Another race, another best supporting actor nomination, but still no Palme d’Or for Sylvain Chavanel on the Riviera on Sunday, as the Omega Pharma-QuickStep rider fell just short after animating a dramatic edition of Milan-San Remo. On a day that deviated radically from the expected script, Chavanel delivered all of his lines on cue but was once again ushered into the familiar role of nearly man in the finale.
Chavanel had ghosted off the front in typical style between the Cipressa and the Poggio and was still in front at the summit in the company of Ian Stannard (Sky), but they were caught on the treacherous descent. After cramping up on the sodden approach the line, Chavanel could only manage fourth in the sprint as Gerald Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka) claimed a surprise win.
Away from bright lights and metaphorical red carpet of the podium, Chavanel delivered his post-race thoughts Off Broadway, as it were: outside his team bus parked on a quiet side street. “Let’s make it quick, eh? I’ve got a plane home to catch in a bit,” Chavanel joked as he emerged to talk to the small group of reporters gathered in the gloom outside.
The obvious question to start, then – disappointed? “I did a nice race, but I had cramps in the sprint,” Chavanel said. “They started just after the top of the Poggio and when you’re with Sagan and Ciolek, who are much faster in the sprint, it’s hard. After 200km in the cold, I had cramps. Voilà, I was still fourth but it’s disappointing to have come so close in a monument.”
When the race re-started after the lengthy interruption to avoid the snow on the Passo del Turchino, the Omega Pharma-QuickStep was shorn of three of its number as Tom Boonen, Stijn Vandenbergh and Niki Terpstra opted not to continue, and it fell to Chavanel and Mark Cavendish to close out the production.
Chavanel’s stock role in the classics is the attack from distance in support of his leading man – normally Boonen, but on this occasion Cavendish – and he duly obliged when he found himself at the front after the descent of the Cipressa, and then manoeuvred his way out of the leading group.
“I played my role,” Chavanel said. “I had to follow the moves on the Cipressa. I didn’t want to take too many risks on the way down, but in any case, I found myself off the front with all the favourites at the bottom and that’s when I took the initiative because they were all watching one another. I think it was the right choice.”
Chavanel and Stannard’s forcing on the Poggio saw their breakaway companion Eduard Vorganov drop away and their lead stretched out to almost half a minute at one point, but when Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan began to stir behind, their advantage was slashed. “When I heard we had 25 seconds I started to think we might go all the way but unfortunately Sagan did a great descent of the Poggio and we were caught.”
Before the race, Omega Pharma-QuickStep’s efforts had been focused on Boonen and Cavendish, but the extreme weather conditions meant that Chavanel emerged as a serious contender for the win. If he was nervous during the long stoppage aboard the team bus ahead of the re-start of Arenzano, it didn’t show. “I slept – dormito,” he smiled. “I don’t know if I was the strongest rider out there but I think the mental side of things is what makes the difference in a race in difficult conditions like today. Everybody knows that these conditions don’t bother me.”
Plaudits are all well and good, however, but Chavanel is understandably keen to inscribe a monument victory on his palmares and, now almost 34 years of age, he is aware that the window of opportunity will not last indefinitely. “I can’t reproach myself too much because I’ve been a player in these races for the last four years and I’m always trying to progress,” Chavanel said. “Compared to some other riders who peaked early, I’ve reached maturity as a rider quite late and I only started to discover these races quite late. So I’m still hopeful and I’ll try to do the best I can.”
Starting from this week, when Chavanel heads north to begin his cobbled classics campaign. “I need to recover because even though the race was shortened, it was very tough, like riding through ice and that can have a big muscular effect,” he said. “Still, I should be at Waregem on Wednesday. But Harelbeke is more important for me.”