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Peter Sagan sparked off an impressive attack on the Poggio, led all the way down the descent and did the bulk of the work between there and the line, but finally wilted in the final sprint and enabled Michal Kwiatkowski to snatch victory.
The former world champion came past the current holder of the rainbow jersey with 30 metres to go, nipping an unexpected win. Sagan almost crashed into the Sky rider due to fatigue plus his lunge for the line, but took second, while Julian Alaphilippe – who had done the least in the break – was third.
Sagan’s powerful move on the final climb quickly distanced what was left of the peloton and left Kwiatkowski and Alaphilippe scrambling to get back to him. They did so just before the start of the descent which, given Sagan’s skill, was both fortunate and necessary.
The duo tracked him on the downhill while behind those chasing never worked well enough to come back into contention.
As has been the case in the past, Sagan appeared perhaps a little too confident. Between the moment of his attack and the final sprint, he was at the front perhaps 90 percent of the time, although he did get some assistance from Kwiatkowski after the end of the descent.
The Bora-hansgrohe rider then led into the final kilometre, opening up the gallop but losing out right at the end.
Five seconds later Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin) brought home the chasing bunch, beating Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) and 2016 race winner Arnaud Demare (FDJ) to the line for fourth.
John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo), Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis, Solutions Credits), Elia Viviani (Team Sky) and Caleb Ewan (Orica-Scott) completed the top ten.
“After previous editions in 2013 and 2014 when I’ve been unlucky, winning Milano-Sanremo is an incredible feeling,” said Kwiatkowski. “I’m thankful to my team-mates, they did an incredible job today.
“I didn’t expect Sagan to attack on the Poggio. After he did, I expected a bunch sprint but he maintained a high speed at the front. I focused only on my own sprint. I can’t believe I’ve beaten Sagan!”
Sagan said after the finish that he had left it all out there.
“I gave my all today. My team did a great job getting me to the Poggio safely,” he stated.
“Luckily we didn’t crash – that was really important, as it was very close at the finish line after I finished my sprint. I think it’s important for the fans to have a spectacle – everyone’s happy.
“It was instinct to attack on the Poggio – I tried and after I attacked I saw I was alone, and then Kwiatkowski and Alaphilippe came with me. We descended to the finale and made it something really special.”
How it unfolded:
A total of 200 riders lined out in Milan for the start of the longest Classic on the calendar. Clocking in at 291 kilometres in length, Milan-San Remo is a real test of endurance, and includes several short, sharp climbs in the finale.
The final two, the Cipressa and the Poggio, are the most famous of these, but the riders would also face the Capo Melle, the Capo Cervo and the Capo Berta inside the final 52 kilometres. These tend to splinter the peloton, yet it is always uncertain if one or more riders can stay clear until the end or if there will be a big group finish.
Either way, world champion Peter Sagan was tipped to be in the thick of the action and started as one of the main favourites.
So too Fernando Gaviria, the young Colombian sprinter who was right there at the end last year but who came down in a crash that Sagan – somehow – avoided.
Almost immediately after the drop of the flag ten riders got clear in the now-standard long-distance move. They were Tom Skujins and Will Clarke (Cannondale-Drapac), Nico Denz (Ag2r La Mondiale), Ivan Rovny (Gazprom-Rusvelo), Mirco Maestri (Bardiani-CSF), Umberto Poli (Novo Nordisk), Alan Marangoni (Nippo-Fantini), Mattia Frapporti (Androni-Sidermec), Julen Amezqueta (Wilier-Selle Italia) and Federico Zurlo (UAE Team Emirates).
They quickly gained time, increasing their lead to almost five minutes, but chasing from the FDJ team of last year’s winner Arnaud Demare hacked the advantage down by a minute. The aim was not to bring the break back, but to ensure things were kept manageable.
Those out front worked hard to increase the gap once again to over four and a half minutes after 50 kilometres of racing. It fluctuated up and down from that point, but was around the same starting the Passo del Turchino. It was whittled down to two minutes 15 seconds after there. The bunch then decided that it was far too soon to have such a tenuous lead, given that it might encourage others to try to bridge, and then eased back.
However the QuickStep Floors team of Gaviria, Tom Boonen and Julian Alaphilippe didn’t agree and ratcheted up the pace. Cavendish’s Team Dimension Data also helped.
Attacks begin firing
The race was clearly shifting into a new phase, with the riders increasingly aware of the undulating finale ahead.
With 60 kilometres left, the gap was down to one minute 55 seconds. This continued to fall and by the time the break reached the start of the Capo Melle, the first of five climbs inside the final 52 kilometres, they were just one minute 35 ahead.
