La Primavera, as Milan-San Remo is known, kicks off the classics season in European professional bike racing. It's the longest classic, at 298km (186mi), and traditionally, the distance is the main obstacle, with several hills thrown in at the end to break legs. Cannondale Pro Cycling's Peter Sagan, showing great form, came to the race as the hot favorite.
This year, the weather became the main obstacle. Snowy conditions, which started in Milan, took the first two big hills and 47km (30mi) out of the race. Riders stopped in Ovada, boarded their team buses instead of climbing the snow-covered Turchino pass, and were driven to Cogoleto, where the race re-started. The riders took the opportunity to warm up, change clothes, and eat.
This sort of on-the-fly change is extremely rare in bike racing, but is known to happen; there are rules governing what to do. Cancellations are dreaded, and rare because nobody likes them, not the racers, not the organizers, not the fans. When everyone had gathered at the new starting line, the race began where it left off. A six-rider breakaway, which had a seven minute and ten second lead on the main field when the race stopped, was given a 7:10 head start.
No longer did the riders have to battle snow, but they had to ride though the cold and wet. Not everyone deals with bad weather equally well. Dressing poorly can sap your energy, as can worrying about crashing, and the field rode safely together, eschewing all attacks and favoring steadily chipping away at the break's advantage. Cannondale, knowing that Sagan was not only on great form, but triumphed several days earlier in similarly hard conditions, took to the front for long stretches.
With 31km (19mi) remaining, the break was caught, and the field kept the pace high, with the Cipressa climb just ahead. Over the top of the Cipressa, Philippe Gilbert of the BMC team took dynamite to the race with a stinging attack on the descent.
Behind, Sagan and the other favorites fought to get close. As Gilbert was caught, Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel of OmegaPharma-QuickStep attacked, drawing out British champion Ian Stannard of Team Sky, and Russian champion Eduard Vorgonov of Katusha. The three took a small lead onto the final hill of the race, the Poggio.
Chavanel and Stannard crested the Poggio together and started the snaking, soaked descent to San Remo with a fourteen second lead. The four-man chase, being led by Sagan and Swiss favorite Fabian Cancellara of RadioShack-Leopard, flew downhill and caught the two as they entered San Remo. Sagan put in an attack; nobody let the hot favorite just ride away.
Entering the final kilometer, Stannard sped up with Sagan on his wheel. After he emptied his tank, Sagan led out the sprint with Cancellara and German Gerard Ciolek of MTN-
Qhubeka following. As the final meters rolled under their wheels, Ciolek found just enough strength to pass Sagan right at the line for a narrow, but historic victory. So tired he was, he couldn't get both hands off his handlebars for the traditional victory salute. While Sagan was denied the first-ever Milan-San Remo for Cannondale and Slovakia, Ciolek scored the first-ever San Remo for an African-sponsored team.
A long, hard day in the saddle, made longer and harder by bad weather, often makes riders philosophical. Sagan pondered the race after drying off and warming up. "Maybe today wasn't my day. Races are won and lost, but you always have to try. It was the first classic of the season, my first objective. I arrived to play my hand and I take it as a good signal looking ahead to the next one.
"It was a real strange race. It was freezing, snow, rain, and then the bus transfer. Surely Ciolek was a surprise, but San Remo is a race like this... you think about the favorites and then an outsider wins. Near the finish I expected a move from Cancellara and thought I was the fastest, but I underestimated the group. I worked too hard earlier and paid for that in my legs. I jumped too early in the sprint and paid for that too. I'm disappointed, but it's also an experience. A second place in an important classic like Milan-San Remo is not bad."
Second is two steps closer to victory than Sagan was last year. At this rate, next year's victory will be his. And he can take confidence in his form heading into the Northern Classics. His next big appointment is in Belgium on March 31, when he and Cannondale Pro Cycling race The Tour of Flanders.
1. Gerald Ciolek (Ger) MTN - Qhubeka- 5:37:20
2. Peter Sagan (Svk) Cannondale- same time
3. Fabian Cancellara (Swi) RadioShack-Leopard- same time
4. Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) OmegaPharma-QuickStep- same time
5. Luca Paolini (Ita) Team Katusha- same time