Talk about entertainment. Milan-sanremo was a cacophany of what makes cycling such a brilliant sport to follow. The race went through just about every iteration possible in terms of racing, including the tactically interesting ‘half time’ forced by the reason this Sanremo will be remembered for a long time – the weather. The appalling conditions, which we’re only just beginning to become aware of thanks to photography of teams early in the race, decimated the race by freezing the racers to tears, and giving them a legitimate reason to wear Giro and co’s awful near ventless helmets. Speaking of which, Giro always claimed they provided more ventilation then their other models, surely not the best move for a race where temperatures were freezing before windchill?
Anyway, the finale was, as usual, very hard to call. Gilbert jumped away with 30odd kilometres to go in what can only have been a suicide move – he certainly couldn’t follow Chavanel and Stannard, who were joined by Russian Vorganov, who then managed to get 27 seconds lead on a peloton that didn’t look all too interested in bringing them back. It got strung out once, but then returned to the spread across the road fan shape that shows the pressure isn’t on. At this point, I was convinced the leading trio would get away.
When they hit the poggio, this seemed even more likely. Chavanel struggled to hold Stannard, and the two got rid of the pesky Vorganov and set about maintaining their advantage. It was Luca Paolini, who has been on the podium of this race, who eventually ended the stalemate in the group, launching off to be followed by Cancellara, who did his usual ‘powwwaaahhh’ and charged off, with Sagan desperate to close the gap. Behind them, Pozzato slipped back, but Gerald Ciolek kicked up to sit in the wheels.
Quick as a flash, the gap had disintergrated, and the group of six, now Cancellara, Sagan, Stannard, Chavanel, Ciolek and Paolini set about watching one another a little, but Stannard, machine that he is, drove on, stretching the elastic but not enough to trouble anyone. Sagan pulled everything back that went away because of his favourite status, and interestingly, Cancellara did not attack again. Suddenly though, in a Beijing-Cancellara deja vu moment, Taylor Phinney appeared from nowhere as they entered the last kilometre, hauling himself toward the front group. Chavanel launched the sprint, and an overly twitchy Sagan went too soon, when Chavanel was never realisitcally going to beat him regardless of where he sprinted from. This gave Ciolek, who had sat unnoticed like Matt Goss in 2011, at the back, the chance to get around Sagan and he just about managed it to win the first Milan-sanremo for an African team after 7 hours of snow, stoppages, crashes and glorious spectacle.
So what have we learnt from the first Monument of the year?
Sky’s ‘Project Classics Squad’
Sky’s typically innovative approach to the classics this year has been to leave Paris-Nice and Tirrenno to the GC guys and instead to train on Tenerife, lapping up the sun and getting themselves out of sight, out of mind of the other competitors. Unfortunately, as everyone who trains in sunny climes found out, this doesn’t have much benefit when you return to freezing conditions. However, we can’t really say we’ve learnt too much about Sky’s classics ambitions from this. Stannard saved face by giving the squad its best Milan-sanremo finish, which was previously a meager 15th by the now departed Flecha, but aside from that it was the usual polar-opposed Sky- when it goes well, it goes very well, but when it doesn’t, it all falls apart. Boassen Hagen apparently somehow managed to get food poisoning, despite Sky’s infamous attention to detail, whilst on Tenerife, whilst Geraint Thomas, so good in the early season, fell off, as did Salvatore Puccio. If it wasn’t for Stannard, the Sky highlights reel would have simply been them being dropped and falling off. Still, with the exceptional conditions, its tricky to read much into it.
Phinney saves BMC’s face
BMC lined up with an absurd amount of talent- the World Champion and a winner of three monuments in Gilbert, a past World Champion and podium finisher at the race in Thor Hushovd, famed for surviving the conditions the race through at the riders, Greg Van Avermaet, the nearly man of the Belgian Classics, Alexandr Kristoff, the Olympic Bronze medalist and Taylor Phinney,winner of the U23 Paris-Roubaix. Yet still BMC are unable to procure a classics victory. In fact, the only classics the team have managed are Fleche Wallone with Evans and Paris-Tours with Van Avermaet. Whilst Kristoff won the bunch sprint, it was Phinney who impressed the most with his last gasp burn across to the leaders, which helped make everyone forget what Gilbert was doing attacking 30km from the finish. BMC are going to have to ask some questions sooner or later about how their riders are performing, a the longer their monument drought continues, the more people will question their ‘galactico’ transfer policy.
Sunday’s race was refreshing in that everyone played the correct tactics for their talents, rather than sitting in a bunch in fear of losing. Cancellara refined his usual ‘bugger it, I’ll just burn them off my wheel’ approach to be more sublte and sensible in what energy he used, whilst it was great to see that Sagan was both intelligent enough and mentally strong enough to bring back every attack, knowing he was obliged to as favorite, Furthermore, Stannard kept attacking to the death, knowing his sprint is poor, whilst Ciolek sensibly did nothing. The contrasting styles and forms of racing thus painted a colourful picture of the nuances of cycling, which have missing abit lately.
