Was the winning moment when Julian Alaphilippe attacked on the Poggio to go clear with a small group of riders and eliminating the threat of a bunch sprint, or when he launched his sprint from the group that reached Sanremo? It was a commanding performance and from here the sprint seems more crucial for just as Alaphilippe jumps, Peter Sagan is languishing too far back.
Spring had reached Milan and the riders enjoyed gentle conditions at the start. The early break went and no big team placed a rider up front. Novo Nordisk did get four of their riders. They’re know they’re not going to come first but in the longest race on the calendar showing their diabetic riders can handle 300km is probably the best message they can send out.
Lotto-Soudal, Bora-Hansgrohe, Deceuninck-Quickstep and UAE led the chase with Direct Energie visible too, they kept the break close. As the breakaway reached the final of the three capes Androni’s Fausto Masnada led alone. He just made it to the Cipressa alone, over 260km covered and two paragraphs worth of blog.
The Cipressa didn’t supply much to write home about either. It’s becoming a self-fulling prophecy that since no move has stuck for over 20 years it’s not worth trying but this needn’t be true, it may not deliver a win but it can disrupt the sprinters. Dylan Groenewegen and Nacer Bouhanni lost a few metres but that was about as disruptive as it got.
The descent saw Niccolò Bonifazio challenge the race motos as he carved his way downhill like a Super-G skier in Sölden. It was impressive bordering on wild, you hesitated between wondering who his tire sponsor is and whether he’d land in the same olive tree as Jan Raas in 1984. Back on the via Aurelia and Bonifazio built up a 20 second lead but the effort was showing and suddenly he was swamped by the peloton.
Julian Alaphilippe’s attack on the Poggio was telegraphed in advance, but when. Was it when he declared Milan-Sanremo was his early season target? When he won the Strade Bianche? The two stage wins in Tirreno-Adriatico. You could see Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet bumping shoulders as they jostled to get on his wheel in the approach to the Poggio. Deceuninck-Quickstep set the pace up the Poggio, heightening the inevitability of an Alaphilippe attack, first Zdeněk Štybar then Philippe Gilbert acting as booster rockets to send Alaphilippe into orbit. EF Education First’s Alberto Bettiol was the first to jump and he opened up a gap, then Alaphilppe launched and surged past.
Kwiatkowski led the chase with Peter Sagan on his wheel to recreate the 2016 podium in the race but they were joined by Matteo Trentin, Wout Van Aert, Oliver Naesen and Alejandro Valverde and the group had a 12 second lead as they embarked on the descent. After a warp-speed climb – apparently a new record which requires further analysis – the descent was calmer and riders began to get across to form a group of 11 riders by the time they rode into Sanremo including Vincenzo Nibali. Trentin attacked, a surprise given his sprint but he got a gap until Van Aert bridged across with the rest in two.
Watch the sprint in slow motion and Sagan almost resembles a traffic island, he seemed immobile as the others parted around him, he didn’t want to lead out but the hesitation saw him swamped and he was suddenly seventh wheel. He’s never been a fine tactician, with his power he hasn’t needed to be and perhaps he’s still a touch short of form and so less lucid in the finish. Matej Mohorič led and then Alaphilippe jumped with over 200m to go. For a second it looked like Naesen was going to get past but the Frenchman was on top of a huge gear and had time to sit up and celebrate before the line.
Late action. The early breakaway was as menacing as a mushroom risotto, and the Cipressa might as well have been flat but if it doesn’t offer spectacle, it’s not redundant as it compounds the fatigue. All this relative inaction just heightened the tension for the Poggio where the dimming sunlight and shadows, as well as the TV production, can make it hard to see what is happening as things move so fast. It made for a mesmerising final 12 minutes: the time between the start of the Poggio and the finish… it felt like five minutes.
Alaphilippe wins as predicted: a Poggio attack and then winning the sprint from a small group but there was never a moment of inevitability. His attack saw him swamped by some big names including Sagan and Trentin who were rivals for the sprint, and with a kilometre to go he didn’t seem an obvious winner in a sprint alongside Peter Sagan, nor with 100 metres to go as Naesen closed in.
It might feel like the latest in a regular series for Alaphilippe who does make it look easy. But this is his biggest by far, over and above the Tour de France stages and the Flèche Wallonne. The podium feels satisfying with Oliver Naesen getting a surprise second place but a deserved result and previous winner Michał Kwiatkowski. Peter Sagan just misses out, again, it’s his third fourth place in Sanremo, the first goes way back to 2012 and if he seemed to be the fastest in the final 200 metres it’s proof of how elusive the race can be.