By Nigel Wynn
Arnaud Démare (FDJ) defied the pre-race favourites to win the 2016 edition of Milan-San Remo in Italy on Saturday.
Despite crashing earlier in the race, the Frenchman put in a well-timed effort in the final sprint to take the biggest victory of his career just ahead of Briton Ben Swift (Sky). Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto-Soudal) completed the podium in third.
It's Swift's second appearance on the Milan-San Remo podium having finished third in 2014.
The last Frenchman to win Milan-San Remo was Laurent Jalabert in 1995.
"This is incredible," said Démare after the finish. "There are days like this one in which everything works despite the occasional hiccup, like crashing at the bottom of the Cipressa.
"I made it across at the bottom of the Poggio and the entire way I felt fantastic. I became the under-23 world champion in similar conditions after crashing. I'm delighted to win Milan-San Remo. This is a big one and has been running for over a century. It's extraordinary. I'm extremely happy."
A sizeable 11-man escape group formed after 14 kilometres of racing, comprising Matteo Bono (Lampre-Merida), Gediminas Bagdonas (Ag2r), Jan Barta (Bora-Argon 18), Samuele Conti (Southeast), Roger Kluge (IAM), Maarten Tjallingii (LottoNL-Jumbo), Marco Coledan (Trek-Segafredo), Andrea Peron (Novo-Nordisk), Mirco Maestri (Bardiani-CSF), Serghei Tvetcov (Androni-Giocattoli) and Adrian Kurek (CCC Sprandi Polkowice).
The peloton was happy to let the escape group go, and they had gained an advantage of around 11 minutes after 50 kilometres. However, Tinkoff and Katusha set the pace of the peloton and the gap went under 10 minutes after 100km.
After the Turchino climb, the group's gap had shrunk to five minutes. Dimension Data and Etixx-QuickStep also signalled their intentions and put some riders at the front of the peloton along with Katusha and Tinkoff.
As the sun continued to shine, the peloton slowly ate away at the break's lead. A crash at the back of the bunch occurred at the bottom of the Capo Mele climb, leaving a few riders with work to do to catch back up.
Inside 50km to go, and there was a changing of the guard at the front of the peloton, with Lotto-Soudal, Cannondale, BMC and Orica-GreeEdge helping to lead the chase. The break's lead was further chipped away over the minor climbs of Capo Cervo and Capo Berta, with only 45 seconds in hand by the descent of the latter.
Sensing that the catch was imminent, Tjallingii and Coledan tried to ride away from the break as they headed towards the Cipressa. They were joined by Maestri, Kluge, Barta and Bono.
As the nerves started to build, more crashes happened at the back of the peloton on the narrow roads. One incident took down Geraint Thomas, Peter Kennaugh (both Sky), Daniele Bennati (Tinkoff) and Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge). Matthews was left to try and catch up and 2009 winner Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) was held up and ruled out of the finale.
Astana forced the pace on the Cipressa, catching the remnants of the escape group with 25km to go. Ian Stannard (Sky) and Giovanni Visconti (Movistar) attacked over the top of Cipressa. They were joined by Daniel Oss (BMC), Matteo Montaguti (Ag2r) and Fabio Sabatini (Etixx-QuickStep) with a 15-second gap.
The quintet were caught just before the start of the final climb of the day, the Poggio, bringing the race back together. Luke Rowe (Sky) led the bunch into the climb.
Andrea Fedi (Southeast) was the first to attack, but was reeled in. Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Soudal) was next to have a go, followed by a big move from Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) who hit the descent with a slim lead. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) and Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo) led the chase.
Kwiatkowski was caught with a kilometre to go, with Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) making a late move followed by Greg Van Avermaet (BMC). As they faded, the sprinters caught up to set up a bunch finish with a late crash taking out Fernando Gaviria (Etixx-QuickStep).
Démare came from a long way back to take the victory with Swift just unable to go around him in a carbon copy of stage one of Paris-Nice, where Démare also got the better of Swift. Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) was left banging his bars in frustration after what looked like a mechanical problem.
A landslide on the morning of the race led to a nine-kilometre detour just after the Turchino climb, bumping up the total distance from 291km to 295km.
Milan-San Remo 2016, 295km
1. Arnaud Démare (Fra) FDJ in 6-54-45
2. Ben Swift (GBr) Team Sky
3. Jurgen Roelandts (Bel) Lotto-Soudal
4. Nacer Bouhanni (Fra) Cofidis
5. Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC Racing
6. Alexander Kristoff (Nor) Katusha
7. Heinrich Haussler (Aus) IAM Cycling
8. Filippo Pozzato (Ita) Southeast
9. Sonny Colbrelli (Ita) Bardiani-CSF
10. Matteo Trentin (Ita) Etixx-QuickStep all same time
12. Peter Sagan (Svk) Tinkoff
31. Fabian Cancellara (Swi) Trek-Segafredo at same time
33. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Astana at 8 secs
49. Peter Kennaugh (GBr) Team Sky at 36 secs
57. Ian Stannard (GBr) Team Sky at 36 secs
77. Steve Cummings (GBr) Dimension Data at 1-38
91. Luke Rowe (GBr) Team Sky at 2-43
95. Simon Yates (GBr) Orica-GreenEdge at 3-18
110. Mark Cavendish (GBr) Dimension Data at 4-25
168. Adam Blythe (GBr) Tinkoff at 14-28
169. Geraint Thomas (GBr) Team Sky at 14-28
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