Talking Tactics: Good tactics, bad tactics at Milan-San Remo

Sunday’s Milan-San Remo will go down as one of its most memorable editions, with the parcours shortened by snow, the riders frozen by the cold and tactics turned on their head. Team management were no doubt frantically tearing up their strategies and improvising new ones during the race stoppage. But who got it right and who missed out on a golden opportunity?

A race of two halves

The exclusion of the race’s highest point, the Passo del Turchino, had a negligible effect on tactics. Despite its height, the ascent comes early on and is long and relatively mild, with a 12km descent on which any gap is easily nullified.

What the race would have looked like ...

What the race would have looked like …

What the opening 117km leg did do was change the physiology of the race. As the riders scurried into the warmth of their team buses for the transfer to the restart point, most had ice covering their bikes and helmets, and soaking arm/leg-warmers. Some recovered well, others tightened up. In addition, psychologically there’s nothing worse than having the time to contemplate how cold you are knowing that you have to go back out again.

It was no surprise, then, that several riders chose to call it a day. Some could not get warm. Others opted not to risk catching a cold. Mark Cavendish even took the extreme measure of removing his leg-warmers and continuing in his normal shorts. It may seem counter-intuitive, but that was probably a smart move.

Not really ideal conditions for a bunch sprint (image courtesy of G van Bohemen)

Is it any wonder some riders gave up? (image courtesy of G van Bohemen)


Le Manie

As a result, the race was shortened from 298km to 246km – a significant reduction, as part of Milan-San Remo’s challenge is its extreme length – and the exclusion of Le Manie to ensure the race finished in reasonable time. Introduced in 2008, this climb has become the race’s first key inflection point. 94km from home, it is both long and steep enough (4.7km, 6.7%) to put sprinters in distress (Cavendish was dropped here last year), and has a difficult, technical descent (in 2011 a crash forced a decisive split).

The extreme cold had initially counted against the sprinters’ chances, with the inevitable high attrition rate reducing their teams’ ability to protect and support them. However, with Le Manie gone, this redressed the balance somewhat, ensuring the peloton would stay together until the Cipressa.

A doomed breakaway

After the restart, the six-man breakaway resumed with a gap of 7:10 with 129km (rather than 181km) remaining. On a dry, warm, still day, even with the reduction in distance their chances would have been slim. In conditions which underlined the benefits of sheltering in the (relative) comfort of the peloton, the break was always doomed.

Sure enough, it was gruppo compatto 30km from the finish – just soon enough for teams to organise themselves before the main event.

Dramatis personae

Let’s look now at the main players in the final act and assess their tactics.

Race-defining tactics unfolded over the Cipressa and Poggio

Race-defining tactics unfolded over the Cipressa and Poggio

Sky: They initially employed their standard tactic of riding tempo at the front on the Cipressa to gradually turn the screws. But with Geraint Thomas crashing and Edvald Boasson Hagen abandoning, they backed off and regrouped behind Ian Stannard. This would have a knock-on negative effect on Cannondale.

Cannondale: A subsequent five-man attack strung out the peloton, leaving Cannondale to lead the chase. Having started with an extremely strong team, Peter Sagan watched as one by one his teammates were burned off, levelling the playing field. Cannondale had no choice. With Sylvain Chavanel in the break, they had to be chased down and no one else was willing to help – the burden of being the favourite.

Omega Pharma-Quick Step: Chavanel’s presence in that attack was a smart move, giving OPQS a one-two option with Cavendish on hand in the event of everything coming back together. With most of their riders having already abandoned, the team was better served by giving Chavanel free rein than asking him to shepherd Cavendish up the climb. As it was, Cav and the few sprinters in what remained of the peloton never entered the equation.

Philippe Gilbert (BMC): The world champion’s all-or-nothing attack on the descent from Cipressa was a prime example of a tactic which can only be judged with the benefit of hindsight. On his own and with descenders of the quality of Sagan and Fabian Cancellara hunting him down, his chances of solo success were slim. However, if two or three fellow contenders had been able to successfully jump across and form a small lead group, his prospects would have looked significantly better – not least because there would then have been several riders in the chase group with teammates up front, and therefore unwilling to assist. Ultimately futile, it was probably his best chance of victory so his tactic was sound.

What Gilbert might have been hoping for (top) and what actually happened (bottom)

What Gilbert might have been hoping for (top) and what actually happened (bottom)

I’m going to skip over Katusha’s Eduard Vorganov and Luca Paolini as both were threats without teeth. Vorganov briefly escaped with Chavanel and Stannard, but it was obvious from his laboured refusal to co-operate that he had expended his reserves already. Paolini made the final six-man group but lacked the pace or strength to be a credible contender.

Ian Stannard (Sky): Stannard is no sprinter but he has an engine to die for. Sky frequently use him on the front to set tempo, and his only chance of victory was a long-range attack in the hope of achieving a gap and time-trialling to victory. He gave it a couple of goes but his rivals were too watchful. Nonetheless sixth place represented the maximum he could achieve – a great ride.

Sylvain Chavanel (OPQS): Chavanel’s best chance was always going to be to outfight a small breakaway group missing any notable sprinters. He was in the right attack on the Cipressa and later slipped away with Stannard and Vorganov in what initially looked to be a potentially race-winning move, and might have been had Vorganov been able to contribute. However, with Sagan and Ciolek present in the final selection, he was doomed. Good tactics, but things just didn’t pan out for him.

Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard): Cancellara employed a different plan to what we have seen from him in previous Classics and played his cards well. At Strade Bianche he was man-marked and then pinned to the front of the chase group, allowing others to sit on his wheel and conserve energy. Here, although he had to put in some work on the front of the chase, particularly on the descents, he was also able to turn the tables and force Sagan to share that role. This left him fresher for a final sprint in which his strength was nearly a match for Ciolek and Sagan’s speed. Nearly, but not quite. But he put himself in a position where he maximised his opportunity. A good job.

Peter Sagan (Cannondale): The favourite was partly a victim of circumstance when others succeeded in separating him from his team and then forced him to work hard in the pursuit of first Gilbert and then the Chavanel/Stannard/Vorganov group. But he didn’t help himself with a half-hearted attack over 2km out and then by starting his final sprint too early. It was unclear whether it was Cancellara’s strength or Ciolek’s speed which worried him more. In the end he got caught in between the two, and a touch of inexperience and anxiety cost him the race.

Gerald Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka): Of course, Ciolek got his tactics spot on – he won! But here’s why he won. He put himself in a position on the climbs such that he was able to latch on to the right chase groups and put himself back in touch. When the final six-man selection formed he wasted no energy attacking, knowing Sagan was his only rival in a sprint. And in the final few hundred metres he ensured it was he who sat on Sagan’s wheel. Therefore when the Slovak opened up a fraction early, it was Ciolek who was best placed to capitalise. Smart, intelligent racing.


Analysing the race reveals that it’s not always immediately obvious from the result who did or didn’t employ good tactics. While bad tactics will lose you a race, good tactics don’t necessarily result in a win. And sometimes you just don’t know whether a particular tactic is good or not until everyone else has played their cards, as in the case of Gilbert. Of the final top six – Ciolek, Sagan, Cancellara, Chavanel, Paolini and Stannard – I’d say only Sagan erred, and even then if he had been half a wheel quicker we would be praising his strength rather than dismantling his mistakes. On such fine margins are races won and lost.

As armchair tacticians, it’s easy to pronounce right or wrong from the comfort of our living rooms. On the road, it’s a bit trickier.

I’m away next week, so Talking Tactics will be back in a fortnight’s time.

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