Degenkolb blasts to biggest career success in Milan-San Remo

by Shane Stokes


Showing he had the most left in the tank with what was a very impressive sprint against tiring rivals, John Degenkolb grabbed the biggest win of his career in Milan-San Remo today.

The Giant-Alpecin rider blasted home ahead of last year’s champion Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), who appeared to go too soon. Australia’s Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge) had looked sharp but seemed to tire in the sprint, netting third, with 2013 runner-up Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) fourth, Niccolo Bonifazio (Lampre-Merida) fifth and Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) sixth.

“I still can’t believe it,” said an elated Degenkolb afterwards. “Today was amazing. It was really fast on the Poggio and I had to dig in and suffer there but my shape was good and the hard work over the past weeks and months paid off here.

“I managed to make it into a good position over the top of the Poggio and avoid the crashes and then in the final two kilometres it was just fighting for position and relying on instinct. Everything came together today.”

He thanked his fellow Giant-Alpecin riders, saying they made the final outcome possible.

“The whole team team were great today in keeping me out of the wind and making it as easy as possible from it,” he explained. “Then at the end Tom [Dumoulin] did a great job in getting me into position for the Poggio. I’m really proud of the result today.”

Matthews rode the race in the past but the 2015 edition represented his first time to really focuss on it and believe it was possible to win. He made clear to CyclingTips in recent days that he had the right form to content, and so he showed.

“It was a pretty cold and wet day today but we did what we had to do,” he said. “The Orica-GreenEdge team supported me really well.”

“As you could see on the Cipressa and Poggio climbs I had really good legs today so I am a little bit disappointed in the final.

“I guess I have got to believe that it’s Milano-Sanremo and it’s my first attempt at going for a result here, so I have to be positive about that. I’m really thankful for the team in believing in me and helping me deliver this result.”

As is often the case, the Poggio played a part in the final outcome, but this time it was the descent. Several key riders crashed on the drop down to San Remo, with 2013 winner Gerald Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka), Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing Team), Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-QuickStep) and world champion Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-QuickStep) all hitting the deck.

Other favourites also missed out, although it was the climbs which punished 2009 champion Mark Cavendish (Etixx-QuickStep) and Andre Greipel (Lotto-Soudal), costing them their chances.

Prior to the Poggio Geraint Thomas (Sky) and Daniel Oss (BMC Racing Team) made an early move on the Cipressa, catching the last remnant of the day’s big break, Matteo Bono (Lampre-Merida).

They led onto the Poggio but only had a 17 second gap at the bottom. Thomas tried to stay clear, attacking Oss, but was caught by the summit and played no part in the sprint.

How it played out:

At 293 kilometres in length, La Primavera is both the first and the longest of the big Classics. The day was already set to be an extremely tough one in the saddle and the pressure was ramped up a little higher by the wet, cold conditions at the start.

Inside the first ten kilometres a quartet of riders clipped away. The escapees were Jan Barta (Bora-Argon 18), Sebastian Molano (Colombia), Andrea Peron (Novo Nordisk) and Maarten Tjallingii (LottoNL-Jumbo).

Soon afterwards they were joined by seven others, with Tiziano Dall’Antonia (Androni Giocattoli), Matteo Bono (Lampre-Merida), Serge Pauwels (MTN-Qhubeka), Adrian Kurek (CCC Sprandi Polkowice), Stefano Pirazzi (CSF Bardiani), Marco Frapporti (Androni Giocattoli) and Julien Berard (Ag2r-La Mondiale) bridging across.

The peloton was happy to give them some leeway and the break’s advantage was up to ten minutes after thirty kilometres of racing. However this was hacked down to under seven minutes after 100 kilometres, making things more manageable for the teams such as Katusha and Trek who were chasing behind.

The group raced onto and over the Passo del Turchino and suffered further erosion of their lead, with the bunch cutting it down to five minutes. Tinkoff-Saxo and Lampre-Merida joined the chase and nibbled the gap to just north of four minutes. However it was back out to over five minutes with 85 kilometres remaining, with the main bunch deciding there was no point in bringing it back too soon.

The weather conditions were drying up, raising hopes for a safe finale. Riders handed in their rain jackets in anticipation of that, and the pace picked up once again. This cut the break’s lead down to three minutes with 50 kilometres remaining, and the screw turned even more when Sky ramped up the pace.

