Wednesday With Wilcockson: The controversial classic

Milan-San Remo has probably weathered more controversies in its 106-year history than any other classic. Last Saturday’s race, headed by Simon Gerrans’ upset victory, was no exception. And the announcement by the organizers on Monday that they are (again) thinking of making a few modifications to the 298km course has only added fuel to the perennial arguments about the race not being hard enough to reveal a true champion. But let’s first look at this year’s edition, how some riders raced smarter than others, how misfortune played an important role, and how teams could have changed their tactics to achieve a more favorable outcome.

The big pre-race favorite according to the European media was Team Sky’s world champion Mark Cavendish, but the Manx sprinter rode like an amateur on the challenging climb to Le Mànie, with more than two hours of racing still remaining. He was unable to hang on to the peloton being pulled by the Liquigas-Cannondale squad, and despite his Austrian teammate Bernie Eisel dropping back to pace him on the second part of the 4.7km uphill and down the twisting descent, Cavendish only returned to the back half of a divided peloton — which never caught back to the leaders.

The four Sky riders with Cavendish and Eisel in that 50-rider group chased for a long time, hoping to catch back so they could help their other team leader, Edvald Boasson Hagen. But it was already obvious when Cavendish was dropped on the Primavera’s first serious climb that he was on a bad day and he would never have been a factor on the climbs near the end. So, even though he’s the world champ and a former San Remo winner, Cavendish should have been left to his own devices. Tam Sky would then have had a chance to truly help Boasson Hagen. As it was, the Norwegian had only Swedish teammate Thomas Lövkvist for company in the front group. They finished 25th and 30th respectively, 20 seconds behind the winners, after being caught behind a crash on the descent of the last hill, the Poggio.

Besides Cavendish, the European media’s other big favorite was Vincenzo Nibali, fresh from his winning Tirreno-Adriatico. His Liquigas-Cannondale team did enjoy an almost perfect Milan-San Remo. It set the fast pace on Le Mànie to dispose of Cavendish, along with sprinters such as Alessandro Petacchi, Tyler Farrar and Gerald Ciolek. It took control again up the next-to-last climb, La Cipressa, with Valerio Agnoli and Daniel Oss pulling the peloton at a ferocious speed. And the team’s tactics did succeed in keeping its leaders Nibali and Peter Sagan out of trouble, whereas another pre-race favorite, Philippe Gilbert of BMC Racing, got caught up in a small pileup that prevented him contesting the finale.

But perhaps Liquigas didn’t think out their tactics perfectly. They still had four men in the front group of 50 as they hit the foot of the Poggio with 10km to go, as did Rabobank (with sprinter Mark Renshaw), while both Katusha (for three-time San Remo winner Oscar Freire) and GreenEdge (with defending champion Matt Goss and Aussie champ Gerrans) had three riders left.

Rabobank took to the front on the last climb, hoping to keep the group together on the 3.7km climb for Renshaw, before Liquigas sent Agnoli away on a solo attack. The Liquigas team rider’s short-lived move did put pressure on the other teams and allowed Nibali to follow the wheels before making his decisive acceleration a kilometer from the top, but Agnoli’s energy might well have been reserved for a different tactic.

Liquigas could have had Oss set a high pace for Nibali, with Agnoli riding shotgun on Nibali’s wheel, followed by Sagan, the sprinter. In that scenario, when Nibali jumped on the steepest, 8-percent grade, instead of having Gerrans on his wheel, Agnoli, Oss and Sagan could have let a big gap open. That would have given Nibali a chance to reach the summit alone and maybe use his renowned descending skills to stay away for the win. Instead, the attentive Fabian Cancellara of RadioShack-Nissan-Trek was close enough to jump across to Nibali (and Gerrans) when the Poggio gradient eased before they began the zigzag plunge into San Remo. Of course, any different tactic by Liquigas may have favored the enormously strong Cancellara, who would probably have caught Nibali anyway.

An even more intense and uncertain finale would have resulted had misfortune not intervened. But for his fall on the Cipressa, Belgian champion Gilbert looked strong enough to be in the mix with Nibali on the Poggio. And in the first turn of the Poggio descent, the young Belgian Kris Boeckmans of Vacansoleil crashed right in front of a feisty Tom Boonen, which resulted in 30 riders getting delayed and unable to rejoin the 11 men chasing Cancellara, Gerrans and Nibali. Without that incident, a 40-man chase would almost certainly have closed the 12-second gap held by the front trio before the remaining 3km of flat roads into the finish. As it was, Gerrans sprinted to the win over Cancellara and Nibali only two seconds before Sagan led in the chase group.

Which brings us to the proposal by the organizers, RCS Sport, to move the finish line from the San Remo harbor to the Corso Cavalotti, 2km closer to the Poggio. Their goal is to avoid a field sprint and give attackers on the Poggio a better chance of staying away — especially a solo breakaway by a Nibali. A second part of their plan is to make the Cipressa climb more decisive by using an adjacent steeper road to encourage the strongest riders to create a select group of breakaways that could fight out the victory over the Poggio.

This latter scenario has been the goal at several points in the history of Milan-San Remo. After superstars Fausto Coppi, Gino Bartali and Louison Bobet took six consecutive wins in the immediate postwar years, the Classicissima turned into a sprinters’ paradise, with the race ending in bunch gallops through the late-1950s. As a result, the Poggio was inserted in 1960 and breakaways again became the more common outcome.

By the 1970s, field sprints again became more usual, and if it hadn’t been for the seven wins by Eddy Merckx, most of them earned in late breakaways, the organizers would have already started looking for more climbs to include. They did add the Cipressa in 1982 — and breakaways again became more common, resulting in high-profile victories for Giuseppe Saronni, Francesco Moser, Sean Kelly, Laurent Fignon, Gianni Bugno and Claudio Chiappucci.

As roads became smoother, teams stronger and riders collectively fitter and faster, Milan-San Remo again became the realm of the sprinters. From 1997 onward, there were four wins by Germany’s Erik Zabel, three by Spaniard Oscar Freire and single wins for Mario Cipollini, Alessandro Petacchi and Mark Cavendish, while attacks in the final kilometer were successful for Andreï Tchmil (1999), Filippo Pozzato (2006) and Cancellara (2009). There have been no successful long-distance breakaways since Gabriele Colombo won at San Remo 16 years ago.

This week’s RCS announcement has resulted in riders saying that the new finish — less than a kilometer from the end of the Poggio decent — is recipe for disaster. But few riders could go downhill faster than Cancellara did last Saturday, when the only Poggio crash happened near the top before the chasers hit top speed. As for toughening up the last third of the race, the inclusion of Le Mànie on 2008 is already having an effect (ask Cavendish!), while making the Cipressa a little harder will stretch the sprinters and perhaps encourage the attackers.

But whatever results from another set of changes to the course, Milan-San Remo will remain a classic that will always generate plenty of excitement — and controversy!


Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson

Image: Photoreporter Sirotti

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