Under the radar again, Ciolek aims for Milano-Sanremo repeat

The defending champion in the season's first major classic is flying under the radar next to favorites Mark Cavendish and Peter Sagan

Photo: Tim De Waele

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MILAN (VN) — Gerald Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka) will return to wear the No. 1 bib in Milano-Sanremo this week in Italy. After winning a snow-ravaged 2013 edition, he’ll line up Sunday to defend his title and to take another trophy home to Germany.

“It’s a beautiful trophy with a woman on it,” Ciolek told VeloNews. “It looks nice at home in Cologne.”

The reserved 27-year-old spoke under the Tuscan sun ahead of the third stage at Tirreno-Adriatico last week. One year ago, thoughts were on the grim weekend forecast and favorites like Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) — not Ciolek.

Ciolek raced for T-Mobile, Milram, and Quick Step before joining Africa’s first professional team last year. At the time, a stage win at the 2009 Vuelta a España stood out as the biggest result on his palmares. The combination of an African second-division team and a lack of wins failed to register him at the top of bookmakers’ lists.

“Yeah, well, we didn’t really think about winning Milano-Sanremo last year, but we tried to get a good result and the best out of the race. We went for a top 10 or a top five,” Ciolek said. “It’s Milano-Sanremo; if you do a top 10 or even a top five, then it’s a really good result. That doesn’t change from last year to this year. The race doesn’t get any easier because we won it once.”

Journalists at Tirreno-Adriatico last week sought out Sagan and Cavendish — both stage winners at the race across Italy. Apart from its colorful yellow and black bus, MTN and Ciolek failed to gain much attention next to the big teams and riders. Just like last year, even if he will wear dossard No. 1, Ciolek is flying below the radar.

The only thing that has changed is the weather. Besides a chance of rain, the riders should race the 294 kilometers in favorable conditions. Last year, freezing rain and snow forced organizer RCS Sport to cut the Passo del Turchino at the last minute and bus riders around to the seaside. The race also skipped La Mànie, 100km from the seaside finish in Sanremo.

For 2014, the race returns to its roots. It covers Turchino, the Tre Capi — the small Mele, Cervo, and Berta climbs — the Cipressa, and, at 6.1km out, the Poggio. Due to road problems, the organizer last month scratched its plans to climb the 5km road to Pompeiana.

“I didn’t really like the La Mànie climb, but I can’t say much about Pompeiana because I never rode this climb. I know this edition and I’ve always liked it,” Ciolek said. “Even with No. 1 on my back, the goals are still the same as last year: to score a good result. Sure we’ll be watched more this time, but I don’t think there’s more pressure on the team.”

MTN mainly consists of Africans, but has a handful of Europeans mixed in its 2014 roster. Last year, Songezo Jim became the first black South African to contest “La Classicissima,” and helped Ciolek at Sanremo until the final 50km.

MTN would have liked to field its new signee Linus Gerdemann, but the German caught a bug racing Gabon’s Tropicale Amissa Bongo stage race. He missed Tirreno-Adriatico to recover. Instead, Ciolek said that he would likely rely on teammates Jay Thomson and Ignatas Konovalovas to do the heavy work.

“It’s a bit of a pity about Linus, but I definitely have good support for my Sanremo return,” Ciolek said.

The 105th Milano-Sanremo takes place Sunday, March 23.

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