Eight talking points from the 2016 Milan-San Remo

by Matt de Neef


The 2016 Spring Classics season is well and truly underway and the first of the year’s Monuments, Milan-San Remo, is now complete. Arnaud Demare (FDJ) took something of a surprise victory on Saturday when he crossed the finish line on the Via Roma with arms outstretched, but that win was just one of many storylines that played out through the day.

Mid-race diversions, a multitude of crashes, accusations of cheating, some stellar performances, some not so — it was a chaotic and drama-filled race. Here are eight talking points from the 2016 Milan-San Remo.


It’s the length of Milan-San Remo that makes it so prestigious, but it can be a real slog to watch

There’s no doubt Milan-San Remo is one of the most important and most revered races on the international cycling calendar. With a history stretching back more than a century and an honour roll that features the greatest ever riders in the sport, it’s a race that is held in high regard by all in the know. But that doesn’t mean it’s always a particularly engaging spectacle for the viewer at home.

Once the early breakaway has gotten clear and established a lead, it’s normally a case of waiting for the final hour of racing. Sure, Milan-San Remo isn’t alone in this — sprinter-friendly races often unfold this way. But at nearly 300km long and with little action until the last 50km, Milan-San Remo is the very definition of a race you need only really tune in to for the last hour.

This feeling is perhaps heightened for those of us watching in Australia and other unforgiving time zones. With the race not coming on TV until after midnight and the action not really starting until 1:45am, it can be a challenge to stay awake.

But again, Milan-San Remo owes much of its prestige to its formidable length, and the hours in the lead-up to the finale do serve a purpose. Kilometre by kilometre, hour by hour, the tension ratchets up ever so slightly, building inexorably until those final, chaotic climbs and the mad dash for the finish.

Race organisers did an impressive job of re-routing the race at the last minute

With the race already well over an hour old, news started to come through of a landslide on the race route, down along the Mediterranean coast. Images confirmed that the riders wouldn’t be able to pass through and organisers set about trying to find a way around the affected section of road.

It was less than an hour later that race officials confirmed they had found a solution: diverting the race onto the autostrada (motorway) to bypass the landslide, before returning the riders to the coastal road a few kilometres later.

To be able to find a solution so quickly and to execute it as smoothly as they did — e.g. without neutralising the race — was undeniably impressive. There aren’t many countries in the world where a bike race would be able to shut down a major freeway at the last minute but the Milan-San Remo race officials made it happen.

It’s worth noting that this effort came less than a week after RCS Sport made the decision to cancel a stage of Tirreno-Adriatico citing concerns for rider safety. While there were more organisations involved in Saturday’s last-minute diversion than just RCS Sport (not least the local police force), that’s two commendable achievements at RCS Sport-run events in less than a week.

Predicting the winner of a bike race such as Milan-San Remo is a fraught exercise

It’s easy to look at a startlist and pick out a handful of riders that, all things being equal, should be there at the pointy end. But bike races are inherently unpredictable affairs and the biggest of favourites can come unstuck in any number of ways.

A crash and tangled bike saw Michael Matthews held up for nearly a minute at a crucial time of the race.
A crash and tangled bike saw Michael Matthews held up for nearly a minute at a crucial time of the race.

Few predicted that Arnaud Demare would have won the race (note: our U.S. editor Neal Rogers had him as a ‘dark horse’) but fewer still would have predicted the composition of the top 10. Of the big-name favourites, just Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) was in the first 10 across the line, and even he would have to settle for sixth. Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) could only manage 12th, Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo) was 31st and Michael Matthews was 59th, 36 seconds down on the leading group.

Of course, all had their reasons for not being able to contest the victory (Fernando Gaviria’s crash for the first three, and a crash of his own for Matthews). Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) was similarly unfortunate, his chain having slipped in the final sprint. But it goes to show that as much as we might like to think we know who’s most likely to take a victory, almost nothing is certain in this great sport of ours.

Accusations of cheating have (De)mar(r)ed a great result, but Demare has an easy way to prove his innocence

In winning Saturday’s race, Arnaud Demare became the first Frenchman to win Milan-San Remo in more than 20 years and the first Frenchman to win any Monument in nearly as long. And the win was well deserved — he took the opportunity that was presented to him, timing his sprint to perfection and dashing to victory.

But sadly for Demare, his win has been overshadowed by accusations that he was towed back to the front by his teammcar after being caught up in a crash at the base of the penultimate climb.

Demare has some data from his ride on Strava which, incidentally, he uploaded, took down, then put back up. While his high speed up the Cipressa was enough to cause some concern — his time was fast enough to take the KOM, faster even than Giovanni Visconti (Movistar) who attacked up the climb — what data we have is so far inconclusive.

