Norwegian Alexander Kristoff outsprinted former champion Fabian Cancellara and Ben Swift to win a rain-lashed 105th edition of the Milan-SanRemo on Sunday.
Kristoff, taking his first victory in one of cycling’s five “monument” one-day races, benefited from the good work of teammate Luca Paolini in a 20-up dash for the finish to leave Cancellara frustrated in second, with Swift in third place.
Britain’s Mark Cavendish, the winner in 2009, was fifth, while fellow pre-race favorite Peter Sagan of Slovakia was 10th, just behind defending champion Gerald Ciolek of Germany.
Although Kristoff’s win was a minor surprise given the presence of the likes of Cavendish, Cancellara and several other pre-race favorites in the final group, the Norwegian was quick to put down any potential detractors.
“I’ve already finished fourth at the Tour of Flanders and ninth at Paris-Roubaix,” Kristoff said.
However, the former Norwegian champion — who won the Olympic road race bronze medal in London in 2012 — was quick to admit it was Paolini’s work that paved the way to his biggest win yet. The Italian kept the Norwegian sheltered on his wheel from the 1.4 km mark and in the end his relative freshness paid off.
After Cavendish’s brief sprint petered out quickly, Kristoff powered to the line to beat Cancellara by several bike lengths.
“It’s thanks to him [Paolini] that I won,” Kristoff said.
“We’d planned to keep Kristoff as fresh as possible for the finale and that I would try something in the final kilometers,” Paolini said. “I tried to attack on the Poggio [climb], but wasn’t successful. At the bottom of the descent I saw Alexander was in the front group and so I put everything on the line for him.”
It is the third time Cancellara, who last won the race in 2008, has finished runner-up in the race known as La Primavera (Spring).
He admitted he was not a fan of the organizers’ decision to remove the Pompeiana climb, placed between the Cipressa and Poggio in the final 30km, that would have made it harder for the sprinters to contend victory.
“Following wheels for 250km is not the kind of Milan-SanRemo I like,” said Cancellara, whose sole win in 2008 came after he attacked solo in the final kilometers. “We needed one more climb in the finish. It was a total lottery — a lottery on the Poggio, a lottery on the descent, a lottery in the sprint.”
“It turned into a bit of a track race once we got into that final 3km. There were always guys willing to put moves in and then once it came to the sprint it was just about trying to pick the right wheel,” Swift, claiming the best classics result of his career, told the Sky Procycling Web site. “It’s the one big race where I could see myself getting a result because normally that sort of terrain is where I’d have pretty good legs. So to go there and do that today was a really great feeling.”
Covering 294km, the longest race of the season was blighted by challenging conditions, with rain and hailstones adding to the pain of nearly seven hours in the saddle.
Despite the prospect of a punishing day ahead, the attacks came early and a seven-man group formed in the opening kilometers to go on and build a lead of nearly 10 minutes on the peloton.
However, the hilly finale to the race, featuring the Cipressa and Poggio climbs, ultimately put the brakes on their hopes as the pre-race favorites began their respective bids for victory.
Sensing the prospect of a sprint finish, Italian all-rounder Vincenzo Nibali launched a solo attack on the Cipressa, but the Italian’s move appeared doomed.
The defending Giro d’Italia champion ultimately failed to open up a significant gap and was reeled in by the peloton early on the climb to the summit of the Poggio.
An attack by Cancellara’s Trek teammate Gregory Rast on the descent prompted a series of counterattacks.
However, the race, as widely expected following the removal of the Pompeiana, was ultimately settled with a group sprint.
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