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Milan-San Remo, the season’s first Monument, was in some ways a typical affair. For one thing the usual San Remo style — that near-seven hour slow-burn followed by a sudden explosion in the finale — certainly bore out, with the Cipressa and the Poggio once again bringing the almost-non-stop action that we all recognise from editions past.
Set off by Peter Sagan’s scintillating, race-defining attack on the Poggio, and culminating with him losing the race to Michal Kwiatkowski by less than half a wheel-length, that thrilling finale has given us much to talk about in the aftermath. Daniel Ostanek cuts through the post-race chatter and takes a look at some of the major talking points from La Primavera.
AN OLD RIVALRY RESURFACES
Saturday’s race was, among other things, set to be the latest in a series of showdowns between the two presumptive Kings of the Classics, Greg Van Avermaet and Peter Sagan. With Fabian Cancellara having already retired and with Tom Boonen soon to follow his old rival out of the sport, Sagan and GVA look like being the next ‘Big Two’ of the Spring Classics.
Instead of another battle between that duo though, San Remo saw the continuation of a different rivalry; one that stretches back a decade. Sagan and Michal Kwiatkowski have been competing against one another since they were teenagers racing internationally in the junior ranks.
The earliest recorded clash between the pair came all the way back in May 2007, when they both raced the Junior Peace Race. There, Sagan took a podium spot on one stage while Kwiato won the GC. A year later the pair each won a split stage at the Trofeo Karlsberg.
Paths diverged when the pair turned professional in 2010, with Sagan immediately winning WorldTour races (two stages at Paris-Nice, one at the Tou de Romandie), while Kwiatkowski took time developing with Caja Rural and RadioShack before making his breakthrough in the spring of 2013 (achieving top 5s at Tirreno-Adriatico, La Flèche Wallonne, and the Amstel Gold Race).
Since then, the pair have faced off several times. Arezzo, at the 2014 Tirreno-Adriatico, came first, with Sagan beating Kwiatkowski in the sprint. A few weeks later it was Kwiatkowski’s turn to take the win, at a classic edition of Strade Bianche. Sagan’s triumph at the Richmond Worlds in 2015 saw him inherit Kwiatkowski’s rainbow jersey, while at E3 Harelbeke last year we saw the Pole outfox the Slovak in a two-up sprint, having previously attacked together.
It’s maybe not a rivalry in the same sense as Froome vs Contador or Kittel vs Cavendish, largely because the pair defy the easy categorisation of ‘GC men’ or ‘sprinters’. Both are among the most complete riders in the peloton (though once upon a time they were very different). They are strong sprinters, and can compete on a range of terrain from the cobbles to the hills — though their main strengths lie in slightly different areas.
To use a hypothetical example, it seems that both men could compete at the Ronde van Vlaanderen and at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but for now at least, their priorities lie in different races, with Sagan focusing on the cobbles and Kwiatkowski targeting the Ardennes. But this only means that, on the occasions they do find themselves racing together, we should cherish the battles even more.
More often than not, the winning move in Milan-San Remo comes on the final straight as a rider wins the sprint from a reduced bunch. Before Saturday, only four of the previous 10 editions had seen the winning move come from further out than the race’s final metres.
Back in 2008, Fabian Cancellara made his solo move 2km from the line. Three years later Matt Goss sprinted to victory from a group of eight formed atop the Poggio. The 2012 and shortened 2013 edtions also saw the winners — Simon Gerrans and Gerald Ciolek — emerge from small groups which had separated themselves from the peloton on the Poggio.
To find a San Remo-winning move that came from further out than the race’s famed final hill, you have to head all the way back to 1996 and Gabriele Colombo’s record-setting ascent of the Cipressa.
The point is that, unlike a number of other classics where the winning moves can – and do – come from anywhere, Milan-San Remo has very few such locations. It’s not negative – it’s just the way it is, and the result is almost always a thrilling finale.
So this year’s race was a rarity, and a non-sprinter won. But look what it took to do so: three of the top puncheurs in the sport conspiring to stay away while the massed ranks of the sprinters’ teams put everything into a frantic chase. When we reach San Remo weekend next season, history will tell us to expect a sprint finish once more, but this time around the sprinter’s classic was the property of the non-sprinters.
THE FORM GUIDE MATTERS
After Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico ended I noted that the past six Milan-San Remo winners had all managed to achieve a win, podium or top five in the fortnight preceding the race. It’s probably not a surprise to hear that back in 2010 the cunning sprinter Óscar Freire was the last to avoid doing so and still win.
