Milan-San Remo review: Ciolek plays his cards right to win race of patience

MTN-Qhubeka’s Gerald Ciolek overcame freezing conditions, snow, a mid-race bus transfer which split the race in half and white-hot pre-race favourite Peter Sagan (Cannondale) to prevail in the coldest and harshest Milan-San Remo in recent memory. The 26-year old German sprinter reeled in Sagan within touching distance of the line to win the first Monument of 2013 by no more than half a wheel.

It was a race so epic that we’ve asked both Tim and Panache to share their thoughts on the day’s events.

Ciolek enjoys the rewards of victory (image courtesy of Davide Calabresi)

Ciolek enjoys the rewards of victory (image courtesy of Davide Calabresi)

Race summary

A six-man break had established an advantage of 7:10 over a (literally) frozen peloton when the race was neutralised after 117km. The Passo del Turchino was deemed too snow-bound to be safely passable. Riders were bundled into their team buses to be relayed to a safe restart point, with several – including a disgruntled Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) – choosing to call it a day. The net result was a shortened race of two halves. The revised parcours also meant excluding the strategically important climb of Le Manie at two-thirds distance to ensure the race would finish before darkness fell.

Welcome to the start of Spring Classics season! (image courtesy of Davide Calabresi)

Welcome to the start of Spring Classics season! (image courtesy of Davide Calabresi)

The race resumed with 130km remaining and the peloton set to work reeling in the breakaway. They completed the catch with just over 30km remaining, shortly before the Cipressa, the first of the two decisive hills in the closing section of the race. By then the combination of high tempo and the damp cold had forced several big names out of contention, including 2011 winner Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEDGE), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Thor Hushovd (BMC).

The pace remained fast up the Cipressa, with all the contenders seeking a position near the front of the pack to reduce the risk of being caught behind a crash. Of course, that duly resulted in a crash, with Sky’s Geraint Thomas and Garmin-Sharp’s Tyler Farrar the principal casualties. A five-man group including OPQS’ Sylvain Chavanel attacked, stringing the peloton out into one long line and accounting for Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol), defending champion Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEDGE) and Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky). Then on the descent the rainbow jersey of Philippe Gilbert flew solo off the front.

But the world champion could not get away and then was unable to follow a three-man attack of Chavanel, Ian Stannard (Sky) and Eduard Vorganov (Katusha), although the Russian lacked the energy to contribute to the effort. A subsequent series of attacks on the Poggio left six men to contest the final: Chavanel, Stannard, Sagan, Ciolek, Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) and Luca Paolini (Katusha). A nervy Sagan tried one half-hearted attack over 2km out and then opened up the final sprint at around 225 metres. But the wily Ciolek, who had conserved energy by not attacking, came off his wheel and slowly hauled him in, nudging ahead by less than half a wheel to take the first ever WorldTour win by an African Pro-Continental team.

Sagamn (left) looks across in disappointment as Ciolek (centre) realises he has won (image courtesy of Davide Calabresi)

Sagan (left) looks across in disappointment as Ciolek (centre) celebrates victory (image courtesy of Davide Calabresi)

An exhausted and visibly disappointed Sagan held off Cancellara for second. BMC’s Taylor Phinney nearly managed to ride his way across to the leaders from what remained of the peloton, but ran out of road and finished a brave seventh.

Analysis & opinion

After the race, Tim and Panache got together to chat about the race. You can read more of their discussion in next week’s Talking Tactics column, but here are their key thoughts on the race in general.

Tim: Well, that was quite good, wasn’t it? What a finish!

Panache: We’ll remember this race for years to come, that’s for sure.

Tim: First things first. Skipping the Turchino and Le Manie and restarting the race – it was the right thing to do, wasn’t it?

Phinney shows that this wasn't your average spring morning ride (image courtesy of Taylor Phinney)

Taylor Phinney’s ice-covered helmet gives an indication of just how cold it was (image courtesy of Taylor Phinney)

Panache: Absolutely. Missing out Le Manie changed the race, and the shorter distance also affected it, but it was better to do that than have no race at all. When Mark Cavendish found out Le Manie was gone [he was dropped on that climb last year – Ed], his eyes must have lit up!

