Tag Archives: Milan-San Remo

The 2017 season so far: Big names come to the fore

It has been a long time since I last wrote anything on here. It has been a busy winter. And anytime I have gotten some free time I’ve spent it on my bike rather than writing about bikes. On that end I’ve cycled over 1,500km since the turn of the year, way more than in any other winter before, and I am feeling good for it. A lot of it on the turbo trainer, but a mild winter here in Southern Ontario has meant I have gotten out on the road too. I have a couple of races in April and I decided to actually get ready for them. So far so good, though I could use to cut back on some junk food!

That isn’t to say I haven’t watched my share of cycling though. Indeed I have watched as much this winter and early spring as ever before. Some of the racing has been spectacular and there has been a lot of talking points. There is little point in me going into them all in detail right now, you’ve likely seen them yourself, but I do want to address some. So where to start?

To tell the truth, the early season races in January and February feel much like pre-season training races to me. Yes they are important to those that win them, and they can be fun to watch, but you get the sense many use them to find form. They can be to cycling what spring training games are to Baseball. We don’t remember all the winners and the results don’t have a real baring on the rest of the season. On that end, here in late March already, I won’t go writing about it. In the eyes of many fans, especially those in Belgium, the real season begins at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. That was won this year by Van Avermaet with Sagan winning  Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne the next day. Starting as they mean to go on.

And then again, in a way you could also say that this pair of races is the pre-season for the northern classics. Once complete the riders disappear south again to race the Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico by way of Strade Bianche. The riders go to seek form before returning north later in March. So when does the ‘real’ season begin? I suppose it depends on the rider. Some might say it starts at the top of the calendar, Down Under. Some will say once they return to Belgium via the Middle East. And others will tell you the Race to the Sun, Paris-Nice is the true traditional start to the season.

That Race to the Sun this year was true to its word. Strong winds and hard rain hammered the early stages and it wasn’t until they got down near beautiful Nice that the sun come out. Sergio Henao of Team Sky won it, fending off yet another late Contador charge. Over in Italy at Tirreno Quintana won overall with a little more ease.

And so everyone then turned up in Milan for the first monument of the year: Milan-San Remo. And what a race it was. Lately this race has resulted in a large group sprint and it’s often seen as the sprinters monument, but not so this time. Not when you have Peter Sagan out to rip a race to shreds. Sagan has a decent sprint, and he could have waited, but where’s the drama in that? It was on the Poggio, that final climb in which he made his move. The Poggio is not the toughest climb in the world, but with 290km in the legs, it likely feels like Alpe d’Huez. A huge surge put him clear and only Michal Kwiatkowski and Julian Alaphilippe could react. Neither of them done a lot of work on the front in the run in to San Remo, though nor should they have. It was Sagan who forced the issue, it was his race to win or lose. And so it proved to be, like E3 Harelbeke last year, that Kwiatkowski managed to come around Sagan and take the sprint win. He added this one to his victory at Strade Bianche a two weeks before.

So much then for a Sky team in crisis with a set of riders distracted by the so-called scandal engulfing the team back in the UK. That idea was suggested by the vultures on this story in a bid to further undermime the position of Sir Dave Brailsford. It was kind of put to bed with Kwiaktowski taking two one-day wins, Thomas a stage win and Henao a GC victory in the space of 14 days.

And it was here then, in San Remo, that the peloton split in two. The climbers heading into Spain for the Volta a Catalunya and Pais Vasco, and the strong men going north again to Belgium. It would be a week of racing in which riders from the respective home nations dominated.

In Spain, Valverde was a level above in what became a Spanish sweep of the podium. He finished a minute ahead of fellow countrymen Contador and Marc Soler. On his way to victory, Valverde took three stage wins from seven and was second in another. At 36, Valverde would appear to be in the form of his life.

