2012 Milan-San Remo: Post-Mortem

2012 Milan-San Remo: Post-Mortem

Because it’s held on a Saturday, Milan-San Remo affords us the luxury of discussing the race on Sunday’s group ride. For fans of a sport unfamiliar to most Americans, this is a distinct pleasure as it gives us an opportunity to play Sunday Morning Quarterback with people who actually know what they’re talking about.

Here are some things I heard on this morning’s ride—and my responses:

“Cancellara is so strong! The other guys must be crapping their pants just thinking about Flanders and Roubaix.”

Yes and no. Yes, Cancellara has indeed found the form he displayed in 2010 and 2011 and his track record will certainly make him the top favorite for the cobbled classics. But as we saw last year, he’s beatable, especially since he rides for a relatively weak team. Without a lieutenant who poses a threat by positioning himself in late-race breakaways, Cancellara and his team are often isolated during critical moments—as we saw during Flanders and Roubaix last year. Unless one of his teammates steps up to the plate and takes on a greater role, Cancellara will be forced to resort to the tactics that won him the Ronde-Roubaix double in 2010: drop everyone and win the race alone. As we saw Saturday, that’s easier said than done.

“Gerrans was a jerk for just sitting on his wheel and then sprinting at the end.”

Absolutely not. Gerrans did what he had to in order to win the race. When you’re sitting on the wheel of the most powerful engine in the sport, you do whatever you can to stay there. In fact, had Gerrans and Nibali taken anything more than cursory pulls, the speed might have dropped, dooming the breakaway. Besides, it didn’t look to me like Cancellara was begging for help. He seemed more than content to drag the other two to the finish, obviously liking his chances against two better than his chances against 30.

“I can’t believe Cavendish got dropped!”

Frankly, neither could I. It appears that Cavendish’s rollercoaster of a spring finally caught up with him. I guess that winning sprints in Qatar, Kuurne, and Tirreno Adriatico is a lot different from Milan-San Remo. It’s a shame really as Sky would have loved to follow-up Bradley Wiggins’ Paris-Nice victory with what would have been the team’s first Monument. That said, with Dwars door Vlaanderen, Ghent-Wevelgem, and the Scheldeprijs still to come, Cav will have his chances this spring—even if those races pale in comparison to La Classicissima.

“And what about Edvald Boasson Hagen? Wasn’t he Sky’s back-up plan?”

Yes, he was, but he was nowhere to be seen. He finished an anonymous 25th. Maybe the flu that caused his early exit from Tirreno was a bit worse than was originally implied? That said, like Cavendish, EBH will have more than his share of chances in the coming weeks—he’s already won Ghent-Wevelgem once and could still be a favorite next week. After all, he finished the race with the leading peloton Saturday—those 298-kilometers of racing will certainly help in the not-too-distant future.

“I thought Boonen crashed—I’m so happy he finished safely.”

Me too! Boonen rode one of a heck of race considering he lost Sylvain Chavanel and Dries Devenyns days prior. It seems that the Poggio is just a bit too long for Boonen to cover attacks over the top. He’ll need a group sprint and a near-perfect lead-out if he ever wants to win in San Remo. That said, he’s clearly in good form and will once again be Cancellara’s main challenger at Flanders and Roubaix.

“Too bad for Garmin. I thought Haussler or Farrar had a good chance.”

Haussler, yes. Farrar, no. At some point, Farrar needs to admit that his career stands at a fork in the road: will he continue to chase field sprints, or will he make an attempt to become more of a one-day rider? It takes a special kind of rider to excel at both—Tom Boonen’s the best we’ve seen recently. Were I Jonathan Vaughters, I would have Farrar stick to field sprints. With Haussler and Sep Vanmarcke, the team is well-stocked for the cobbled classics. And besides, Farrar will always have races like Dwars door Vlaanderen, Ghent-Wevelgem (assuming this year’s new course doesn’t prove too tough for him), and the Scheldeprijs.