Molano slid out of the back of the break on the Capo Berta climb. The others kept going but with their advantage down to just one minute 32 seconds with 40 kilometres left, Pirazzi and Bono raised the pace and shed the others.

Sky were forcing the pace behind and caused a temporary split when one of their riders, Salvatore Puccio, crashed on the descent. They continued onwards to the Cipressa where Luke Rowe drove the pace and carried Geraint Thomas and Ben Swift clear.

The move provoked concern and a number of attacks were fired off in response. Silvan Dillier and then Greg Van Avermaet (both BMC Racing Team) bridged and then Strade Bianche winner Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-QuickStep) put in his own big dig to get across.

Several others followed suit and, with 25.4 kilometres left, Bono was caught by that cluster of fresher riders.

A general regrouping occurred as the climb continued. Lars Petter Nordhaug (Sky) and Julian Arredondo (Trek Factory Racing) were keen to keep the pace high and both put in some hard work on the climb.

This workload put pressure on many riders, including last year’s winner Alexander Kristoff. With 24 kilometres remaining the Katusha sprinter was at the back and clearly suffering, although he somehow managed to cling on.

Heading to the summit Arredondo drove at the front and then Thomas took over, with Cannondale-Garmin’s Nathan Haas then leading the bunch past the top and down the early part of the descent.

The final act plays out

Filippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida) was feeling good and pushed the speed on the downhill. Further back, former winner Mark Cavendish (Etixx-QuickStep) was finding things tougher and had been slightly distanced.

He knew that the same pace which had put him under pressure also did the same for the other specialist sprinters, thus improving his chances of victory if he – and not they – was able to regain contact. However he faced a battle to get back on terms, and was chasing hard.

Onto the flatter section at the bottom, Daniel Oss (BMC Racing Team) put his head down and slipped clear. Thomas saw the danger and bridged up and, together, they held a 19 second gap with 15 kilometres left.

Jose Serpa (Lampre-Merida) led the chase behind. World champion Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-QuickStep) was prominent and looking very comfortable, while Kristoff had returned and was ushered near the front by his Katusha team.

Thomas and Oss continued to build a lead and with 12 kilometres left they had half a minute. The Trek Factory Racing team wanted to reduce this before the start of the Poggio and pushed forward. They cut the lead down to 21 seconds with ten kilometres remaining, then Astana took over.

Thomas and Oss turned onto the Poggio with 17 seconds and 9.1 kilometres left. The gap was surely not enough to stay clear but they tried to delay the inevitable recapture as long as possible.

Katusha had faith in Kristoff and led up the climb. Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge) was feeling good and was sitting fourth, while at the back of the group Andre Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) was slightly off the back and fighting to hang on.

With eight kilometres left Thomas attacked and gapped Oss. Behind, a slight lull in the peloton helped his chances, as did the lack of attacks.

Oss was caught with 6.3 kilometres left, and very soon afterwards Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing Team) surged. His move was covered but team-mate Van Avermaet then kicked clear and got a slight gap.

The danger was clear and Matthews, Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Arredondo jumped away in pursuit.

Van Avermaet caught Thomas at the top with the other three close behind. However the peloton was right behind them and made contact on the descent, making it one lead group with 4.4 kilometres left.

Those in the reduced bunch tried to manoeuvre themselves into the best position prior to the sprint. That need to move up added a little extra pressure on the descent and, heading around a tight curve, Gilbert’s bike went from under him and caused a crash which also claimed former winner Gerald Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka), Stybar and Kwiatkowski. None appeared to be badly hurt, but they had lost any chance of winning the race.

Van Avermaet wasn’t giving up and attacked hard on the final part of the descent. He led onto the flat section but Thomas – keen, perhaps, to repay his own reeling in at the top of the Poggio – brought him back.

Sagan then pushed through and got a gap, but hesitated. He weighed things up and decided patience was his best option.

That hesitation was enough to ensure a big sprint to the line and inside the final kilometre Katusha led for Kristoff. Paolini tried to set him up for a second win but they were too close to the front too soon.

John Degenkolb had timed things just right, though, and burst through to overhaul Kristoff with 50 metres to go and snatch the victory.

Kristoff held on for second while Matthews was a disappointed third. Sagan was moving quickly but had to be satisfied with fourth, once again missing out on his first monument Classic win.

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