But if you think it was a good week for the Spaniards, take a look back up at Belgium. In the three classic races up there this past week, they attained seven of the available nine podium places. Yves Lampaert won the Dwars Door Vlaanderen in a race lit up by his team-mate Philippe Gilbert who settled for second. At E3 Harelbeke, Gilbert once again settled for second after igniting a race in which Van Avermaet went on to win. Then this weekend at Gent-Wevelgem, Van Avermaet done the double by putting one on Sagan with a late attack from a reduced group. Indeed it was a triple for the Belgian following his win at Het Nieuwsblad, becoming the second man ever to win these three races in one season.

All Belgium will hope this form continues next weekend with the big one: The Tour of Flanders. Greg Van Avermaet must go in as a favourite, though Phillipe Gilbert should be right on him. Still, despite his short comings in actual wins of late, it would still take a fool to write off Peter Sagan. It’s a real shame that Michal Kwiatkowski, a man who looks made for any of the five monuments, will be missing from this one. Still, it should be one of the races of the year.

The season is very much underway now!

*****

Last year I ran some awards for the rider of the week and month. I will do that again this year, though only monthly. As such, and being a bit behind, here’s my picks for the first three months:

January: Richie Porte
February: Rui Costa
March: Greg Van Avermaet

Also last year I ran the King of Spring classification. I took 14 major spring classic races from Omloop to  Liège and used the Formula One points format of 25 for a win down to 1 for 10th place with each race counting equal. With seven races now in the books, the standings sit as follows:

1. Greg Van Avermaet – 99 pts
2. Peter Sagan – 76 pts
3. Michal Kwiatkowski – 50 pts
4. Philippe Gilbert – 36 pts
5. Oliver Naesen – 33 pts

Demare breaks 19 year French Monument drought at San Remo while fighting off towing accusations

Last week I wrote that if Geraint Thomas could win the Milan-San Remo he’d be the first man to win the Paris-Nice and the seasons first Monument in the same year since Laurent Jalabert in 1995. That didn’t happen, but Jalabert’s 1995 success was still significant because that was the last time a Frenchman had won the La Classicissima before Arnaud Démare crossed the line to win on Saturday. Indeed it was the first French Monument win since Jalabert at the Giro d’Lombardia in 1997.

And yet like with the Tirreno-Adriatico and the cancelled stage, it was a race in which the outcome was once again steeped in controversy with the major talking point far removed from the result itself. Not because snow cancellations sparked a row on Twitter, but because two Italian riders accused Démare of holding onto his team-car on the second to last climb after being held up by a crash. The upshot has been 24 hours worth of Strava analysis and finger pointing without any serious evidence, that has surely taken some of the gleam off the result.

At the end of the day, without video or photographic evidence, and without his power files, something some have called for him to release but which he is under no obligation to do, we’ll never know for sure what happened. Proving ones innocence is something we’re all too familiar with in cycling, but history has shown that it only tends to lead to more questions and speculation from conspiracy theorists; Demare need only ask Chris Froome about that. And besides, Demare releasing his power files to ensure he took no tow on his way to victory would only see the same demands being put on everyone who won every subsequent race from now until every helmet is fitted with a camera!

What I would like is to see some further clarification from the two Italian riders on their post-race accusations to see if they stood by them in the cold light of day.

Scandals and sideshows, be they warranted or not, seem forever likely to linger over bike racing. Froome can tell you about the sideshows; the motorised doping scandal that completely overshadowed a brilliant Cyclo-cross World Championships tells you all you need know about continued scandals. Last weeks Tirreno Adriatico had a sideshow scandal of its own when a stage was cancelled due to snow Matt Brammieier took to Twitter to rant at Vincenzo Nibali. It stole the headlines away from Greg Van Avermaet’s overall win.

One quick Google search for ‘Milan San Remo’ brings up the headline: ‘Demare hits back at Milan-San Remo tow allegations’. There’s several others like it and lost in the middle one called: ‘How the Race was won’. I haven’t read it yet but I assume it isn’t telling us it was won when Démare held onto his team car and accompanied with a grainy picture showing him riding alongside the car as was the case in one Italian outlet before someone pointed out that this wasn’t the climb in question but rather one hundred or more kilometres further down the road.

