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It was a who’s who of professional cycling.
Barreling down the Poggio, the final climb of Milan-San Remo, were a handful of the top riders in the sport, all in with a shot at winning the first Monument of the season. A few minutes later, that group had swelled to a dozen.
There would be no field sprint. There would be no lead-out trains. It would be man against man, 12 riders from 10 different teams playing the odds against one another and the cumulative effects of 290km, or 180 miles, of racing.
Three-time world champion Peter Sagan was there, leading the charge down the technical descent. Former Milan-San Remo winner Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) was there, as was defending champion Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), and world champion Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).
Former world cyclocross champion Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) was there, along with European champion Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott), former Belgian champion Oliver Naesen (Ag2r La Mondiale), and former Giro d’Italia champion Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb).
And then there was Julian Alaphilippe, pro cycling’s man of the moment, a red-hot pre-race favorite who has taken victories at every race he’s started this season.
Two weeks ago, the 26-year-old Frenchman rode away from Astana’s Jakob Fuglsang to win Strade Bianche; five days ago, he won a field sprint at Tirreno-Adriatico in a lead-out role after his team’s dedicated sprinter, Elia Viviani, lost the wheel in the final 250 meters.
It was Alaphilippe who was perfectly set up by Deceuninck–Quick-Step teammates Zdenek Stybar and Philippe Gilbert, each setting a blistering pace up the Poggio that saw Viviani, and many others, lose contact.
It was Alaphilippe who then countered a move by Alberto Bettiol (EF Education First) on the Poggio and cracked the race wide open, creating the decisive split.
It was Alaphilippe who followed a final-kilometer move from Matej Mohoric (Bahrain-Merida), and then marked the Slovenian again when Mohoric opened up the sprint.
And it was Alaphilippe who came around with 150 meters remaining to hold off Naesen, Kwiatkowski, and Sagan, taking the first Monument of his career in what is already the best season of his career. After finishing second at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Il Lombardia, and third at Milan-San Remo two years ago, Alaphilippe is now, finally, a Monument champion.
“It’s difficult to realize what I did, and what my team did,” Alaphilippe said. “They protected me all day. Tim Declercq was pulling all race and in the final we controlled, and we made the race harder, and I had to [make] no mistakes.
“I made a big effort at the top of the Poggio to make a big selection and to see what will happen. At the end I was only with strong riders and I tried to recover in the downhill. In the last 2km I said I want to win, no second place any more. I was really focused to control the attack and with 600 to go, when Mohoric went to attack, I said it’s now or never. It’s unbelievable.”
A textbook victory
In hindsight, Alaphilippe’s win was about as straightforward as a Monument victory could possibly be. Conditions for the 110th edition of Milan-San Remo were ideal; it was warm and sunny, with a light cross-tailwind, and Alaphilippe was just one of several Deceuninck–Quick-Step riders considered a pre-race favorite.
Viviani, winner of four races already this season, has made it clear that Milan-San Remo sits atop his list of his desired race victories. Gilbert, racing La Primavera for the 15th time, stood on the podium on Via Roma in 2008 and 2011, and holds four Monument victories to his name. Stybar won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad three weeks earlier, and then finished fourth at Strade Bianche behind Alaphilippe. The team would look to Tim Declercq, Belgian champion Yves Lampaert, and lead-out man Maximiliano Richeze to deliver its leaders into position.
That said, there were five former winners of Milan-San Remo at the start — Nibali, Kwiatkowski, Arnaud Demare, John Degenkolb, and Alexander Kristoff — and none wore a Deceuninck jersey. As always, Milan-San Remo was the easiest Monument for the riders to finish, and the hardest for anyone to predict a winner.
A breakaway of 10 riders, all from Pro Continental teams, slipped away early on. Deceuninck–Quick-Step, along with Bora-Hansgrohe, Lotto-Soudal, and UAE Emirates, kept the gap, which maxed out at 10 minutes, to a safer buffer of around seven minutes.
Four riders from Novo Nordisk made it into the move — Andrea Peron, Umberto Poli, Charles Planet, and Joonas Hentala. The other six riders were Bardiani CSF teammates Mirco Maestri and Alessandro Tonelli, Neri Sottoli teammates Luca Raggio and Sebastian Schonberger, Guy Sagiv (Israel Cycling Academy), and Fausto Masnada (Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec).
With 100km to go, the gap was still 5:45, helped along by a light tailwind. With 75km to go, the gap had come down to four minutes. With 50km to go, it was down to 2:30, and with 40km to go it had come down to 1:25. Textbook stuff, really.
