Michał Kwiatkowski and his Team Sky squad threw everything they had at Deceuninck-Quick Step at Milan-San Remo on Saturday, but the Pole would have to eventually settle for third with Julian Alaphilippe continuing the Belgian team's 2019 dominance and Oliver Naesen securing second.
For the briefest of moments, as Alaphilippe crested the Poggio with Peter Sagan and Kwiatkowski in tow it looked as though a repeat of the famous 2017 San Remo would ensue. However, the race was far from over, with another group escorted by Wout Van Aert and Matteo Trentin quickly making contact.
As the road dipped towards the finish and the flat run-in, several attacks flew from the front. Kwiatkowski held his nerve and patiently waited for the sprint.
It was Sagan who found himself at the front of the lead group as the line approached, with Alaphilippe on his left shoulder and Naesen just behind. At this point, Kwiatkowski was the last man in a group that had swelled to ten of the best riders in the world, but as the sprint unfolded he quickly cut through the tiring field. He was on Naesen's wheel in a shot, but by that point, Alaphilippe was already creating clean air between himself and the rest.
"When you're so close to the victory you're thinking about what you might have done wrong and why you're not on the highest step of the podium but if you see the race then you can see that everyone was on the limit from the bottom of the Poggio," Kwiatkowski told Cyclingnews and a batch of reporters at the finish.
"Then if you see Julian Alaphilippe ride so well then you're happy to finish on the podium. Julian was impressive today. He had a huge attack on the Poggio and then still had the legs, so congratulations to him."
Since their launch in 2010 Team Sky have won just two Monuments – scant reward for a team with such financial clout. Kwiatkowski claimed their only Milan-San Remo title and he arrived at this year's event hoping to add one last title to the team's trophy cabinet before their departure from the sport in May. However, he admitted that Quick Step, and especially Alaphilippe, were just too good on the day.
"I decided a couple of days ago that I would be here. I wanted to go for another one, and that was a big thing for me. I'm so happy for the opportunity and to be among the best riders. Julian was the strongest rider of the day. He's had a really great season and everyone was expecting that he would go. They had a plan and they were really impressive."
On the Poggio, when Alaphilippe unleashed his vicious – if not excepted – attack, only a handful of riders were able to make contact, and Kwiatkowski admitted afterward that he had made a slight mistake at that moment.
"I was trying to stay on the wheel of Quick Step when they took over at the bottom. Before Julian attacked I actually let go for Tom Dumoulin to sit on his wheel, but that was a mistake because if you let go a couple of meters to a rider like Julian, it's not easy to close it. I really struggled and then Sagan took over. He closed it and it was a real fight. That was the first finish line.
"Then on the descent, it wasn't crazy, as everyone was trying to recover as much as they could. There was some movement on the flat part. Most of the guys were thinking of the sprint. I was only thinking about victory, not thinking about second, third or fourth. Julian was the strongest, and I have to deal with it.
"Maybe I'm not the most explosive rider, so I was thinking about going for a longer one. I found a gap on the left side. I had a pretty good position. I was trying to go early but there was no point to pass Julian."
Despite a brief statement to the press and a wave of welcoming social media posts from their riders, Team Sky have remained silent in regards to this week's news that Ineos would take over the team's sponsorship from May. Sky announced their departure back in 2018 and Dave Brailsford has taken just under five months to find a replacement to the tune of a reported £40 million.
Although the team have naturally seen the investment as a good-news story, there has also been an undercurrent of negative press due to the nature of Ineos' business interests. Friends of the Earth described Ineos' motives as "greenwashing", and their arrival is a distinct contrast to last year's Tour when Team Sky crusaded for Ocean Rescue.
At the start of Milan-San Remo Brailsford refused to be drawn on Ineos, and was unwilling to talk about the matter of their former doctor, Richard Freeman who despite lengthy delays, is still facing a medical tribunal relating to an alleged order of testosterone that was to be administered to a rider.
With Brailsford unwilling, it fell to his riders – in this case Kwiatkowski – to answer when Cyclingnews asked about both the positive and negative reactions to the news of Ineos' arrival. The question was met with a squeeze of the shoulder for Cyclingnews from a Team Sky employee, before Kwiatkowski at least offered an answer.
"It's only positive reactions. I'm happy that such a big team, such a successful team will continue."