monument too and what better place than the “city of flowers” for Kwiatkowski to bloom? Alaphilippe looks as insouciant as ever, to think he was only a late entry into the race for Quick Step after his successful Paris-Nice while his team mate Fernando Gaviria was second behind Alexander Kristoff in the bunch sprint to show us what could happen in years to come.
Photo credits: RCS / LaPresse – D’Alberto / Ferrari