They’ve no government following indecisive elections, they’ve no team left in the World Tour but Italy can still count on Vincenzo Nibali. His attack on the Poggio won him the race and brought the first home victory in Sanremo since 2006.
The day began with eight riders from wildcard teams plus Matteo Bono as the lone World Tour representative, going in the early breakaway like he did for three of the last four years and allowing bored viewers to pass the time making wisecracks about his name.
The move was close to being caught over the Turchino presumably they wanted to save energy and the bunch was stressing about the descent and the gap fell to 1.45 but then grew back beyond five minutes back on the coastal road, the Via Aurelia.
The rain was sluicing down but the prayers of the Sanremo tourist agency were heard as the rain eased once the 100km to go point was passed, commencing the slowest strip tease ever as riders peeled of rain jackets, gloves, overshoes and other accessories. For a long time this formed the highlight of the viewing experience but little else could be expected, there was a headwind and the kilometres were being racked up in the legs.
Juraj Sagan was working hard at the front of the bunch and joined by Quick Step’s Tim Declerq as well as Team Sky. As they went over the third of the three capes the sun was out and Groupama-FDJ took up the pace en masse like a sprint train settling into place.
The Cipressa came and went, not a single attack. Groupama-FDJ and Sky set the tempo, not necessarily too fast to attack, the headwind kept a lid on things too. Marcel Kittel was dropped early but others in trouble during the climb such as Ag2r’s Alexis Gougeard were able to get back on. The Cipressa descent without incident and if you tuned in with 10km to go you’d have missed nothing as a large group, unusually large headed for the Poggio rendez-vous.
Just as they left Bussana to reach the foot of the Poggio the riders exited a roundabout and there was an island in the road, some went left, others right and Mark Cavendish tried to avoid it but ended up hitting it and did a 360° somersault in the air before landing several metres later. There’s no news at pixel time on his health but he started the race with a cracked rib. Fingers crossed.
Onto the Poggio and Marcus Burghardt got to work. He he opened up a gap, not an attack but a tactic by Bora-Hangrohe as it forced others to chase. BMC fired Jempy Drucker in pursuit and he soon caught and passed the German champion. When Drucker began to feel the pressure it was Krists Neilands of the Israel Cycling Academy team who had a go and the peloton and viewers alike could be forgiven.
Then with 7.1km to go Vincenzo Nibali took off. At 1m89 tall Neilands made a perfect shelter and in no time Nibali was being carried up the Poggio by Saint Krists, at least for a few seconds and enough to help establish a gap.
Behind Simon Špilak tried a move and the others were watching each other in zugzwang. Despite the sizeable group that reached the Poggio by now there were few at the front. Nibali took over from Neilands and kept glancing back at him wondering just who the 23 year old Latvian might be.
As the road ramped up for the last time into the village of Poggio Nibali shook him off. This was vintage Nibali, bent over his bike with his hands high on top of the brake hoods like a hurried waiter carrying an invisible tray. Now he was free, unlike in 2012 when he looked around after Poggio attack to Fabian Cancellara and Simon Gerrans on his wheel.
Behind Michał Kwiatkowski tried a move, Peter Sagan closed him down and the others around them watched, a scenario the French call a “first class burial”. Nibali began the descent himself with a lead of ten seconds on the chase. It’s slim but it’s been a winning margin before. Kwiatkowski and Sagan tried to force things on the descent but again marked each other out, Matteo Trentin surged away, proof that the descent wasn’t full speed and just behind Sagan kept looking backwards to see who would chase. As the descent ended Nibali had ten seconds.
Rolling on the flat roads and seemingly never in the drops Nibali still had ten seconds coming into Sanremo’s centre as the others watched each other in stalemate. Groupama-FDJ’s Davide Cimolai picked up the chase and the gap was down to seven seconds at the flamme rouge. Quick Step suddenly had the numbers and led the chase, they Nibali in their sight and Viviani on their wheels. Caleb Ewan launched and surged clear of the sprinters but it was too late and Nibali lifted his arms aloft on the Via Roma to cross the line in celebration.
Nothing until the final 10km, no outsiders went in the early breakaway and when the peloton looked to be closing in on the move too early they eased up to give the breakaway more space. Even the Cipressa was sterile and you feared a tame Poggio and an inevitable bunch sprint. The race was saved on the Poggio by Vincenzo Nibali’s attack. We hadn’t seen a victorious solo attack on the Poggio since Giorgio Furlan in 1994 and this was the first Italian win since 2006. The chase behind was hesitant but that’s part of the rationale of an attack, as well as barging clear in a show of strength it’s a way to avoid the politicking behind as riders mark each other. Ewan took a fine second place, surging clear of all the other sprinters with Démare back on the podium.
It’s another entry in the rich palmarès of Nibali, his won all the three grand tours, Lombardia and more and who knows what he’ll do in the Tour de France or the Worlds in Innsbruck later this year. He could still win last year’s Vuelta too. He’s enlivened many more races along the way. This time he showed panache and got the trophy.