An Italian champion: Nibali solos to thrilling victory at Milan-San Remo

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With a perfectly timed attack on the Poggio climb, followed by a daredevil descent, Italian Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) soloed to victory to win the 109th edition of Milano-Sanremo, the first Monument of the 2018 season.

Nibali became the first Italian to win since Filippo Pozzato, in 2006. It was the third Monument victory for Nibali — a winner of all three of cycling’s Grand Tours — following two victories at Il Lombardia. His win was the first time a Grand Tour winner won Milan-San Remo since Sean Kelly, in 1992, and the first solo victory in San Remo since Fabian Cancellara in 2008.

“I have to thank the team, who rode perfectly,” said Nibali, who was in tears at the finish line. “I was able to hide in the group with [Sonny] Colbrelli, keeping an eye out and staying out of the wind. I attacked, but when my DS told me I had a 20-second lead, I was surprised and I knew I just had to ride. When I looked over my shoulder and saw the sprinters could not catch me, it was a good moment for me, but it is too early to say if it is the best win of my career.”

Nibali crossed the line arms aloft, just seconds ahead of a hard-charging group of pre-race favorites. Australian Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott) finished second, with 2016 winner Arnaud Démare (Groupama–FDJ) in third.

Alexander Kristoff (UAE-Team Emirates), Milan-San Remo winner in 2014, finished fourth, with Jurgen Roelandts (BMC Racing) in fifth. World champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), second last year and the heavy pre-race favorite, finished sixth. Last year’s winner, Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) finished 11th.

Ewan was philosophical about finishing second in his second attempt at the longest one-day race on the WorldTour calendar; he finished 10th last year.

“I know it is still a massive result to finish in second place but to be so close to the win is a little bit disappointing,” Ewan said. “To be honest I was just thinking of doing my own sprint and if we caught Nibali, we caught him; if we didn’t, we didn’t. So I was just focusing on my sprint as there were still good sprinters there and I knew it would be tough to beat those guys. After this year I know I can potentially win this race.”

The race was not without incident, however; sprint star Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) crashed heavily at the base of the Cipressa climb, somersaulting over his handlebar and landing heavily on his back. German sprinter Andre Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) crashed a short while later, on the Poggio, breaking his collarbone.

A wet start in Milan

Rain greeted the peloton at the start in Milan, as riders arrived at sign-in layered in wet weather gear — heavy jackets, hats, and gloves — for the long ride to the coastal town of San Remo. There were 25 teams at the start (18 UCI WorldTeams plus seven wildcards), each with seven riders.

The 294km route was nearly identical to last year, covering the Turchino, the three Capi — the Capo Mele, Capo Cervo, Capo Berta — before the decisive Cipressa and Poggio.

2018 Milan-San Remo profile

There were five former winners on the start line: Kwiatkowski (2017), Démare (2016), Kristoff (2014), Cavendish (2009), and Filippo Pozzato (2006).

Top sprinters missing due to injury or illness included 2015 winner John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo), Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), and Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors).

All eyes were on Sagan as the heavy pre-race favorite, though superstition was not necessarily on his side: The last winner wearing the rainbow jersey was Giuseppe Saronni, in 1983, 35 years ago.

Inside the first 15km, nine riders formed the day’s early breakaway. In the move: Mirco Maestri and Lorenzo Rota, both of Bardiani CSF; Dennis van Winden and Guy Sagiv, both of Israel Cycling Academy; Matteo Bono (UAE Team Emirates); Evgeny Kobernyak (Gazprom-Rusvelo); Charles Planet (Novo Nordisk); Sho Hatsuyama (Nippo-Vini Fantini); and Jacopo Mosca (Wilier Triestina-Selle Italia).

The breakaway’s advantage over the peloton steadied at just over five minutes.

Dennis van Winden (Israel Cycling Academy) at the front of the escape group.

With 88km remaining, and the breakaway facing a headwind, the gap had come down to 3:30. At 55km to go the gap was down to 2:20as riders began to take on food, with Bora-Hansgrohe, Team Sky, and BMC Racing riding at the front of the peloton.