After the three capi — Capo Mele, Capo Cervo and Capo Berta — softened up the legs, Fausto Masnada, the last man standing from the breakaway, was caught on the Cipressa with 25km to go.
Niccolo Bonifazio (Direct Energie) made a daredevil attempt to get away on the descent of the Cipressa, but was no match against the combination of a headwind and a hard-charging peloton.
From there, Deceuninck–Quick-Step kept things controlled onto the Poggio, where Alaphilippe waited patiently as Stybar and Gilbert dialed up the pace, marked closely by the biggest names in the race.
Once Bettiol attacked with 6.7km to go, Alaphilippe sprung into action. Kwiatkowsi was quick to follow, along with Sagan, Trentin, Naesen, Valverde, and Van Aert. Seven men were off the front, and it appeared the finale might be contested among them.
However several others bridged across on the tight, hairpin descent, including Simon Clarke (EF Education First), Mohoric and Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Dumoulin and his Sunweb teammate Michael Matthews. At the bottom of the Poggio with 2.2km remaining, there were twelve riders together.
Not waiting around for a sprint, Trentin attacked with 2km remaining. The European champion managed to open up a few meters, but there wasn’t the hesitation needed behind.
“I was there with the final guys and I thought I would give it a go on the flat and hopefully they would look at each other, but they didn’t,” Trentin said. “At the end, my bullet was that one, and it was gone.”
Van Aert, racing Milan-San Remo for the first time, was the chief antagonist to stifle Trentin’s attack.
“I thought Trentin’s move was the decisive one,” Van Aert said. “Unfortunately it was a bit too early.” He would ultimately finish sixth in his San Remo debut, ahead of legendary riders like Valverde and Nibali.
Mohoric was next to try to avoid the sprint, attacking up the right side of the road with 900 meters to go. Alaphilippe closed that down, and the group slowed up as the final sprint, into a headwind, approached.
Sagan rode at the front but not comfortably so, repeatedly looking over his shoulder and weaving across the road. Sagan was watching Valverde, to his right, when Mohoric launched the sprint from his left at about 200 meters from the line. Alaphilippe closed it down as Sagan looked for a wheel to follow before he ended up boxed in between Naesen and Mohoric.
“I would say it was a strange, very slow [sprint] and the final attacks were launched quite late,” Sagan said. “I was squeezed in and when I found space to sprint, it wasn’t enough.”
Naesen came closest, but Alaphilippe was not to be beaten, becoming the 14th French rider to win Milan-San Remo, and the third rider to win Strade Bianche and Milano-San Remo in the same season, following Fabian Cancellara in 2008 and Kwiatkowski in 2017.
Still, it was an impressive ride for the Belgian, who is better known for being in the mix at northern classics like the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
“I have no regrets,” Naesen said. “I did my best to be on the podium. I never made a mistake during the entire race. In the sprint, I had room to produce my effort. But I could never get past Julian’s rear wheel. Alaphilippe was untouchable today. He was the strongest on the Poggio. He launched the sprint from very far away with a headwind against very fast riders like Kwiatkowski, Sagan, and Trentin. He’s for sure the rightful winner.”
Likewise, Kwiatkowski could only acknowledge that the best rider had won on the day.
“It’s a good result to be on the podium,” Kwiatkowski said, “but being so close to the victory leads to thinking about what I could have done better. I dreamt to win but Julian was the strongest rider today. I think everybody saw what he did on the Poggio. Having the legs to sprint the way he did after that is absolutely impressive.”
With Sagan in fourth, three of top four made up the podium in 2017, when Kwiatkowski finished ahead of Sagan and Alaphilippe.
This time around, of course, Alaphilippe was on top, meaning he continues his 2019 streak to seven victories, winning at least once at every race he’s started.
“I came with the goal of winning,” Alaphilippe said. “I’m just as proud of my win as I am of the work of my team today. What they’ve done for me is absolutely exceptional. I rode for the victory at the end bearing their dedication in mind. I recovered in the downhill after I sped up on the Poggio but I still thought it would be complicated to win considering the quality of the riders I was away with.
“I made a little effort to close the gap on Trentin, as I knew he was very fast. Then I stayed calm and remained next to Peter Sagan. When Matej Mohoric launched the sprint, I knew I had to take his wheel straight away. Had he taken 20 metres, it would have been game over. I capped it off the nicest way I could. It’s pure joy.”
The win was the 19th of the season for Deceuninck—Quick-Step, which heads into the cobblestone classics with momentum and confidence.