This isn’t to blame all the media. Here I am devoting several paragraphs to it also, but just a lament on how continually cycling puts itself, or more aptly, put’s itself, behind the eight ball of scandal. And so I’ll drop that story line now, at least until someone shows me some hard evidence that Démare did indeed cheat, at which time we can hand the win to a Brit! No, not Geraint Thomas in his failed bid for the Paris-Nice/San Remo double, but Ben Swift. His second top three in as many editions.

Swift must be frustrated at two close calls with Monument glory, whereas Démare will be feeling on top of the world despite all the noise. To go from crashing out of the lead pack, to chasing them, catching them, climbing with them on the Pogio, and then out sprinting them is one fine effort. He’ll also feel a little fortunate too. The two favoured sprinters in the pack ran into trouble of their own. Fernando Gaviria crashed inside the final 300 metres, a crash that should have brought down Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellara but for some superb bike handling by the pair, but disrupting their speed enough to rule them out; and Nacer Bouhanni who’s chain jumped right as he was beginning his sprint. That isn’t to say any of them would have beaten Demare…the sprint in Milan-San Remo is a funny one, coming after 300km of racing and thus not always favoured to the fastest man on paper. And besides, mechanicals and crashes are all part of racing (the later of which Démare knew all too well) but in the end the best man gets in the position to avoid this and he wins, and on Saturday it was a Frenchman at long last.

Milan – San Remo result:

1. Arnaud Demare (FDJ)

2. Ben Swift (Sky)

3. Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto Soudal)

4. Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis)

5. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC)

6. Alexander Kristoff (Katusha)

in 6h 54′ 45″

all s.t.

Rider of the week:

Assuming all is cosher with his chase back on following the crash and then sprint to victory, it’s hard to look beyond Démare.

Sprinters foiled in a cold and wet bunch sprint by Kristoff

They build them tough in Norway, and tough you had to be to come out on top of this one. Indeed, even to survive to the final group of 25 took some doing on a day in which the Milan-San Remo course was battered with rain, wind and cold, and for almost 300 kilometres. The effort it took on the bodies of these athletes was never more evident that in the final sprint itself, for how many times do you see a bunch sprint containing names such as Mark Cavendish, Andre Greipel and Peter Sagan, and have a one-two-three finish of Alexanter Kristoff, Fabian Cancellara, and Ben Swift.

To look at the top three finishers alone without seeing the race itself would have left you thinking they had been part of a small group that had attacked before the finish and made the move stick, rather than a bunch sprint that contained some of the fastest men in the world. But in these conditions and with that many miles in pairs of legs further sapped by short-sharp climbs along the Ligurian coast road, it was the strongest, rather than the pure fastest, that had the best chance of winning.

And I wonder did Kristoff, the Norweigen hard man, know that? Did he know that in these conditions, at this pace and with this many hours in the saddle — four minutes, four seconds shy of seven hours, to be exact — that it would be the strongest who would win and that it wasn’t necessary to try and lose the pure sprinters on the final climb up the Poggio?

Normally it is this climb where the decisive move would be made and while some tried, they couldn’t open the gap required. Even on the wet descent some took a gamble on opening a gap, but when they merged back onto the main road into San Remo with the likes of Cavendish and Sagan still on board, it seemed everyone else’s chances were doomed.

Not so. Kristoff, Cancellara and Swift left the last ditch attacking to the others and put their eggs in the tired-legs-of-sprinters basket, and for Kristoff, it paid out.

Cancellara looked angry when he crossed the line. How often will you beat those pure sprinters in a bunch gallop and still not win the race? He looked like a man who had just realised that someone else had the same plan as him, but who was just that little bit stronger on the day.

