Milan-San Remo analysis: patience is a virtue

Gerald Ciolek was the shock winner of Milan-San Remo, but should we have been that surprised?

Words by Edward Pickering

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Sunday March 17, 2013

Gerald Ciolek won Milan-San Remo, but first two of the hottest favourites, and undoubtedly two of the strongest riders, had to lose it.

As what was left of the peloton cracked, then definitively broke apart up and over the Poggio, a leading group of six coalesced, within sight of the rest of the race, but far enough ahead, and committed enough, to force themselves clear.

Two, Ian Stannard of Sky and Sylvain Chavanel of Omega Pharma, had started the climb 30 seconds ahead of the bunch. One, Luca Paolini of Katusha, had attempted to bridge the gap on the climb. And three more, Fabian Cancellara of RadioShack, Pater Sagan of Cannondale and MTN’s Ciolek, had torn themselves away from the peloton in pursuit, on the second ramp of the Poggio. Filippo Pozzato of Lampre had followed, but was tailed off on the descent. On the swooping downhill to San Remo, the six riders came together.

With the race down to these six, politics and ambition took over. Sagan was the pre-race favourite, while Cancellara is a former winner. Paolini was fresh from a clever win in Het Nieuwsblad, Stannard was fresh from Team Sky’s non-racing build-up to the Classics. Chavanel’s an omnipresent attacker. And Ciolek? He was the fastest finisher in the group, the man who the T-Mobile management originally prioritised as the team’s leading sprinter ahead of Mark Cavendish, when both were young riders.

Sagan wanted a sprint. So did Ciolek. Cancellara is a fast finisher, but through brute strength rather than the medium of a fast jump. Stannard and Chavanel, tired from having broken away earlier than the others, could only win by attacking, while Paolini was stuck between not being the fastest sprinter, and clearly not having the strength to attack on his own.

But there was more to it than that.

The significant backstory was the presence of Sagan and Cancellara. The Swiss rider had suffered a highly visible series of defeats by cannier riders willing to sit on his wheel and outsprint him, as happened in this race last year and in the first stage of the Tour de France, or by teams neutralising him by sending decoys up the road and marooning him in unwilling chase groups, as happened in Strade Bianche.

Cancellara was clearly determined not to make the same mistake for a fourth or fifth time. He made attacks, but when they were neutralised, he didn’t follow through. No more Mr Nice Guy.

But it was also clear Sagan and Cancellara were looking at each other a lot more than they were looking at the others. With just under two and a half kilometres to go, Sagan attacked, just as Cancellara had drifted back from the front of the group.

It was the move that lost Sagan the race. He didn’t need to attack. He needed a sprint. Cancellara closed him down, followed by Paolini and Ciolek. Gruppo compatto. And when Stannard made a diesel-like attack from the back of the group, it was Sagan who closed him down, while Ciolek followed, the bridge being made at 0.9 kilometres.

At that point, the list of riders in the group who had actively made attacks earlier in the race was: everybody except Ciolek.

The German deserved his win. He followed, followed, followed and followed, keeping a cool head while those around him panicked, just as Simon Gerrans did last year. There’s no asterisk on the winners’ list which explains how the race unfolded, or which rider expended the most watts, or how many attacks the winner made in the course of getting his wheel over the line first. Ciolek calmly waited for his only chance to win: in a sprint. And he took it.


It was the most unusual edition of Milan-San Remo in living memory. Cold and wet weather froze the peloton as they left Milan, and as snow fell on the Turchino Pass, the organisers took the unprecedented but necessary step of taking it out of the race – it was unrideable. The riders would have to get into their team buses and be driven down to the coast, with the six rider break that had built a lead of 10 minutes – hastily reduced to seven as the peloton realised that 10 minutes was a big gift with 40 fewer kilometres to race – given a head start. With television executives fretting about the effect of the added time on their schedules, the Manie climb was also taken out of the route.

Neither climb is particularly hard, but the challenge of Milan-San Remo is the extraordinary distance. Riders would still have a 250-kilometre race, but with a 90-minute break in the middle while they sat in team buses, tried to warm up and ate. How the race will have panned out if the weather had been better and the climbs included is now a subject for parlour games. We’ll never know, and it doesn’t matter.

The six riders who’d been in the break – Lars Bak, Pablo Lastras, Matteo Montaguti, Diego Rosa, Maxim Belkov and Francesco Fortin – were duly set off with a seven minute lead, and 130 kilometres to race. Everybody was fresher and warmer than they would have been, but it was still inevitable they would be caught. Several teams – Cannondale, Sky, Astana, Garmin, RadioShack and Argos each donated one or two men to the chase, meaning that the number of men working behind was greater than the number of men working at the front. It took them 100 kilometres to close the gap.

The incessant rain washed away the chances of many. Tom Boonen didn’t even get back out of his team bus when the race restarted. Matt Goss packed along the coast road. Vincenzo Nibali spent three hours sulking at the back of the peloton before climbing off before the race even hit the Cipressa.

But the cold and wet also tipped the balance of the race just a bit further away from the sprinters than normal. In a warm and dry Milan-San Remo, the balance of power between sprinters and attackers is almost perfectly poised. With the atrocious conditions forcing riders to abandon, team numbers were eroded, and the chances of success for attackers grew. Who would be able to chase for the sprinters?

Sky’s race was almost ended at the Cipressa. Geraint Thomas crashed, along with Garmin’s Tyler Farrar, before the climb, then Edvald Boasson Hagen, a favourite for the race, was dropped on the climb itself. The effect was to liberate British champion Ian Stannard, who followed an attack by Philippe Gilbert on the descent, then went clear with Chavanel and Katusha’s Edouard Vorganov en route to the Poggio. Initially, Cancellara and Sagan had followed, although the peloton quickly caught them.

The leading trio built a lead of 30 seconds, while the peloton, now only 30 riders strong, couldn’t make an impact on their lead. An indication of how exposed the team leaders were was that Cannondale were leading the chase, and they had only one domestique left – Moreno Moser.

Stannard and Chavanel got rid of Vorganov on the Poggio, but they needed 15 seconds more over the top than the handful of seconds they actually had. As they entered each hairpin of the descent, the chasers, led by Sagan got closer and closer, and by the foot of the descent, there were six.

With the peloton too far behind to catch them, the winner would come from this group. And then, on a day in which the circumstances had favoured attacking verve, initiative and enterprise, Ciolek, the bunch sprinter, won the race.

Cancellara must be asking himself, has he won his last Classic? And Sagan, with another podium place to add to a growing collection, must be asking, when will he win his first?

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