Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) came tantalizingly close to winning the 103rd edition of the Giro di Lombardia on Saturday, but the 31-year-old Spaniard was edged out at the finish line by Belgium's Philippe Gilbert (Silence-Lotto) in a two-man sprint for the final Monument of the 2009 calendar.
Sánchez, the reigning Olympic road champion, was the only rider to answer Gilbert's powerful surge near the summit of Lombardia's final climb, the San Fermo Della Battaglia, whose summit lies less than six kilometres from the finish line in Como.
The leading duo worked smoothly together over the closing kilometres with a lead that never extended beyond 15 seconds over a select 14-man chase group containing race favourites such as defending champion Damiano Cunego (Lampre), Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and the Astana pair of Alexandre Vinokourov and Chris Horner.
Gilbert, displaying incredible post-Worlds form with consecutive victories in the Coppa Sabatini, Paris-Tours and Giro del Piemonte in recent weeks, led out the sprint but Sánchez was unable to find the speed to come around the 27-year-old Belgian.
"I hit upon the worst opponent in the finale of this great Classic," said Sánchez of the Belgian race winner. "Gilbert is a rider capable of winning bunch sprints, he won ahead of Boonen in Paris-Tours, and he has claimed four straight wins to end the season. He's a great rider and I can only congratulate him.
"I felt good all day. On the Civiglio I attacked to force a selection, the fewer people the better approaching the finish. The trouble was that on the descent there was a regrouping and the final selection was made on the San Fermo."
While the Spaniard was on good late-season form, having finished the Vuelta a España in second overall followed by a fourth place finish in the world road championships, Sánchez was lacking the finishing punch which won him the 2008 Beijing Olympic road race last year.
"During the Vuelta a España I lost weight and therefore some speed, although on the climbs you feel better. However, this is a happy end to a season in which I was very consistent and always been among the best. I've managed to perform at a high level throughout the year, from the Vuelta al País Vasco, through the Vuelta a España until the last race. Now it's time to rest a bit and re-energize for 2010."
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