Sometimes lightning really does strike twice. Last year Australia’s Matt Goss – then riding for HTC-Highroad but now with GreenEDGE – became the first non-European rider to win Milan-San Remo. He edged out Fabian Cancellara after a decisive split on the Le Manie climb. Today Australia’s Simon Gerrans followed in his GreenEDGE teammate’s wheel tracks as he edged out Cancellara after a decisive moment on Le Manie when world champion Mark Cavendish was dropped and quickly gapped.
Milan-San Remo’s extreme length – at 298km, it is the longest race on the professional calendar – makes it a strategic chess game which requires unusual stamina and drains riders’ legs ahead of the finish. Misjudge one of the difficult descents or get out of position on the final climbs of Cipressa or Poggio and a contender’s day is done.
Cavendish’s Calvary on Le Manie
As always happens at Milan-San Remo, a breakaway was allowed to escape a long way up the road. Nine riders, including 1t4i’s Cheng Ji, the first Chinese rider ever to take part in the race, built a lead of 14 minutes before the peloton decided enough was enough and initiated the inevitable chase-and-catch.
For the second year in a row the race was suddenly animated on Le Manie whose summit, with 94km to go, is almost exactly at two-thirds distance. Last year a crash on the descent caused a decisive split and put paid to the hopes of many of the favourites. Today’s race-shaping move came on the ascent of the tricky 4.7km climb, which averages 6.7% and peaks at 11% just before the summit.
Although this year’s split was less dramatic, it was enough to account for Sky’s world champion Mark Cavendish. This morning’s Gazzetta Dello Sport had carried the headline ‘Everyone versus Cavendish’. It proved a prescient statement as the initial pace set by Liquigas proved too hot for the visibly labouring rainbow jersey. He slid backwards through the field and soon popped out of the back altogether.
Liquigas and a number of other teams immediately put the hammer down to ensure Cavendish could not regain the lost ground with a daredevil descent. 30 seconds quickly became two minutes as Cav pedalled squares on the final, steep part of the climb, and despite sterling work by a cadre of four Sky teammates to try to force their way back to the peloton, the rainbow jersey raised the white flag with 50km to go, patting his colleagues on the back in recognition for their effort. A nice touch from the beaten world champion, for whom Le Manie had proven to be his personal Calvary.
On the tight and winding road down from Le Manie, Carlos Quintero (Colombia-Coldeportes) suffered a heavy crash, appearing to collide with a wall. With echoes of Wouter Weylandt or Mauricio Soler ringing fresh in the mind, it was a relief to quickly learn that Quintero had apparently ‘only’ suffered a broken collarbone and a concussion. There but for the grace of God …
The endgame on the Poggio
Up ahead, the big effort to drop Cavendish had a knock-on effect on the rest of the race, as the breakaway was caught early, with 56km still to go. The peloton rode tempo over the three smaller ‘Capi’ coastal hills, organising their tactics and gatheing themselves for the final push to the finish, but the effort off Le Manie took the sting out of the legs of many riders who might otherwise have contested the finish.
As the pack started up the Cipressa, again it was Liquigas who put on a show of strength, putting Valerio Agnoli on the front to keep the pace high. That didn’t stop Francisco Vila (Utensilnord-Named) and – who else? – Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil-DCM) from breaking clear though. Liquigas, Omega Pharma-Quick Step and RadioShack-Nissan all put their shoulders to the wheel to pace the pursuit, but not before a multi-rider crash brought an end to the hopes of 2011’s king of the Classics, Philippe Gilbert (BMC). Nonetheless, the two escapees were brought to heel on the descent, setting up a final showdown on the Poggio.
The final hill of Milan-San Remo is a modest ascent in terms of length and gradient (3.7km, 3.7%), but is always attacked flat-out and features a number of tight uphill bends which require riders to slow and then re-accelerate, breaking their rhythm and further sapping tired legs. Liquigas immediately instigated their plan by sending Agnoli on a solo attack, piling the pressure on everyone else. Movistar’s Angel Madrazo went after and then straight past him, but there was no further reaction until the dangerous Hoogerland again launched himself off the front about 1km from the summit.