As for Haussler, he was where he needed to be on the Cipressa—except when he was riding behind the rider that caused the crash that brought him down along with Philippe Gilbert. Haussler will need an impressive cobbled campaign—this year—to prove his scintillating 2009 was no flash in the pan. Unfortunately, with Farrar, Vanmarcke, and Vansummeren on the squad, he’ll likely be sharing the captainship of his team at the E3 Prijs, Flanders, and Roubaix.

“What’s up with Gilbert?”

Your guess is as good as mine, but he’s clearly not (yet) the rider who won 18 races last season. Gilbert seemed nervous yesterday, as evidenced by his yelling at a teammate for driving the bunch when the team lacked a true sprinter. Some might say that we’ll never know what he could have done since he crashed on the Poggio. But here’s the thing: why was he at the back in the first place? At this rate, Alessandro Ballan is BMC’s best chance over the next two weeks—his eighth-place finish proves the former Ronde-winner is in good form.

“I can’t believe Pippo Pozatto finished sixth less than a month after surgery to repair a broken collarbone.”

Neither can I and I’m excited to see him back among the best. Italy needs a classics champion—badly. Pippo seems more focused and motivated than ever before and if he can rediscover the form that he had in 2009 then we all might be in for fluorescent treat come Flanders and Roubaix.

“Rabobank did a lot of work in the finale, do you think they can win a cobbled classic?”

Certainly. Matti Breschel will likely be at his best in Flanders. He was arguably the strongest rider in the race in 2010, but was done-in by his Saxo Bank team’s tactics. (Of course, given Fabian Cancellara’s dominance during that 7-day period, it’s hard to argue with the team’s decisions.) If he participates, look for Breschel to bring home a win for Rabobank possibly as early as Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen, a race he won in 2010 and one whose start list has been adversely affected by the E3 Prijs having been moved up to Friday.

“Bummer that Liquigas did all that work and came out empty-handed, huh?”

Yeah. After all, they rode a perfect race. After making life hard for many of the sprinters earlier in the day, Agnoli’s attack at the base of the Poggio set-up Nibali for his acceleration closer to the top. Of course, this was the move that we all knew was coming as a Nibali’s attack guaranteed Peter Sagan a free ride to the finish. In the end, Gerrans spoiled the team’s party, but with Nibali finishing third and Sagan fourth, they can sleep well knowing that their plan was perfectly executed—it just didn’t have the result they had hoped for. And keep an eye on ninth-place finisher Daniel Oss in the cobbled classics—especially Ghent-Wevelgem next Sunday, a race in which he finished fifth in 2010.

“Who’s John Degenkolb?

He’s a name you should get to know—and quickly. This is the young German’s second year as a professional, and he seems destined for classics stardom. After a stellar U23 campaign in which he developed an exciting rivalry with Taylor Phinney (now with BMC) and Michael Matthews (now with Rabobank), Degenkolb won six races with HTC-HighRoad as a neo-pro, including two stages at the Criterium du Dauphiné. He now rides for Project 1T4i (formerly Skil-Shimano) and hopes to win Germany’s first cobbled classic since Andreas Klier won Ghent-Wevelgem in 2003.

In the end, I had the words of former NFL head coach Herman Edwards resonating through my head after Saturday’s Milan-San Remo:

“You play—to win—the game.”

That’s just what Nibali, Cancellara, and Gerrans did. It’s just unfortunate that two of them had to lose.

Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti

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22 comments

  1. Champs

    I don’t begrudge Gerrans for riding the way he did, but I don’t understand why Cancellara burned all his matches for a trio that he couldn’t shake or get to work with him.

    In his slippers, I would have soft-pedaled and let the group slide back toward the chase. If he can’t get the hop-ons to contribute to the pace, he could at least draw for a new, hopefully more winnable selection.

  2. mobetterbike

    Truly nothing more agonizing than watching Spartacus take another second or third in a monument. But what a finish. Cancellara pulling like only he can, and all three know absolutely that if he stops, they’ll be caught. Cancellara had to keep pulling, Gerrans had to stay on his wheel – assuming either wanted to win the race.