And a quick word for Vincenzo Nibali who crawled in 44th, 3 minutes and 14 seconds down, for it was him who made probably the best effort to leave the main group in a bid to win the race solo, and did so on the second to last climb of the Cipressa. The reigning Giro d’Italia winner surged clear and put in a masterful descent, catching the remaining two of a seven man group that had been off the front of the race for almost the entire day. He blew past them through the wet corners and took a 48 second lead onto the coast road with him. If only he could hit the Poggio with the majority of that in tact, we might have seen the first man to win from an attack on that climb since 1996, for Nibali’s climbing ability coupled with his descending speed would surely have taken him onto the streets of San Remo alone. But the chase was on from the group behind and so Nibali only carried a handful of seconds onto the final climb and was soon swept away in a surge of attacks that themselves were not meant to last.

Results

1. Alexander Kristoff (Nor) Team Katusha, in 6h55’56”
2. Fabian Cancellara (Swi) Trek Factory Racing
3. Ben Swift (GBr) Team Sky
4. Juan Jose Lobato Del Valle (Spa) Movistar
5. Mark Cavendish (GBr) Omega Pharma – Quick-Step
6. Sonny Colbrelli (Ita) Bardiani CSF
7. Zdenek Stybar (Cze) Omega Pharma – Quick-Step
8. Sacha Modolo (Ita) Lampre-Merida
9. Gerald Ciolek (Ger) MTN – Qhubeka
10. Peter Sagan (Svk) Cannondale, all at s.t.

Sagan’s Spring, episode 1: Sagan primed for greatness

If the talent of Peter Sagan wasn’t fully understood before this past couple of weeks, then worry no more. The way the young 23-year old Slovakian cyclist has ripped up the early part of the season has been nothing short of astonishing, leaving the likes of Mark Cavendish to refer to him as a “machine” and others to draw comparisons to the great Eddy Merckx.

That might be getting ahead of ourselves somewhat, though maybe not as much as you might think and it’s something I’ll look into further in a future article. Suffice to say though he’s the finest young talent in cycling today and despite being beaten into second in both Monument Classics so far, it’s the style in which he’s tried to win and how he’s featured in every big race he’s been involved in that’s made him the man of Spring thus far.

At 23 the future sure is bright and Fabian Cancellara aside, he might well be the most feared man in the professional peloton right now. Gerald Ciolek pipping him to the line at the Milan – San Remo a few weeks ago may hint at slight tactical naivety, but even in that loss he showed how good he can be. He attacked on the final climb — The Poggio — and descended away from the field bringing with him just a small selection of riders. The rest made him do the bulk of the work and took turns trying to attack him, letting him bring it back together each time. In the sprint in which he should have been favorite, he was forced to start it earlier than he might otherwise have done, and it cost him on the line.

But he’ll learn from it.

Indeed, at Gent-Wevelgem he got across to the leading break and rather than let them follow his wheel and try attack him ahead of a sprint he was favourite to win, he decided to attack them first, leaving them all for dead with 4km to go, riding alone to a victory that seen him wheelie over the line.

It’s that expression of love for riding the bike as seen in his aggressive style, not to mention his endless collection of entertaining celebrations when he wins, that endears him to cycling fans. In an era in which many athletes across the broad spectrum of sports are too well PR trained, too well paid to the point that the money can become their focus, and too far above the fans to give them the time of day, young Sagan looks like someone naively in love with the sport who enjoys entertaining us. Long may that playful innocence continue and to hell with the pompous few who feel offended by it.

Two days later Sagan was back on his bike in the Tour de Panne, a race he was calling — to the dismay of his rivals, I’d imagine — a “training ride” for the Tour of Flanders. That is, you see, if training rides result in you beating up on your opponents once again? He went on the attack with 20 kilometers to go on the final climb and then won the sprint from a small group of ten that he had dragged clear. A day later he sat up allowing the leaders jersey to pass onto the shoulders of Arnaud Demare as Mark Cavendish took the bunch gallop meaning he could withdraw from the race without doing so as race leader. Alexander Kristoff and Sylvain Chavanel went on to win the split stages on day three with Chavanel taking the overall.

We were heading into the final day of March and Sagan had already notched up seven wins on the season. He was the man to beat for Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen, that much was certain.