Reflections on Milan-San Remo: Ciolek, Cancellara, Sagan, Chavanel, Stannard, and how much is too much?

Words by Edward Pickering

Monday March 18, 2013

CIOLEK’S PERFECT RACE

Gerald Ciolek played a perfect tactical game to win Milan-San Remo, proving once again that if you take a sprinter to a sprint finish, he’ll go by so fast there won’t even be time for him to say thank you.

On the surface, it was a surprising win, since the German has never really built on the promise he showed when he beat Robert Förster and Erik Zabel in a sprint in the German national championships in 2005 at the age of 20. He’s also only ever finished in the top 100 in Milan-San Remo once, six years ago (although three podium finishes in Vattenfall Cyclassics shows he has the endurance to sprint in longer events).

But he rode with patience and guile, playing his rivals off against each other and doing his best to ensure that there would be a sprint finish.

There was a single moment in the race which decided he would be the winner.

On the Poggio climb, on the last, interminable draggy ramp to the sharp left-hand bend at the start of the descent, four riders had followed Luca Paolini’s attack, definitively separating themselves from the peloton. As Paolini went, Peter Sagan, Filippo Pozzato, Fabian Cancellara and Ciolek followed, in that order.

Once Paolini was caught, there was a lull. And then, as the group momentarily slowed, Cancellara attacked. Ciolek was in his wheel, but crucially, the German didn’t follow. Instead, Peter Sagan had to physically shoulder Ciolek aside to close down Cancellara. Ciolek slotted straight into Sagan’s wheel, forcing the Slovak to expend the energy needed to catch up to Cancellara.

That moment told us everything we needed to know about what the result would be. Sagan and Cancellara were so busy racing each other that they forgot to race the better sprinter, happily sitting in their wheels.

As I pointed out yesterday in my analysis, out of the six riders in the front group coming into San Remo, only one didn’t make any attacks during the race: Ciolek.

CANCELLARA’S LOSING STREAK

The results of previous events don’t have much to do with what happens in the heat of the moment in a race, but the last three editions of Milan-San Remo have been remarkably similar in their circumstances. While not identical, they have certainly rhymed.

In each case, Fabian Cancellara has forced a selection on the Poggio, and in each case he’s been narrowly beaten by a superior sprinter in a small group finish.

In 2011, Matt Goss hauled himself onto the winning move over the Poggio, allowed others to close down the breaks, and duly won the sprint. Last year, Cancellara worked almost single-handedly to keep himself, Simon Gerrans and Vincenzo Nibali clear through the streets of San Remo, only to be outsprinted by an Australian for the second year in succession.

Cancellara’s not a bad sprinter. He’s able to finish high up in bunch finishes through pure power and strength (he lacks the classic sprinter’s “kick”), but to be the strongest rider in the race three years running, and be beaten each time, shows that it’s probably time for him to vary his tactics.

STANNARD’S BREAKTHROUGH

Team Sky were impressive yesterday for how they dealt with a double whammy of adversity. Their plan A, Geraint Thomas, crashed at the worst possible moment, just as the peloton was speeding towards the bottom of the Cipressa. Plan B, Edvald Boasson Hagen, was surprisingly dropped on the climb itself.

They could have been forgiven for giving up and saving themselves for another day. Tyler Farrar crashed with Thomas, and Garmin team manager Jonathan Vaughters immediately Tweeted, “And that’s the end of our race…”

But Ian Stannard immediately took the initiative, and was the most aggressive rider in the final 30 kilometres of the race.

The British champion made a major breakthrough yesterday. He achieved an impressive third in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in 2010 (in similar filthy conditions to yesterday’s race), but in a less important event, in such poor weather, you could argue that he was lucky that the break he was in stuck. But this time he was among exalted company, following Philippe Gilbert’s aggression on the Cipressa descent, then attacking hard out when they were back on the coast road. Only Sylvain Chavanel and temporary passenger Edouard Vorganov were able to follow Stannard’s clever move.