    Yes Gerrans was riding his wheel. But really what other strategy did Gerrans have, or Cancellara for that matter?

  3. armybikerider

    I think that if Cancellara had soft pedaled the trio would have been overtaken and Sagan would have taken the victory with possibly Pozzato, Freire or maybe even Ballan on a step.

  4. Vandenberg

    No doubt Fabian was the strongest rider: it was all Gerrans and Nibali could do to hang on his wheel, and even then they barely stayed there. When Gerrans took over to do a couple of pulls, Fabs jumped straight back in and took over. I agree with Whit: if Fabian wants to win, he needs to ride away from everyone. He just couldn’t do it this time.
    As an Australian, it was great to see Gerro win in the Aussie champs jersey. He played it smart, going with the break on the Poggio and sticking with Fabs on the descent. Bloody nice work.
    Regardless of who gets it on the line, I’d much rather see this sort of finish, three blokes absolutely busting their guts to stay in front of the chasing peloton, and getting to the line first against all odds. It might just be me, but I prefer this over a protected sprinter appearing for the first time all race and snagging it on the line, so I wasn’t too upset to see Cav crack on the climbs. Pretty disappointed that he didn’t even finish though: where’s the rainbow pride?

  5. mattio

    What’s hard about understanding why Cancellara was driving that trio? He was going the fastest. He couldn’t shake them. But they couldn’t go as fast as him. So why should he make them work?

    So his chances were to get 1st, 2nd, or 3rd (betting his win on his ability to go fast enough that Gerrans wouldn’t be able to come around), or to insist that they pull, get reeled in, and suffer an anonymous placing.

    In his shoes, I know what I’d pick.

  6. 68GT

    My guess (hope) is that Cancellara’s form is still building for E3/Ronde/Roubaix. May be he is only at 97% or 98% of his true form still, so the tactic of riding them all off his wheel just isn’t quite there yet. The other challenge he has is that once they are off the Poggio, the terrain doesn’t offer up anything where his power and ability can be optimized. At Strade Bianche, he attacked over the top of a climb, had a longer distance to put the hammer down to the finish and then had one final climb to seal the deal.

    Still, as others have pointed out, I can’t fault is tactics. He assured himself a top 3, rather than settled for a bunch gallop where the odds are considerably reduced.

  7. Steve in Duluth

    Cancellara would not have won a bunch sprint and could not have gotten clear after the Poggio; he wins by dropping the field and using his superior solo power to stay away. It almost worked, but Gerrans managed to stay on his wheel and Spartacus had no other options. If he had just managed to drop Gerrans on the downhill (he almost did) he would have won it.

    Not much else he can do. You have one thing you can do well and if it doesn’t work you just have to make the best of it and hope.

  8. Shawn

    Am I the only one who thinks Liquigas’ tactic of having Nibali attack rather than putting their eggs in the Sagan basket to be flawed. I doubt Nibali will ever be able to break away on the Poggio without being joined by faster sprinters. It seems like their chances would be improved by Sagan either following the key attack on the Poggio or the team working to set up a group sprint for him. Is it just nationalistic pride that keeps them from backing the rider better suited for MSR?

  9. henrietta

    @champs: From the point of view of game theory, Cancellera did exactly the right thing.

    He has very low chance of winning from a massed sprint. But with a group this size, his chances to win improve greatly; either with a small sprint at the end or (his preferred tactic, as we know) by successfully riding the others off his wheel.

    Finally, his best alternative becomes a second or third place, much better than he would likely achieve in a mass sprint. This isn’t just a nice-to-have podium spot: not only is it good for his overall rank for 2012, it is good for his team’s points haul.

    (Due to UCI rules, more points means his team car is allowed a caravan spot closer to the peloton. This has an overall benefit for the whole team in every subsequent race this year: domestiques have less ground to make up when fetching water; mechanicals are attended to faster; the DS has a better picture of what’s going on)

  10. Col

    What about all the talk of changing the course because the organisers weren’t happy with how it played out?

    http://www.cyclingnews.com/news/route-changes-for-2013-milan-san-remo

    Personally I think chnaging the course is a disgrace. It is disrespectful to the event, it’s proud history and the past champions.