With 45km to go, EF Education Drapac riders Dan McLay and Simon Clarke hit the deck heavily on the Capo Cervo.

Soon after, the breakaway had been reduced to just six riders, the gap reduced to only 30 seconds.

Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin) was dropped on the Capo Berta, the third of the three Capi, with about 38km to go, prompting a reaction at the front by Démare’s Groupama–FDJ team.

With 30km left to race, the breakaway was caught just in time for the peloton to reach to the base of the Cipressa.

Stalemate on the Cipressa, fireworks on the Poggio

At just over 5.6km long with a gradient of 4.1%, the race took on a different tone as the bunch hit the Cipressa. Vincenzo Nibali moved his way to the front of the group as Ignatas Konovalovas (Groupama–FDJ) drove a high pace into a headwind. Soon after, Kwiatkowski called upon his Team Sky teammates to up the pace, stifling any attacks. With FDJ back at the front, the bunch spread thin on the highly technical descent back down to the highway road.

A large group lumbered toward the ascent of the Poggio di Sanremo, which began 9km before the finish. The climb — 3.7km with an average gradient of less than 4% and a maximum of 8% — is narrow, with four hairpin turns in the first 2km.

Cavendish hit a large bollard at the bottom of the Poggio, flying off his bike and causing a pileup that saw several riders lose contact with the front of the race, among them Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors).

German champion Marcus Burghardt (Bora-Hansgrohe) was the first to attack on the Poggio, drawing out an aggressive move by Luxembourg’s Jean Pierre Drucker (BMC Racing).

Just as those moves were reeled in, next to attack was Krists Neilands (Israel Cycling Academy). Nibali followed, and the pair rode clear, drawing out a reaction by Nathan Haas (Katusha-Alpecin). Behind, Bahrain-Merida riders sat at the front of the bunch and slowed the chase. Nibali rode briefly with Neilands before springing solo at 6km to go.

Nibali went over the top of the Poggio with an eight-second lead, riding solo down the Poggio — an extremely technical descent, narrow at points, with a succession of hairpins, twist and turns.

The gap grew over the frantically chasing bunch as Nibali flew down the Poggio, victory becoming a reality. A crash on the Poggio descent saw several riders hit the deck, including Lotto-Soudal sprinter Andre Greipel, disrupting the chase. Lotto-Soudal would later announce that Greipel had fractured his collarbone.

Italian Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott) chased Nibali alone, followed by Kwiatkowski, Sagan, and Michael Matthews (Sunweb).

“When Nibali attacked, I remained with the group of sprinters as we thought he would be caught and the race would finish with a bunch sprint,” Sagan said. “Nibali proved very strong and was able to hold on and take the win. Congratulations to him, he deserved it.”

Onto the final part of the descent Nibali entered San Remo with the final 2 kilometres on long, straight urban roads; at 750m from the finish he entered the race’s final bend, leading into the home straight, on his own. The Italian champion had time to post up as he crossed the line, collapsing into equal parts tears and smiles as a large scrum enveloped him.

“It hasn’t really sunk in yet, because it is all so unexpected,” Nibali said. “It was incredible. When Neilands attacked, he asked me to collaborate. The team was riding for Colbrelli, who was in great shape, but Neilands was strong, and when I saw we had opened a 20-second gap, I decided to continue that attack. At the top of the Poggio, where the gradient is a bit higher, I accelerated and then pressed on. I believed victory was within my reach in the final part of the race when I saw the empty road in front of me. Even so, the final 2km were interminable.

“Before the race I had two key points which in mind — the Cipressa, if there was a breakaway group of six, seven, or even nine, I’d try to get into it, but without working. Then there was the Poggio, the most dangerous place, where an attack by Kwiatkowski, Van Avermaet, or Sagan was likely. I was well positioned in the group behind Mohoric, waiting for someone to move, and to react to it, and that is what happened. In the final 50 metres, I knew I’d won. I could see the finish line ahead of me, and I made sure I enjoyed the victory.”

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