There was good news and bad news for Mark Cavendish as he sat aboard the Omega Pharma-QuickStep bus awaiting the re-start of Milan-San Remo. The good news was that the climb of Le Manie had been slashed from the route. The bad news was that Tom Boonen, Niki Terpstra and Stijn Vandenbergh had opted to abandon ship as they looked ahead to the cobbled classics. The Manxman opted to focus on the positive, however, and with just Sylvain Chavanel for company in the finale, he produced his best Milan-San Remo performance since winning the race in 2009.
With Chavanel up the road, Cavendish bided his time alone in the diminishing main group in the hope of a sprint finish and while that never materialised, his relative comfort on the Cipressa and the Poggio augurs well for his chances of landing victory at Gent-Wevelgem. Diplomatically, Cavendish had no public words of reproach for his teammates at the finish in San Remo but he will rightly expect far more robust support in Belgium next Sunday.
A more subtle approach from Cancellara?
For the previous two years, Fabian Cancellara led Milan-San Remo all the way down the Poggio, hoping simply to ride everybody off his wheel, but the RadioShack-Leopard rider raced with a little more restraint this time around. Stung, perhaps, by two seasons where the wins-to-spettacolo ratio had been askew, Cancellara accelerated sharply on the Poggio to bring the main contenders back into contention, but he was happy to force Peter Sagan to take up the initiative on the way down.
It was a tactic that came close to paying dividends as Cancellara placed third in a blanket finish with Sagan and Ciolek. After trying to bludgeon his way to victory (and sometimes succeeding) in recent seasons, Cancellara might consider a slightly more finessed approach on the cobbles this year.
Sagan gets his timing wrong
As an aspiring writer in New Orleans, future Nobel laureate William Faulkner was issued a gentle warning to focus his efforts by his mentor Sherwood Anderson: “You’ve got too much talent. You can do it too easy, in too many different ways, but if you’re not careful, you’ll never write anything.”
At 23 years of age, Peter Sagan (Cannondale) has plenty of time to inscribe a hefty classics palmares but he missed a golden opportunity to sign off on his first classic win in San Remo. While the Slovak was correct to take the initiative on the way down the Poggio, he suffered from the sin of presumption in the closing kilometre.
Overly sure of his own ability, Sagan opened his sprint from too far out and handed the win to Gerald Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka). After winning with alarming ease through the early season, it was a painful but crucially important lesson for Sagan. Classics are not always won on raw talent alone.
Pozzato in right place but off the pace
Filippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida) has given mixed signals so far in 2013. Victory at Trofeo Laigueglia was followed by an anonymous Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, while his second place finish at Roma Maxima was tempered by the fact that he had been dropped on the final climb.
At Milan-San Remo, Pozzato put his cards on the table by having Adriano Malori set the pace on the Cipressa but although he had a ringside seat when the winning move took shape on the Poggio, he didn’t have the legs to follow. A worrying sign ahead of the cobbled classics.
A falsified race?
Did the snow and route changes falsify this Milan-San Remo? While it’s hard to quibble with the quality of the winning break, there is no debating that the extreme weather and the lengthy stoppage radically altered the complexion of the race.
Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) is normally a reliable performer in such conditions, as he showed at Tirreno-Adriatico, but the wheels came off for one of the pre-race favourites in the cold on Sunday. By contrast, Sylvain Chavanel was not even required for duty at Omega Pharma-QuickStep’s press conference on Friday night, but as the temperatures plummeted, the Frenchman’s stock rose accordingly and he came close to pulling off the win with Ian Stannard (Sky).
All hail Ciolek
Gerald Ciolek was rated a 100-1 outside chance for victory at Milan-San Remo but the soft-spoken German from Cologne always looked a winner, riding a tactically perfect final hour while the likes of Peter Sagan, Fabian Cancellara were unable to impose their tactics or fell into the trap of being over confident.
Ciolek is not driven by the natural aggression that is usually part of any sprinter's DNA. He doesn't trash talk about his rivals or irritate them with showboating when he wins a race. On the capi and Italian coast road, he rode his own race, kept his powder dry despite the rain and then produced a perfect, winning sprint.
Many had written Ciolek off as a big-sprint contender. He was a Under 23 world champion but had been forced to accept the often humiliating job of leadout man and domestique after being only a bit-part player in the sprints.
His victory at Milan-San Remo has given him back his place at the top table of sprinters.
The old Italian riders who watch Milan-San Remo from the roadside every spring told Marco Pastonesi in Monday's Gazzetta dello Sport that the race should not have been stopped because of the snow.
They claimed, with their old world bravado, and fading memories of the past, that they would have raced up the Turchino in the snow, attacked on the descent despite the freezing cold rain and fought all the way to San Remo for a chance of victory.
Fortunately race organiser RCS Sport no longer follow the 'show must go on mentality' created in the past and fueled by former race directors such as Vincenzo Torriani – who sent the 1988 Giro peloton over the Gavia in the snow. Instead rider safety is considered important.
The only criticism of RSC Sport that seems fair is their decision to suspend the race at Ovada after 120km of racing. By then the peloton had spent an hour riding under heavy snow, with many riders in tears because of the pain and some unable to hold their handlebars.
A major race, with its huge caravan and rolling road closure is like a juggernaut or even the titanic: it is very hard to stop. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but more careful planning, with team buses staying close to the peloton instead of setting off to the finish, could have help protect the riders that little bit more.
Phinney saves BMC's bacon
Taylor Phinney was not the designated team leader at BMC for Milan-San Remo. But after the race, Philippe Gilbert, Thor Hushovd and Greg Van Avermaet were forced to congratulate him on his late surge and seventh place and thank him for his effort, knowing that the young American had saved them from criticism.
The BMC team is packed with big-name, big-salary riders but they struggled to handle the terrible weather conditions and fell by the wayside or failed to perform as expected.
Only Phinney has the right fighting spirit to take on the extreme conditions and bravely to set off in pursuit of the six leaders on the descent of the Poggio.
If the race had been just a kilometre longer, Phinney could have landed a place on the podium. He is seventh on the result sheet but the most important result is the respect and praise he earned within the BMC team.
Ian Stannard finished sixth in Milan-San Remo but the result explains little about his incredible performance. His day out front, on the attack with Sylvain Chavanel, his audacious surge on the Poggio and even his last do or die move in the final two kilometres showed his huge potential for when races become a battle between the hard men of the peloton.
While Edvald Boasson Hagen cracked in the cold and rain, and other Team Sky riders crashed and suffered, Stannard seemed to enjoy it more and more.
Whenever rain is forecast, Team Sky should make Stannard automatic team leader.
Cyclist are the hard men of sport, footballers are softies
Even with Milan-San Remo reduced from 298km to 246km due to the terrible weather conditions, the riders still spent more than five and a half hours in the saddle, racing and suffering.
Gerald Ciolek stopped the clock in 5:37:20, with the rest of the 135 finishers spread across a further 20 minutes. Russia's Vladimir Isaychev (Katusha) was the last to reach San Remo, 18:25 behind Ciolek.
Most of northern Italy and much of the weekend's sport schedule was hit by bad weather. Not everyone had the same courage as the cyclists and the organizational skills of RCS Sport. The football match between Sampdoria and Internazionale in Genoa was cancelled due to the bad weather.
As Fabian Cancellara pointed out, every rider who finished this year's Milan-San Remo was a winner.