Tim: Too right – him and all the other pure sprinters. It fundamentally changed the tactics of the race, didn’t it? Tipped the balance, gave the quick guys that bit more of a chance, in conditions which otherwise counted against them.

Panache: It became a very different race, for sure. I’d call it a ‘race of patience’. Philippe Gilbert, for instance – he was not patient enough. He went for it coming off the Cipressa, but that move was a big risk and it didn’t work out for him.

Tim: Yes, maybe he went because he knew Vincenzo Nibali, who is such a great descender, had climbed off?

Panache: Maybe. But Peter Sagan may be just as good, as he showed at Tirreno-Adriatico last week. Even Fabian Cancellara, who we know is a demon descender, was struggling on some of those wet bends, but Sagan just kept motoring.

Tim: And Sagan maybe lacked patience in the final too. That little attack he put in with still more than 2km to go – that was very odd. And then he went too early in the sprint. If he’d held off for another 50 metres, maybe even 25, Gerald Ciolek runs out of road to get by him. But the German got it right, didn’t he?

Panache: Yeah, now Ciolek was patient. He didn’t panic when the attack got away, made it across to the lead group and then was happy to sit in the wheels, knowing his sprint would give him a big chance. Tactically perfect.

Tim: Poor Sagan, though! Ciolek deserved his win – no argument about that – but the burden of being the favourite weighed heavy on his shoulders, didn’t it? Cannondale were forced into leading the chase at critical points in the run-in, burning off Sagan’s teammates, and then he himself had to do a lot of work in the closing kilometres which would have sapped his legs even more. Even then, but for a few inches …

Panache: I think, the way Milan-San Remo is now, it’s almost impossible to win if you’re the favourite and you need to be someone who comes out of nowhere. Look at the last three winners: Goss, Gerrans and now Ciolek. None of them were big favourites coming in. But, having said that, if Sagan had had a teammate to help him in those last few kilometres, he’d have won.

Tim: Ciolek’s become a bit of a forgotten man, and yet he’s still only 26. I remember when he was teammates with Cav and Greipel at what was T-Mobile, he was talked about in the same breath as those two, but it never quite happened for him. You’ve got to be pleased for him, and for his team. I do think you also have to say chapeau to all the guys who took part today in horrendous conditions. When you get that cold and wet there’s just no escaping the misery. Your muscles tighten up and every pedal-stroke becomes a huge effort. It’s no fun!

Panache: In a situation like that it’s as much about mental toughness as it is anything physical. You see tough, strong riders like Goss, Nibali, Boonen climbing off their bikes. That shows you how challenging it is. But what about your man, Cav? That boy is all kinds of tough. Okay, he couldn’t live with the master descenders who got away but he finished ninth and he was just wearing shorts with no leg coverings!

Tim: I’m so chuffed for him. I really hope all the Cav haters remember today when they complain about him just being a soft whinger who’s used to having everything delivered on a plate for him. He came to race today – and that’s what he did.

Panache: Taylor Phnney too. To finish the race the way he did, bridging solo to the leaders and nearly sneaking on to the podium, it makes me think that maybe he could become a big Classics contender in the future. And I was so impressed with Ian Stannard. He kept going and he kept going and he kept going, even though he knew he could never win the sprint. In the right circumstances, he could be a threat in some of the flatter Classics and over the cobbles.

Tim: He’s a big, strong, powerful guy. Sky often use him as the man to shut down breakaways because he’s got that big old diesel engine, so we don’t often get to see him ride for himself. But today he showed just what a talented rider he is. And so to Flanders!

Panache: What a tough act to follow!