Stannard worked well with Chavanel, with the two alternately co-operating, then trading attacks on the Poggio. Then, when the group swelled to six, he made one more last-ditch effort with 1.8 kilometres to go – having been momentarily distanced by Sagan’s attack 500 metres earlier, he caught the group and motored straight past them. It was a good try, and a brave last-ditch effort to win.

Sixth place was a pretty accurate reflection of his sprinting abilities compared to the others, but watch out for Stannard in the Classics to come.

FOLLOW MY LEADER

There was a lot of debate in the lead-up to Milan-San Remo about Omega Pharma’s likely strategy.

Who was the leader? Was it proven Milan-San Remo contender Tom Boonen, who’s finished second, third and fourth in previous years? Or Mark Cavendish, who won in 2009, but has never reached San Remo in the front group since?

Cavendish, the better sprinter? Or Boonen, the better Classics rider? The debate raged, on Twitter, on internet forums and among my colleagues in the press.

So I smiled when Sylvain Chavanel proved to be their best rider in the race, making the winning break.

It was actually a good strategy by the team. Boonen pulled himself out of the race, staying in the team bus when the race resumed. But with Chavanel out front, and Cavendish safe in the chasing group, they still had options in case the break was caught.

SAGAN: THE CASE AGAINST

The long wait for Peter Sagan’s first Classic win continues.

That the Slovak is extraordinarily strong is beyond debate. But are he and his team relying too much on brawn and not enough on brains?

Exhibit A: Milan-San Remo 2012. Liquigas got notorious non-sprinter Vincenzo Nibali into the winning break while Sagan champed at the bit in the group behind. He won the bunch dash for fourth, just metres behind Nibali, who was a predictable third behind Gerrans and Cancellara. Sagan could have done with somebody to chase down Cancellara’s break, but the only man available, Nibali, was up the road.

Exhibit B: Ghent-Wevelgem 2012: Sagan and Cancellara attacked together in the final 30 kilometres, spending a lot of energy on their enterprise, but failing to take into account that Omega Pharma had strength in numbers in the chasing group. They were easily shut down, and Sagan was beaten in the sprint by a fresher Tom Boonen.

Exhibit C: Amstel Gold 2012: Sagan was in at the kill on the Cauberg, but mistimed his sprint (done with hands on the brake hoods, rather than the drops) and was outkicked by Enrico Gasparotto.

Exhibit D: Milan-San Remo 2013. Achieved his aim of beating Fabian Cancellara, but forgot to think about the German sprinter in his slipstream.

In his favour, he outwitted Fabian Cancellara superbly in the opening road stage of last year’s Tour de France, sitting on the Swiss rider’s wheel as he attacked up the climb in Seraing, then jumping past to win. But you could argue that outwitting Fabian Cancellara these days is like stealing candy from babies.

Sagan’s going to win a Classic soon, there is no doubt. But he should really have won at least one already.

HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH?

We fetishise the suffering and pain of cycling, don’t we? Who didn’t feel a frisson of excitement at the sight of the Milan-San Remo peloton, for once not enjoying balmy spring conditions along the Ligurian coast, but suffering through driving rain? Black and white images of yesterday’s race harked back to earlier, mythical eras of bike racing. Even Vini Fantini’s kit looked dull.

But there’s a limit, which was reached yesterday. The Turchino pass was taken out of the race, and rightly so – photographs of the road made it clear that cycling on narrow, slick tyres would be impossible. The descent would have been carnage.

But the riders still rode through snow and sleet on the flat roads before the bottom of the Turchino, before they were packed into their team buses to be driven to the race’s resumption on the coast.

Axel Merckx Tweeted after the race that only cyclists would have to race in such conditions. Riders uploaded photographs of themselves and their team-mates looking haggard and frail, even shell-shocked, reminding us of the destructive effect cycling can have on the human body.

The paradox is that racing in such conditions is unpleasant for the competitors, but so long as nobody’s health or safety is endangered, we wouldn’t have it any other way. Where do we draw the line, when suffering is such an integral part of the fabric of cycling?

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