A worthy winner in Ciolek
Predictably, people took to Twitter to berate Ciolek as a ‘wheel sucker’ who had ‘stolen’ the win from the ‘strong riders.’ And what’s more, these genii claimed, ‘it’s not a classic if a big name doesn’t win.’ What nonsense. No doubt these blokes would have been venerating Vincenzo Nibali’s comment that Power meters should be banned to stop riders (Well, Sky for Nibali) riding to plan and eliminating panache. This has been a bit of a theme at Milan-sanremo recently – Simon Gerrans was attacked for ‘sitting on’ Cancellara by the armchair pundits, who obviously would all have been able to comfortably take a turn with the quadruple World time trial champion. These idiots have to decide what they want – to they just want the strongest man to win? If so, then there’s no need for a race – we just sit all the riders on a Turbo trainer and whoever can do the highest wattage wins. If you want to see the strongest man win, petition the UCI for more time trials – road racing however is about the play off between strength and the tactics that make it such an intriguing and wonderful occasion. Gerald Ciolek won Milan-sanremo and as such was the best rider in the field.
Cavendish, Boonen and the OPQS
It had been oh so simple when Cavendish joined in the winter. Boonen would have gone with the Poggio attacks, and if that had stayed away, they would have won the sprint. If not, Cavendish would have won the bunch sprint. Unfortunately, the fates conspired and Boonen has been recovering from intestinal and elbow surgery, whilst Cavendish has spent more time talking about how he wasn’t going to win the race then about the misfiring leadout train that cost him at Tirreno.Luckily for him, they’d all abandoned by the time of the sprint, which he was second in. Cavendish had been helped by the removal of the two big mountains of the race though, and he may have some point when he says he can’t win it anymore – it was suprising how quickly sprinters were dropped on the climbs despite the shorter distance, although cold was probably a factor. Boonen though is being more enigmatic – pulling out was wise given his delicate condition, although the rant on the organisers probably wasnt. It was also sensible as it hides what form he has before Ghent-Whevelgem, which he is defending, and makes him a dangerously unknown, if probably not that great, contender. With Cavendish having demonstrated him climbing legs however, maybe this can finally be the year that he gets the classic he’s been gunning for since 2008.
Oh, and we never got to talk about the new Specialised Mclaren helmets OPQS and Astana were sporting…
Chavanel and Cancellara – spent forces?
Sylvain ‘La Machine’ Chavanel, is 33, whilst Fabian ‘Spartacus’ Cancellara was 32 on Monday. Chavanel has been 2nd in Flanders, 8th at Roubaix and now 4th at Sanremo, whilst Cancellara hasn’t won a classic since his dominant Paris-Roubaix in 2010. Since then, he’s never been off the podium at Milan-sanremo or at Flanders and Roubaix, although he didn’t complete them last year due to his crash. The problem with Cancellara is that he doesnt seem to have,or be willing to continue,the strong burst he used to use to drag himself clear, and he now gives up quickly when everyone follows him. He has been found out tactically to a degree, as has Chavanel, who is another rider who it is very sensible to go with given his time trialling prowess. So will either of them win a classic in the future? Probably. Chavanel has discovered the spring classics fairly late, considering he spent most of his career chasing breaks at Cofidis, and has been steadily improving, whilst Cancellara can take solice in what his rival Tom Boonen managed after two years in the doldrums. Perhaps a move back to Saxo-Tinkoff when Radioshack packs up at the end of the year will be invigorating, something he should consider even if he wins a Mounument this year.
Who is on form?
Sagan, Cancellara and Chavanel will all be looking at the results sheet with satisfaction going into ‘Holy Week’, with Sagan probably keen to improve his 2nd at Ghent from last year. Cavendish will also be looking forward to that, as would, of course, Gerald Ciolek, expect that MTN haven’t been invited to the race. Men further down the standings will also be happy that they’re out of people’s minds for the time being – men like John Deglenkob, Jurgen Roleandts and Heinrich Haussler. At the other end of the spectrum, we have to ask where Pozzato and Gilbert were. Pozzato has always traditionally animated the race, usually be following (read: ‘Shadowing’) Gilbert, and will be hoping to explain the bad day as just that, or the effects of the cold.
Does the Route really need changing?
The perpetual moaning about changing the sanremo race route has got a bit daft (By this, I mean changing the finale, not the removal of the earlier climbs due to snow). The race has always been entertaining because it is a race between the sprinters and the aggressive riders, as was played out this year when the pack were only 14 seconds off the lead. The organisation seem obsessed with making the race harder though, and seem determined to carry out the Henri Desgrange Nietzsche-esque ideal of one man arriving solo. This is daft- there are plenty of hilly races for puncheurs, and Milan sanremo is unique in it’s the only Mounument sprinters really have a chance in in a sport where opportunities for the fast men are becoming limited, as seen by increasingly hilly Grand Tour stage finishes and the dirth of flat World’s courses. There hasn’t been a bunch sprint in 3 years – maybe it’s time to return to the Via Roma rather than making the race even harder.
Not much has been said about Ciolek, the winner, oddly enough. He’s had an interesting career- first as Mark Cavendish’s leadout man at the 2008 Tour, where it was expected he’d move to challenge his teammate given he’d been German road champ at 18 and won the U23 Worlds shortly after. It was another German, Andre Greipel, who emerged however, and Ciolek went, maybe for patriotic reasons,to Milram, where he was rewarded with a Vuelta stage win as the sum of his time there. Quick-step came calling, but he will be remembered there more for his mustache, rather than anything he achieved, although he did win a stage of the Volta a Algarve. Moving to MTN-Quebeka has obviously revitalised him, and he’s still only 26. He retains the hill climbing skills and punch that marked him out 5 years ago, and he’ll now hope to push on and take some more wins so prove this wasn’t a fluke.