Demare has admitted he was drafting in the convoy up the climb but to determine whether he was hanging onto his team car (as two rivals suggest), we’d really need to see Demare’s power data from the climb. As many pros tend to do, Demare has removed his power data from the file on Strava.

It is of course Demare’s prerogative whether he wants to make that data available, but doing so should easily dispel suggestions of any wrongdoing. Assuming he wasn’t hanging on to the team car, as he claims.

It’s hard not to feel sorry for Fernando Gaviria

When the breakneck descent off the Poggio was complete and a big group reformed at the head of the race, it was something of a surprise to see that Fernando Gaviria (Etixx-QuickStep) wasn’t just there; he was perfectly positioned with 2km to go. There’s little doubting the Colombian’s ability but, at 21, it seemed unlikely that he’d have the experience and kilometres in his legs to last nearly 300km and be there to contest the final sprint.

And yet, with the sprint looming, Gaviria wasn’t just there to contest it, he was arguably the fastest finisher in the front group. And then, just as commentators were pointing out that very fact, a slight touch of wheels with the rider ahead (Greg Van Avermaet (BMC)) brought Gaviria to the ground in an ungraceful heap.

After dusting himself off and remounting his bike, Gaviria continued on to the finish, tears streaming from his eyes, a teammate by his side consoling him. In his first-ever Milan-San Remo, and after nearly 300km of racing, Gaviria had been in with a perfect shot of winning it. And then, with one momentary lapse of concentration, that chance was gone.

Thankfully for the Colombian speedster, this almost certainly won’t be the last time he’s in with a shot of winning La Primavera — at 21, he’s got many years of great racing ahead of him.

Sagan again showed that he’s one of the best bike-handlers in the world

When Fernando Gaviria crashed in the finishing straight of Saturday’s race, he didn’t just end his chances of winning Milan-San Remo, he also thwarted the chances of several others, including Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellera. Sagan had been right behind Gaviria when the latter came down, forcing the Slovakian to take evasive action, and quickly.

Nice save Fabian and Sagan #MilanSanRemo

A video posted by C Y C L I N G T I P S (@cyclingtips) on

Sagan’s bike handling skills have become legendary in recent years, thanks to a series of stunts and tricks performed in and outside races. And yet it was his save on Saturday that was arguably his most impressive move yet.

Being able to react to a crash as quickly as Sagan did would have been ridiculous even if he’d been fresh. But doing so while carrying the mental and physical fatigue of nearly 300km? Astounding. Of course, Fabian Cancellara deserves a mention for his quick-thinking as well. Sadly for both he and Sagan, though, avoiding the crash wasn’t enough to stay in contention for the final sprint.

Mark Cavendish’s balancing act isn’t working

by Michael Better

Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) entered the 2016 season ambitiously, balancing both road and track programs. Thoughts of rainbow jerseys in both disciplines, Olympic gold and stage wins at the Tour de France swirled in his head.

And the season started well, with wins in Dubai and Qatar, a bronze in the omnium at the Hong Kong Track World Cup, not to mention a world title in the Madison with compatriot Bradley Wiggins. But things have gone downhill since.

After a poor performance at Tirreno-Adriatico, Cavendish couldn’t follow the accelerations on the Cipressa climb on Saturday, a disappointment considering this was the ‘sprinters Monument’ and a race Cav has won before.

With pressure from British Cycling to abandon the Tour de France early, should he make the track Olympic team, it is looking more and more likely that Cavendish’s goal of track Olympic gold and a road world championship will not be possible. It might be time for the Manx Missile to choose one discipline over the other.

Heinrich Haussler looks primed for the Cobbled Classics

Few cycling fans will forget Heinrich Haussler’s heartbreaking second place in the 2009 Milan-San Remo; a race which he appeared to have won, before getting pipped on the line by Mark Cavendish. Considering that impressive result, it shouldn’t come as a great surprise that Haussler was seventh in this year’s edition of the race. It’s a result, though, that’s worth noting.

IAM had gone into the race supporting Leigh Howard for victory but when the Victorian was dropped on the Poggio, Haussler was free to ride for his own ambitions.

“I am very, very happy,” Haussler said after the race. “This top-10 place will remain an excellent memory for me, and above all, will give me the sort of confidence I need for the rest of the Classics.”

It’s no secret that, in recent years, Haussler has struggled recently to reach the lofty heights he achieved earlier in his career with stage wins at the Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana (among other successes). And while he won Australia’s road title in 2015, he is yet to hit the winner’s list since then. Hopefully for ‘Heino’ and his numerous fans, this result is a sign of things to come ahead of the Cobbled Classics — the races he enjoys most.

***

What did you take away from the 2016 Milan-San Remo? Let us know in the comments below.

Editors Picks