The above statistic still holds true after Kwiatkowski’s victory. In fact, the first nine riders over the finish line on Saturday afternoon had all either won a race or been on a podium in the past two weeks. Caleb Ewan, who rounded out the top ten, was the sole exception – the Australian abandoned Tirreno-Adriatico after a crash on stage 2.
— CiclismoInternacinal (@CiclismoInter) March 18, 2017
Meanwhile, three big names who didn’t achieve anything last week continued that trend on Saturday.
Local boy Niccolò Bonifazio left The Race to the Sun (Paris-Nice) on day two, ending up 96th in San Remo. Before the race, which he won in 2009, Mark Cavendish was bullish about his chances on SAturday. However, after having failed to record a top 20 at Tirreno, he was dropped on the Cipressa and finished over five minutes down. San Remo specialist Ben Swift, riding for UAE Team Emirates, managed an anonymous 17th to follow up an equally anonymous Paris-Nice campaign.
Speaking of a lack of preparation, Movistar’s mercurial Colombian Carlos Betancur finished his first race of the season at Milan-San Remo, having DNFed Strade Bianche and GP Larciano. His final result? 134th, 5:24 behind Kwiatkowski, Sagan and Alaphilippe.
A final note: this year’s race also marked the first time since Gerald Ciolek’s unexpected 2013 triumph that a rider has won the race having first prepared at Tirreno-Adriatico. It’s also the only second time in seven years that a Tirreno competitor has gone on to win La Primavera.
EACH TIME A DIFFERENT WINNER
Michal Kwiatkowski’s victory, his first at a Monument, sees the continuation of an extraordinary record. Each of the past ten Monumental Classics – stretching back to Alexander Kristoff’s beating of Niki Terpstra at the 2015 Ronde Van Vlaanderen – has been won by a different rider. The last time the sport saw a streak to match this came almost a decade ago, stretching from Alejandro Valverde’s 2006 Liège-Bastogne-Liège victory to Tom Boonen’s second Roubaix win in 2008.
A Boonen victory, or at least a non-Sagan/Kristoff/Degenkolb winner at De Ronde in two week’s time would further extend this streak. Look too to Van Avermaet or Sep Vanmarcke if you’ve become invested in seeing the run continue.
On the face of it the stat is quite meaningless. Delve deeper though, and you can spot the trends, such as the retirement of serial winners Fabian Cancellara and Joaquim Rodríguez, and the decline of others once-dominant like Philippe Gilbert, Damiano Cunego and Tom Boonen.
Factor in the rise of a new generation, and with it a more evenly matched set of talents than we’ve seen ever seen at the top of the sport, and it’s no surprise we’ve had a relative decrease in the number of riders winning multiple Monuments.
The emergence of this new generation is substantiated by a concurrently running record — the last seven Monument winners have all been first-timers. Checking back through the record books shows this has only happened once in the past 40 years, and just three times since the Second World War. For a full list of these, see the addendum below.
Addendum: First-time Monument winner streaks (7+ in a row)
2015- (7): Vincenzo Nibali, Arnaud Demaré, Peter Sagan, Mathew Hayman, Wout Poels, Esteban Chaves, Michal Kwiatkowski
2004-05 (7): Óscar Freire, Steffen Wesemann, Magnus Backstedt, Davide Rebellin, Damiano Cunego, Alessandro Petacchi, Tom Boonen
1960-61 (7): René Privat, Albert De Cabooter, Pino Cerami, Albertus Geldermans, Emile Daems, Raymond Poulidor, Tom Simpson
1943-45 (7): Marcet Kint, Richard Depoorter, Rik Van Steenbergen, Maurice Desimpelaere, Sylvain Grysolle, Paul Maye, Jean Engels
1935-37 (11): Enrico Mollo, Angelo Varetto, Louis Hardiquest, Georges Speicher, Albert Beckaert, Gino Bartali, Cesare Del Cancia, Michel D’Hooghe, Jules Rossi, Eloi Meulenberg, Aldo Bini
1929-30 (8): Jef Dervaes, Charles Meunier, Alfons Schepers, Piero Fossati, Michele Mara, Frans Bonduel, Julien Vervaecke, Hermann Buse
1908-10 (7): André Trousellier, François Faber, Luigi Ganna, Octave Lapize, Victor Fastre, Giovanni Cuniolo, Eugenè Christophe
1905-08 (8): Louis Trousellier, Giovanni Gerbi, Henri Cornet, Giuseppe Brambilla, Lucien Petit-Breton, Georges Passarieu, Gustave Garrigou, Cyrille van Hauwaert