Peter Sagan lit up Milan-San Remo but once again lost out to his personal bogeyman Michal Kwiatkowski
For retired La Gazzetta dello Sport reporter Marco Pastonesi, Milan-San Remo was a race apart. He put that down to its tradition, its history and also its mystery.
“It always seems like the same old race, but every time there’s something different. It depends on the road, on the weather, on the riders. I think it gives the riders a special feeling,” he told me before the epic 2013 edition when I was researching the Monuments.
Pastonesi said one of the beauties of La Primavera is that it starts slow and builds up to become a thriller.
This year’s race was exactly that, following the well-established format whereby a decent-sized group spends most of the day at the front of affairs, then yields centre stage when the real stars decide the time has come to perform, and concluding with a spectacular finale, in which Michal Kwiatkowski edged out world champion Peter Sagan by a tyre’s width, with Julian Alaphilippe half a bike length down in the third and the rest out of sight.
The moment the star names appeared came when the peloton was halfway up the penultimate climb of the Cipressa.
Thanks to Lotto-Soudal’s Tim Wellens and Sunweb’s Simon Geschke and Tom Dumoulin, the pace was high to see off a good part of the bunch, including former winner Mark Cavendish.
Yet, coming on to the subsequent ascent of the Poggio, several of the sprinters named pre-race as the favourites were still in contention, each with several teammates on hand to support them.
Heading up that little hill, Team Sky had a quartet of riders on the front, seemingly intent on keeping the race together for sprinter Elia Viviani. Fifth in line was world champion Peter Sagan. What would his tactic be?
Second in that snow-hit edition of 2013 and twice fourth, it had been widely predicted even by some of his rivals that Sagan wouldn’t attack on the Poggio, that he would wait and take his chance in a bunch sprint.
However, with past winners Alexander Kristoff and Arnaud Démare, plus in-form sprinters Fernando Gaviria, John Degenkolb, Nacer Bouhanni and Michael Matthews all on his heels, Sagan clearly decided there were a few too many sprinters around to lose out to.
Two-thirds of the way up the Poggio, Bora’s world champion pulled out from behind the Sky quartet and shot away.
Too quick and simply too strong for any of the sprinters to follow, his attack was countered by puncheurs Kwiatkowski and Alaphilippe. Frenchman Alaphilippe looked the most sprightly of the pair, closing the gap to Sagan before the summit, where the trio had a winnable advantage of a dozen seconds.
On the fast and technical descent, Sagan was happy to lead the way. Coming off it, with two kilometres to the finish, the three men led by 17 seconds and only had to sort the podium places out between them. Now for the finale.
Alaphilippe immediately made his intentions clear, refusing to come through from the back of the line. Beaten at the very last by Sagan in the Tour de France stage to Cherbourg last year, the Quick-Step rider knew that he wasn’t the fastest. With his teammate and sprinter Gaviria in the group that was starting to close behind, he had no reason to collaborate.
For 1500 metres, Sagan and Kwiatkowski shared the pace-making. Sagan led weaving through the chicane leading onto the finishing straight and almost immediately opened the sprint.
Having blown the race apart in a way that no other rider could manage, this was another unexpected move, but one that didn’t pay off in the same way as his attack on the Poggio had.
Rather than outpacing Alaphilippe and, most particularly, Kwiatkowski, Sagan led them out, the Pole coming by in the final metres and then holding off Sagan to claim his first victory in a Monument and by the tightest of margins.
What a finale it was. Sagan was sensational, providing most of the thrills relished so much by Pastonesi.
However, once again, victory in Sanremo has evaded him, and not for the first time it was his old rival Kwiatkowski, now apparently reborn as a Classics specialist he always looked likely to be, who proved his nemesis.