    I think they have the balance just right, because you never know until right until the end whether the winner will emerge from a solo attack, a small group or a bunch sprint.

  11. Sharkie

    IMHO Gerrans earned his right to the win by being in position and having the strength to mark Nibali.Truly how the race was won moment.

  12. Ron

    Awesome & thorough recap, Whit! Thanks! Enjoyed the race & enjoyed reading this.

    Really happy for Gerrans & I think you sum it up well – three guys raced strongly, only one could win.

    Also very happy for Pozatto to come back so strongly.

    My only problems: Pozatto looked so sweet in the white kit with the Italian stripes & white bike (was it a Time?). I don’t really like all that neon, and I don’t even mind neon, just too much. And very happy to see GreenEdge racing well, but that kit is also pretty tough. Simon wins MSR…and has to forever be in photos with stripey bar tape?!

    Oh well, just style comments.

    Great racing, first day of spring is here…Enjoy!!

  13. Ron

    My fault, so a closeup photo – Gerrans has the logo tape of Prologo.

    Still a bit too much neon for my liking, but hey…he’s an MSR winner for life!

    Congratulations, Simon!!

  14. Bob Gade

    For the sake of accuracy, didn’t Gilbert go down on the Cipressa, not the Poggio? Which was also the crash that held up Haussler.
    I wonder how Gilbert’s barking at his teammates is going play on team chemistry on BMC? I wonder what he said.
    So stoked that Pippo is looking so strong. I have taken loads of crap for supporting him for the past few years, it would great to see him confirm at E3, Flanders or Roubaix. I think the neon is perfect for a rider known for his fashion and appearance. And I mean perfect in a very ironic way.
    On to the cobbles!


    1. Author
      Whit Yost

      You’re right, Bob! It was the Cipressa. I’m learning that I have a synapse that often misfires when it comes to classic climbs-I often switch them around in my head. Need to start generating mnemonic devices or something!

      Thanks!

  15. michael

    2nd is better than 17th

    Liquigas and GreenEdge had exactly the same tactic, GreenEdge just had the better punchy rider go on the Poggio

    You don’t win race just based on the amount of watts you can push over 5-10 minutes

    I am looking forward to a Pippo/Boonen/Cancellara showdown at Flanders. Let’s hope we get a repeat of Pippo vs Boonen almost track standing on a berg to show each other who’s really boss.

    Sagan vs Dengelkob over the next 10 years = going to be fantastic to watch

    Long live 300km races

  16. bwebel

    Regarding the possible course change, it wouldn’t be a “disgrace,” it would take it back to what it used to be. The race used to finish much closer to the end of the Poggio. Watch the footage from Kelly’s win in ’92. It’s a better race when a good attack over the Poggio generally stays away, which isn’t really the case right now. I was cringing to hear the announcers on Eurosport describe MSR as a sprinter’s classic.

  17. Phil

    Col – I’m not sure if you’ve read the related piece about Milan-San Remo, but the course has changed a number of times throughout its history. Just like Paris-Roubaix, The Ronde, Liege and other races. While there are particular iterations of the courses that are timeless, there’s certainly no harm in changing the course for even just one year.

  18. Col

    Phil – yes, I have since bought myself up to speed on the changes to the course over time and would tone down my comment from before if I was to write it again now.

    Having said that, I have followed the race for a number of years and love the current course for it’s unpredictability.

    I saw somewhere where Sean Kelly commented on the course changes and basically recommended pulling the finish line back 1km to give break aways a bit more of a fighting chance. This is a change that I could definitely live with, not so sure about extending the Cipressa etc but then again, it is still far enough away for a bunch to mount a chase.

    I wouldn’t favour turning it into a race that totally favours the climbers. There are plenty of other races that favour them.

    In any case, I will await next year with interest to see what the organisers do, if anything.

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