With 45.7 kilometres on the clock Ag2r’s Alexis Gougeard decided the bunch wasn’t going hard enough and scampered clear. He looked fast and determined but, five kilometres later, he was one minute behind the break and 16 seconds ahead of the peloton. In other words, in no man’s land.
Meanwhile up ahead, Poli and Frapporti got into trouble on the climbs and were dropped. Gougeard had problems of his own, being reeled in by the bunch.
The remnants of the break hurtled onwards, doing all they could to fend off the inevitable recapture. They went pass some over-enthusiastic fans who had let off flares, and likely hoped the resulting smoke clouds would distract the bunch.
However any such wavering in focus was minimal and, with 30 kilometres left, the work done by teams such as QuickStep, Katusha and Bahrain Merida had nibbled the lead to just 29 seconds. Cofidis were also pushing forward and the head of the chase was noticeably more nervous, with positioning becoming crucial.
FDJ and Dimension Data also fought to be at the front and this further ramped up the pace. It meant that the break was just three seconds ahead starting the Cipressa. Their recapture seemed imminent, but Rovny gathered his remaining strength and pushed clear before the junction was made.
However very soon afterwards the peloton got him back, and things were all together with 26 kilometres to go.
The pressure continued and a handful of riders went ahead. These were brought back and Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) then jumped clear, tracked by Androni’s Mattia Cattaneo. Wellens really dug in to open the gap but the peloton lurked close behind and then reeled them in.
Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) pushed the pace hard and then others took over, with the Bahrain-Merida team being prominent over the top and down the descent.
Once on the flat roads again Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Soudal) put in a big attack and was joined by Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing Team). Other riders also bridged, forcing Sagan’s Bora-hansgrohe team to chase and close them down.
That returned things to a state of manoeuvring for position. With 14 kilometres remaining Bora-hansgrohe, BMC Racing Team, Trek-Segafredo and FDJ were all to the fore of the thinned-out peloton, trying to keep their leaders in exactly the right place.
QuickStep then took over, with Boonen leading them into the final 12 kilometres of what was his final Milan-San Remo. Trek-Segafredo pushed to the front with ten kilometres to go, and then with 9.3 left Sky did likewise. The British team led them onto the Poggio, after which Tom Dumoulin inched ahead and dug in.
Sagan makes his move
Dumoulin continued to work hard, grimacing and rocking from side to side, but was unable to get a substantial gap. Sky preferred to keep things slightly steadier and remained a few lengths back before closing back up to his wheel. He then pulled over and eased back with 6.5 kilometres left.
Sagan then kicked hard and got an immediate gap. He opened a strong lead over the bunch, while behind Kwiatkowski and Alaphilippe did everything they could to try to get across.
They did so just before the descent, where Sagan used his well-known skills in trying to further pad their advantage.
Bora-hansgrohe Team Coach Patxi Vila would later explain the tactics. “Today’s race followed the plan we had. We knew that Peter had to attack on the Poggio because that was the only point where he could drop everybody.
“From the morning, our objective was to bring him there in the best position possible and the squad did a very good job. He went on fire on the Poggio and the goal was to go solo, but Kwiatkowski and Alaphilippe went after him. We had expected the last two guys to go with him would be them, and it proved to be the case.”
Behind, Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida) saw the danger and moved to the front of the peloton. However it appeared to be moving significantly slower than Sagan, who had single-handedly ensured an 11 second lead for the trio with 3.2 kilometres to go.
At the end of the descent, with two kilometres left, they had 17 seconds and it looked more and more likely that the break would work. Kwiatkowski came through, doing his bit, but Alaphilippe was contributing nothing.
Going under the kite with one kilometre to go, Sagan was still pushing the pace. They were 17 seconds ahead and the world champion appeared confident. He led into 400 metres to go, looking back and then opening up the gallop. However Kwiatkowski – who had done perhaps a third of the work after the descent – had more left in his legs and was able to nudge past him by the line.
— BORA – hansgrohe (@BORAhansgrohe) March 18, 2017
— Team Sky ???? (@TeamSky) March 18, 2017
The organisers looked at the photo finish but the outcome was clear: Kwiatkowski had judged things better and outmanoeuvred the strongest rider in the race, winning La Primavera.
KWIATKOWSKI Michał KWIATKOWSKI Michał Team Sky
SAGAN Peter SAGAN Peter BORA - hansgrohe
|BORA - hansgrohe||0:00|
ALAPHILIPPE Julian ALAPHILIPPE Julian Quick-Step Floors