Delighted Alaphilippe wins his first Monument
There’s no question as to who the best rider of 2019 has been so far. Just two weeks after landing one of the season’s first major Classics, Strade Bianche, Julian Alaphilippe won the season’s first Monument, Milan-San Remo on Saturday (March 23). That’s his seventh win of the season, which includes a couple more WorldTour-ranked stages at Tirreno-Adriatico, and is the highest total anyone has mustered so far.
For all his success, Milan-San Remo is the big one. It’s the Frenchman’s first ever Monument victory, having come so close in previous years by podiuming here two years ago, as well as placing second at both Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2015 and Il Lombardia in 2017.
For a non-specialist sprinter like Alaphilippe, Milan-San Remo is a very difficult race to win. The odds are generally weighted in favour of sprinters, and many world class puncheurs (like, for example, Alaphilippe’s teammate Philippe Gilbert) spend their whole careers making strong, bold attacks in vain.
But the 26-year old road a textbook race, attacking on the Poggio to instigate the winning move, drifting to the back of it to preserve his energy, and only emerging at the front again to time his finishing sprint perfectly.
Whatever happens from now on, this win ensures that Alaphilippe’s season has been a success. But you expect that he’s far from finished - with the Ardennes Classics to come, this purple patch looks set to continue.
Deceuninck - Quick-Step continue invincible streak
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Deceuninck - Quick-Step once again rode a tactically perfect race, and once again came out triumphant - their fifth Classic victory already this spring.
On the Poggio, it became clear that they were all in for Alaphilippe. Zdenek Stybar and Philippe Gilbert moved to the front of the peloton to set a searing pace, and did not let up even when the team’s sprinter, Elia Viviani, began to fall adrift at the back of the peloton.
At the time, giving up such a strong card to play seemed like a considerable risk, but the team’s faith in Alaphilippe was justified when the Frenchman followed up an explosive attack with a superior sprint to win yet another Classic.
Cycling has rarely seen dominance of the kind Deceuninck - Quick-Step have enjoyed these past two seasons, and the team’s togetherness was summed up in one image at the finish - Stybar, Gilbert, Viviani and Yves Lampaert (all riders who set aside their realistic ambitions of winning themselves for the good of the team) crossing the line in unison, each with broad smiles painted on their faces.
An unusual finish
Most recent editions of Milan-San Remo tend to follow one of two clear templates - those that end in bunch finishes, and those in which a small breakaway on the Poggio succeeds.
This year, however, was unusual in terms of the size of the escape group that made it to the line to contest for victory. Alaphilippe instigated the action on the Poggio, but was followed by several other riders, and a total of seven crested the top together - him, Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Michał Kwiatkowski ( Team Sky), Oliver Naesen (Ag2r La Mondiale), Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).
That group got even bigger when another flurry of stragglers led by Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) bridged across on the descent, yet they remained cohesive enough to fend off the chasing peloton.
This being the third successive Milan-San Remo in which the sprinters were foiled - following three editions between 2014-16 which all ended in bunch sprints - you wonder whether the pendulum has shifted in favour of attackers over sprinters, perhaps because of smaller team sizes, or perhaps because of the wealth of quality puncheurs in the peloton at present.
Whatever the reason, the likes of Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates), Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) and Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) will need to devise a plan to control the attacks come next year’s edition.
Sagan frustrated again
One of the intriguing mysteries leading up to the race was whether Peter Sagan had the form and the fitness to at last win Milan-San Remo.
The former three-time world champion has been sick in the weeks preceding the race, and had not been his usual self in the early season races, with just one win to his name.
However, he was in the mix when the action kicked off on the Poggio, and circumstances seemed to have played perfectly into his hands as the 12-man group approached the finish. Was he finally about to claim victory in a race that had eluded him for the past decade?
That’s when things went wrong. He found himself at the front of the group on the Via Roma finishing straight, the worst possible position with all the other riders in his slipstream. After knocking off his pace, he was then slow to respond when Matej Mohorič (Bahrain-Merida) started the sprint, and was playing catch up while Alaphilippe made his explosive move, and ultimately had the settle for fourth place behind riders you’d usually expect him to beat in a sprint.
Coincidentally, one of the riders was Kwiatkowski, the same man who denied him victory at the 2017 Milan-San Remo. The Pole was third this time behind Oliver Naesen, a rider we associate more with the cobbled Classics, and who looked delighted with his unexpected second-place finish.
Earlier breaks animate race
Not a lot happens in Milan-San Remo before the breathless activity of the final half hour, so we were grateful to the riders who put their nose to the wind in the earlier stages.
Usually the Cipressa prompts attacks from hopeful outside bets, but this time no-one attempted to break out of the Astana and EF Education-First led peloton.
Things livened up on the descent, however, when Niccolo Bonifazio (Direct Energie) leaped out of the bunch. Given his credentials as a bunch sprinter, it was a surprise move, but the young Italian descended with real panache to briefly lead the race, before the inevitable upping of the pace on the run-in to the Poggio.
For most of the day, a breakaway of ten riders lead the race, four of which were from the Novo Nordisk team. The group may never have had a chance of contesting for the victory, but it made for great publicity for the team’s mission statement to "inspire, educate and empower people affected by diabetes" - all four of their riders in the break (Joonas Henttala, Andrea Peron, Charles Planet and Umberto Poli) have type 1 diabetes.
Fausto Masnada (Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec) was the final survivor of the break, but his remote dream was also extinguished when the peloton swallowed him up on the Cipressa.
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