A man of the match showing from Paolini
John Degenkolb carried off the spoils at Milan-San Remo but the day’s outstanding individual performance came from the evergreen Luca Paolini, who reprised his best supporting actor’s role from last year and came within 100 yards of delivering his Katusha teammate Alexander Kristoff to a second successive Primavera win.
When Kristoff was dangling on the back on the Cipressa, suffering under the weight of Sky’s forcing, it was Paolini who acted as the Virgil to his Dante, serving as his guide through that hellish moment and keeping him in the hunt.
Paolini was even more impressive on the Poggio, where he bustled his way to the front and, with Kristoff tucked on his wheel, set a brisk, even tempo that discouraged any accelerations until the upper reaches of the climb.
His final act, like last year, came amid the chaos of the frantic closing kilometres in the streets of San Remo. Somehow, Paolini bustled his way to the front and produced the longest of lead-outs for Kristoff – though not quite long enough as it turned out. Kristoff was forced to come past a tiring Paolini a notch sooner than he would have liked and was passed by Degenkolb at the death.
The fault was certainly not Paolini’s, though a comparison with last year’s race shows how many variables are in play in the finale of a major classic. And winning Milan-San Remo, in particular, is not an exact science.
Twelve months ago, Paolini also led into the final kilometre but just as he was running out of steam on the Lungomare Italo Calvino, Philippe Gilbert emerged to launch the sprint from distance, and the rest was history. There was no such unwitting helper this time around, and Kristoff’s second-place finish means that Paolini’s display will not enter the annals like his efforts last year or in 2003 on behalf of Paolo Bettini.
Can Cancellara win another San Remo?
This weekend’s Milan-San Remo marked the end of an astonishing 12-race run that had seen Fabian Cancellara make the podium in every Monument that he finished. The Swiss rider tried to take on the top sprinters in the finale, but found himself with nowhere to go after being blocked in with 500 metres to go and left with seventh place for his troubles.
It’s the second year running that Cancellara has kept his head down during the race and tried to see off the sprinters in the rush for the line. The 2008 race winner has a good turn of speed but when faced with the likes of John Degenkolb, Peter Sagan and Alexander Kristoff, why wait for the Via Roma? In the past Cancellara has ridden an aggressive San Remo, forcing the hand of his rivals. That’s how he took his San Remo victory seven years ago, going on the Poggio with a group of 15 riders before another stinging move with two kilometres to go.
This tactic has been good to him in more recent times and has delivered him to three more podium places at the race. However, with a more sprinter-friendly course, he seems to be happier waiting in the bunch to try his luck in the bunch gallop.
With Cancellara set to retire at the end of 2016, could this be a sign that a second San Remo title is about to slip through his fingers? It’s most certainly not a catastrophe for the Trek Factory Racing rider with his form on the up ahead of his favoured terrain at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
Bouhanni, the lone ranger
Nacer Bouhanni rode an impressive, if anonymous, debut at Milan-San Remo to finish sixth in the bunch sprint. Despite looking in trouble under the pace set by Sky, Bouhanni hung in with the leading group through the several attacks on the Cipressa and Poggio. What became apparent when examining the results following the almost 300-kilometre race was that Bouhanni had achieved his result with nobody around from his Cofidis team.
The next Cofidis rider to arrive at the finish after Bouhanni was Cyril Lemoine almost three minutes down, with the remainder of the team scattered further back over the route. Is this a sign of things to come later in the year for Bouhanni and his new team? And will he have to go it alone when it comes to the Tour de France’s sprint stages in July?
Bouhanni’s move to the Pro Continental outfit this winter was a curious one. In the last three years, Cofidis has slipped away into obscurity posting a number of minor results with Daniel Navarro bringing them their best result in some time with a stage at last year’s Vuelta a España – their first Grand Tour stage since 2011. While Bouhanni has been able to bring some support from his previous team, the early signs are that it may not be enough.
With WorldTour teams such as Giant-Alpecin, Etixx-QuickStep, Katusha and more putting out lead-out trains that have been drilled to perfection Bouhanni will have to find another way. Perhaps using his boxer’s mentality to muscle in on those more fortunate than himself.
Do less than Degenkolb?
In a race of nearly 300 kilometres, especially one that takes place in adverse conditions, the key to victory lies not in grand, sweeping gestures and flagrant attacks but in the smallest details and energy-saving tactics. It is for this reason that the winners we've seen over the past decade have been, with the exception of an impressively on-form Fabian Cancellara in 2008, the men who work the least and wait to use their one effort and just the right moment.
Giant-Alpecin's John Degenkolb stayed well positioned and calm, never putting his nose in the wind until the most important moment: the path to his victory salute. The question now is, is Degenkolb just a man of the moment or a burgeoning Spring Classics legend?
It's been since 1986 since the last time a rider won Milan-San Remo and then claimed another spring Monument, when Sean Kelly followed up his La Primavera victory with his second Paris-Roubaix title. Degenkolb has shown he's more than just a sprinter, which sets him apart from the bulk of the recent Milan-San Remo winners. While the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg of the Tour of Flanders might be a bit beyond his reach, Degenkolb's second place in Paris-Roubaix last year makes it obvious where his best chance at matching Kelly's record lies.
Sagan still unsure of how he wants to win
A new team but the same old problem for Peter Sagan, the man who has so many different weapons in his armoury but seemingly no idea of which one to use and when. A rapid sprinter with the ability to follow attacks on the Poggio, the Slovak is the perfect physical prototype of a Primavera winner – but this is a race that usually rewards brain more than brawn, and he still lacks the kind of guile that allowed Oscar Freire win it three times.
Sagan showed his strength when he opted to track Greg Van Avermaet’s move towards the summit of the Poggio, and though he was briefly caught in a sort of no man’s land between the leaders and the chasers, it seemed that no real harm had been done when the race came back together on the way down the other side.
Less understandable was how Sagan found himself on the front of the leading group with two kilometres remaining, after Van Avermaet had swung over. For one of the fastest riders in the race to expose himself so soon – and so needlessly – would have been a glaring error for a neo-professional, let alone for a man who came within inches of winning two years ago.
The sight of a hesitant Sagan looking around before sitting up and melting back into the group was a stark illustration of how this is a man still unsure of how best to deploy his immense gifts. That tactical conundrum was a recurring problem during Sagan’s time at Cannondale but the argument was that the transfer to Tinkoff-Saxo – and the input of Bjarne Riis – would add subtlety to the strength.
There was little sign of that on Sunday, and in the tumult of the final kilometre, Sagan couldn’t dovetail with teammate Matti Breschel ahead of the sprint. He began his effort from too far back, and though he ate up the ground in the closing 150 metres, he had to settle for fourth place.
Sagan struck back from a disappointing Milan-San Remo last year by landing E3 Harelbeke five days later, and Tinkoff-Saxo will hope for a similar response this time around.