It was Liquigas’ Vincenzo Nibali who launched the endgame with an explosive acceleration, but Simon Gerrans (GreenEDGE) was alert to the danger and immediately latched onto his wheel. Only Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack) had the reserves and the power to bridge the gap, and the trio went over the summit together. They hurtled together down the descent with Cancellara, the best descender in the peloton, acting as pilot fish as they maintained a lead of 12 seconds over the remaining dozen or so chasers.
From master descender to master time-trialist, on the final 3km flat run-in to the finish Cancellara found himself hung out to dry. With neither Nibali nor Gerrans contributing, and with their pursuers too close to drop the pace, the Swiss had no option but to drive as hard as he could on his own. If anyone can win from that position, it is the man they call ‘Spartacus’ [did Kitty pay you to say that? – Ed], but the impressive Gerrans had enough zip left to sling-shot out of Cancellara’s wheel in the final 100m and pass him comfortably enough to raise his arms aloft before the line. Nibali had to settle for third. Somehow, both the strongest rider (Cancellara) and the strongest team (Liquigas) had been outfoxed by the wily Gerrans.
Just two seconds behind the podium finishers came the pursuit group – minus OPQS’ Matteo Trentin and BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet, who came down on the final corner, with the finger later being pointed at the down-draft from the low-flying TV helicopter. Nibali’s teammate Peter Sagan out-dragged 1t4i’s John Degenkolb for fourth spot.
Other leading contenders suffered bad luck in the closing stages. OPQS leader Tom Boonen was delayed by another rider’s crash on the Poggio descent, although it is highly unlikely he could have won anyway. Garmin-Barracuda’s Heinrich Haussler, the runner-up to Cavendish in 2009, was held up by Gilbert’s accident.
After the race an elated Gerrans acknowledged he had benefited from Cancellara doing virtually all the work in their late escape:
Without question Fabian was the strongest, he was going like a motorbike. He followed Nibali and myself on the Poggio, drove it over the top and was the best descender.
He drove the break to the finish. I gave him one turn but he passed me again. I was confident the break would make it to the finish and I knew what I had to do to finish off the job and win.
Cancellara told the RadioShack website:
In general I think everything went the way it should go. At the end I was right there and when the attack came I was ready. Gerrans did some pulls and I understood that Nibali had his teammate Peter Sagan behind for the sprint so he didn’t have to work. I saw the riders coming at the end but after 300km it’s not easy to calculate exactly what to do and be right each time. In the end I got a nice second place and second in San Remo is prestigious, of course, but it wasn’t the birthday present I was looking for. [He turns 31 tomorrow, Sunday – Ed.] I came to win.
Victory moved Tour Down Under winner Gerrans back to the top of the UCI individual rankings ahead of Nibali, while GreenEDGE jumped to fourth in the team table behind overall leaders RadioShack-Nissan. It has been a stunning debut season so far for the Australian squad, for whom Gerrans has won two of the opening four WorldTour events, with Matt Goss also spending three days in the leader’s jersey at Tirreno-Adriatico.
VeloVoices’ adopted rider for the day, Oscar Gatto (Farnese Vini), was up among the leading contenders all day, but lost touch over the top of the Poggio and finished 14th, 12 seconds down. He was one place and eight seconds ahead of Goss, who was always there or thereabouts but never looked a serious threat to repeat last year’s win.
1. Simon Gerrans (GreenEDGE) 6:59:24
2. Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) same time
3. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) s/t
4. Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) +0:02
5. John Degenkolb (1t4i) s/t
6. Filippo Pozzato (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia) s/t
7. Oscar Freire (Katusha) s/t
8. Alessandro Ballan (BMC) s/t
9. Daniel Oss (Liquigas-Cannondale) s/t
10. Daniele Bennati (RadioShack-Nissan) s/t