1. Gerald Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka) 5:37:20

2. Peter Sagan (Cannondale) same time

3. Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) s/t

4. Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) s/t

5, Luca Paolini (Katusha) s/t

6. Ian Stannard (Sky) s/t

7. Taylor Phinney (BMC) s/t

8. Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) +0:14

9. Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) s/t

10. Bernhard Eisel (Sky) s/t

Links: PreviewOfficial website

Volta a Catalunya preview

230px-Volta_a_Catalunya_logoNow settled into its new slot in late March (where it has resided since 2010), having originally occupied a position following the Giro d’Italia, one of cycling’s oldest stage races offers an opportunity for the climbers to strut their stuff in an event which traverses some of the most mountainous parts of the Catalan region before finishing in one of the most famous cultural and sporting cities in the world, Barcelona.

What kind of race is it?

The first of Spain’s four WorldTour events – and the fourth-oldest stage race in cycling, after the Tours of France and Belgium and the Giro – is a week-long stage race packed with plenty of testing medium to high climbs. In its latest format it is one of the few major races to be run without a time trial, making it an event which finds favour with those who prefer to race against gradients rather than the clock, and there are still enough opportunities to attract sprinters.

Its position in the calendar means that Flanders Classics specialists will not be present, although the terrain does offer a proving ground for those looking towards the Ardennes or riders wishing to stake a claim for selection in their team’s squad for the Giro d’Italia.

Unsurprisingly, the winners’ list for this race reads like a Who’s Who of Spanish cycling. Miguel Indurain won three times, while more recently Joseba Beloki, Roberto Heras, Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez have also claimed GC victory. Ten of the last 14 editions have been won by a Spanish rider.

The most recent winners of the race are:

2008: Gustavo Cesar (Karpin-Galicia)

2009: Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne)

2010: Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha)

2011: Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD)

2012: Michael Albasini (GreenEDGE)

What happened last year?

2012 winner Albasini (image courtesy of GreenEDGE)

2012 winner Albasini (image courtesy of GreenEDGE)

GreenEDGE’s Michael Albasini laid the foundations for overall victory by winning the first two stages. He claimed the first after soloing away from his breakaway accomplices, while the second came in a reduced bunch sprint.

He was aided by the nullification of race times on a snow-shortened queen stage, which also resulted in large-scale abandonments. But he had no problem defending his advantage thereafter as Saur-Sojasun’s Julien Simon took two sprint finishes, with Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Rigoberto Uran (Sky) taking a victory each.

1. Michael Albasini (GreenEDGE) 24:15:45

2. Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +1:30

3. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol) +1:32

4. Daniel Martin (Garmin-Barracuda) same time

5. Rigoberto Uran (Sky) s/t

6. Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) s/t

7. Robert Kiserlovski (Astana) s/t

8. Matteo Carrara (Vacansoleil-DCM) s/t

9. Dario Cataldo (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) s/t

10. Sergio Pardilla (Movistar) s/t

You can read our full 2012 race review here.

This year’s race

We will see all 19 ProTeams plus wild-cards Caja Rural-Seguros RGA, Cofidis and Sojasun in Catalunya. It’s straight down to business on an opening stage which features five categorised climbs, the last 18km from the finish on which the sprinters’ teams will struggle to contain the inevitable attacks. The fast-twitch men may have to wait until the following day for their first opportunity, although there’s plenty of uphill gradient on the circuit loop around Banyoles to make life difficult.

It is over the next two days, however, where the GC contenders will come to the fore. Stage three concludes with a summit finish at the special-category Vallter 2000, a 12km climb to 2,200 metres averaging 7.8%. The following day’s parcours sees a never-ending succession of ascents finishing with a pair of special-category climbs totalling 43.5km in length.

The GC is unlikely to alter significantly over the final two stages, although there’s no joy for the sprinters either. Stage six includes a Cat 1 climb with a further Cat 2 only 15km from the finish. And the concluding stage in Barcelona includes eight ascents of Montjuic hill around the 1992 Olympic Games park, a 2km climb averaging 5.75%, before a downhill finish.

Who to watch

The official start-list had yet to be published at the time of writing – but here goes anyway! Two of the last three overall winners are here: Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez and Lampre-Merida’s Michele Scarponi (who inherited the 2011 victory after Alberto Contador’s suspension). Katusha are bringing a particularly strong team, with Denis Menchov a formidable second-in-command and Daniel Moreno and Simon Spilak to do the hard work on the climbs.

Rodriguez returns to pursue a second Catalunya win (image courtesy of Katusha)

Rodriguez returns to pursue a second Catalunya win (image courtesy of Katusha)

Blanco will look to continue their impressive early season form, with Robert Gesink aided and abetted by Steven Kruijswijk and Laurens ten Dam. Similarly, Garmin-Sharp can field a potent one-two punch in defending Giro champion Ryder Hesjedal and Dan Martin, as can Sky with Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins and the consistently impressive Rigoberto Uran. A lot of eyes will be on Wiggins ahead of the Giro given his low profile so far this year. Thibaut Pinot and Arnold Jeannesson will combine in search of valuable WorldTour points for FDJ.

Others looking to gear up for the Grand Tours or to prove a point about their ability as team leaders include Jakob Fuglsang (Astana), Jurgen van den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol), Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Nicolas Roche (Saxo-Tinkoff) and Igor Anton (Euskaltel-Euskadi). Vacansoleil’s Giro podium finisher Thomas De Gendt may focus more on stage wins rather than the overall – if he does he is likely to find himself in good company with riders from the wild-card teams, in particular Spanish squad Caja Rural.

With different riders at widely differing points in terms of their preparation depending on their targets for the season, the outcome of this race is difficult to predict, but there is every chance that a well-judged breakaway could propel an unexpected name on to the podium, as it did with Albasini last year.

Race details

March 18th: Stage 1 – Calella to Calella, 159.3km

March 19th: Stage 2 – Girona to Banyoles, 160.7km

March 20th: Stage 3 – Vidreres to Valter 2000-Setcases, 180.1km

March 21st: Stage 4 – Llanars to Vall de Camprodon-Port Aine-Rialp, 217.7km

March 22nd: Stage 5 – Rialp to Lleida, 156.5km

March 23rd: Stage 6 – Almacelles to Valls, 178.7km

March 24th: Stage 7 – El Vendrell to Barcelona (Montjuic), 122.2km

The Volta a Catalunya starts on Monday 18th March and concludes on Sunday 24th. Daily live coverage will be shown in the UK by Eurosport. For other options check

Link: Official website

VeloEye Davide Calabresi: A Strade Bianche picture gallery

Last year, Sean Weide of BMC put us in touch with young Italian photographer Davide Calabresi – and what an auspicious day that was! Since then, he’s been a Friday Feature, sharing his evocative pictures of the Italian National Championships (one of which is currently our Facebook cover picture) and then later in the season sharing his view of Il Lombardia. Lucky for all of us, he was at Strade Bianche earlier this month and he takes us from start to finish … (All photographs ©Davide Calabresi.)

StradeB Vacansoleil

Crisp and clean and ready for the start

StradeB Glow signing

Mini tifosi getting an autograph from a Glow


Big smiles from Franco Pellizotti

StradeB Cancellara signin CREDIT DAVIDE CALABRESI

Spartacus signs in


The red and the black of BMC, plus the rainbow stripes of a former World Champion

StradeB motorbikes follow CREDIT DAVIDE CALABRESI

A view from behind the motorbikes


The day starts out with a smile – or is that a grimace?


The main breakaway: Michael Schar (BMC), Aleksejs Saramotins (IAM), Maxim Belkov (Katusha) and Giairo Ermeti (Androni Giocattoli)


Even on the dusty Italian roads, the Argonaut whites are still sparkling


Let’s hope we see Andy Schleck smiling later on this season

Getting a helping hand

Getting a helping hand

'Look what I did!' Moser takes the win

“Look what I did!” Moser takes the win

'I'm lookin' at you!' The Velvet Samurai comes in second

“I’m lookin’ at you!” The Velvet Samurai comes in second

The podium for 2013 Strade Bianche

The podium for 2013 Strade Bianche: Peter Sagan and Moreno Moser (Cannondale) with 3rd place Rinaldo Nocentini (Ag2r)


His champagne bubbleth over

My favourite picture of the set: the champagne gets shared out

My favourite picture of the set: the champagne gets shared out

You can follow Davide on Twitter and visit his website.