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John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin) blasted out of a powerful group of survivors to win a rain-soaked, crash-packed Milano-Sanremo on Sunday.
The 106th edition of “La Classicissima” began in rain and ended in sun, and after a late pileup on the winding descent off the Poggio dramatically thinned the herd of contenders, it was the German speedster taking a narrow sprint victory over defending champion Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) with Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge) third.
“It’s really a fantastic moment,” a delighted Degenkolb told Rai Sport. “The race happened exactly as we hoped it would.
“I really love this place… four years in a row I’ve been here trying to win this race. I know the course, and the Via Roma, it’s special to win here. It’s amazing.”
Kristoff, who was disappointed to have fallen short in his title defense, tipped his hat to teammate Luca Paolini, who he said did “a fantastic job” for him on the Poggio and the run-in to Via Roma.
“He gave me a big lead-out and I gave the maximum,” he said. “The last 50 meters seemed endless. I probably went from too far out.”
The break of the day
The 293km monument got busy quickly in cold, rainy conditions, and in short order a good-sized group was away, with rain capes, long sleeves, and knickers or even leg warmers the uniform of the day.
In the escape were Jan Barta (Bora-Argon 18); Sebastian Molano (Colombia); Maarten Tjallingii (Lotto NL-Jumbo); Andrea Peron (Novo Nordisk); Stefano Pirazzi (CSF Bardiani); Adrian Kurek (CCC Sprandi Polkowice); Matteo Bono (Lampre-Merida); Serge Pauwels (MTN-Qhubeka); Julien Berard (Ag2r-La Mondiale); and Androni Giocattoli teammates Tiziano Dall’Antonia and Marco Frapporti.
Midway through the race, clearing the summit of the Turchino, the break had five minutes’ advantage.
With 100km to go the rain continued as the leaders raced along the seafront, their advantage holding steady thanks in part to a brisk tailwind. Tinkoff-Saxo was up front for Peter Sagan, while Katusha was there for Kristoff, who was hoping to repeat his victory from last year.
Seventy-five kilometers out the gap was slowly coming down, to around four minutes. Etixx-Quick-Step, which the day before swept the podium at Ronde van Zeeland, sent Stijn Vandenbergh forward to contribute to the pace-making.
Ten kilometers further along the gap was closer to three minutes and riders had begun reconsidering their kit selections.
The pace quickens
With 50km to go Sky and Tinkoff were pushing the pace and the break’s advantage was down to two and a half minutes. A crash briefly disrupted the pursuit, taking down a pair of Katushas, including Jacopo Guarnieri, who remounted and continued. Ahead, Molano dropped out of the escape.
Forty kilometers out the break had 90 seconds and it was coming apart on the Capo Berta as Bono and Pirazzi tried driving away from the others. Berard and Pauwels hooked up, too, leaving a quartet off the front.
Sky had four riders lining out the peloton, clipping second after second off the break’s advantage with two climbs remaining, the Cipressa and Poggio.
Then another crash coming off the climb took down four riders and split the chase as the fourth Sky rider slid out and the bunch ran into him, leaving three Skys off the front — Ben Swift, Luke Rowe and Geraint Thomas. Tinkoff’s Christopher Juul Jensen appeared to have come off worst of the fallen, sprawled up against a roadside wall with his helmet off and face bloodied.
A lone leader
With 30km remaining Bono was alone off the front. The Lampre rider’s former mates were just behind and the three Skys were closing in on them, while Giant-Alpecin and Orica-GreenEdge were taking charge of the main bunch.
Bono had a dozen seconds over Berard and Pauwels and a half minute over the second Sky-powered chase. Rowe was on the sharp end as the chase hit the Cipressa, but despite the pace a number of riders attacked out of the bunch and bridged to them.
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) and Zdenek Stybar (Etixx) both made the connection, and the rest of the bunch soon followed. As yet another crash put paid to the hopes of French champion Arnaud Demare (FDJ), the first chase was swallowed, and so too was Bono, and Sky’s Lars Petter Nordhaug went straight to work on the front of a large group of contenders and their assistants. Kristoff appeared to be struggling, along with Mark Cavendish (Etixx) and Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis).
Julian Arredondo (Trek Factory Racing), Daniel Oss (BMC), Nathan Hass (Cannondale-Garmin) and Filippo Pozzato (Lampre) took turns on the sharp end, pushing the bunch down the Cipressa and into the final 20km.
Oss and Thomas away
Coming off the descent Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Soudal) and Oss both tried their luck, and Oss opened a small gap. Thomas rode up to him, and the two quickly took a 20-second edge.
Jose Serpa (Lampre) was on the front of the chase and getting no help as the gap went out to a half-minute with 12km to go.
Finally Katusha and Trek came to the front as the Poggio loomed, with the finish 5.5km from the summit, and with less than 10km to race the two leaders held only a couple dozen seconds’ advantage over the pursuit.
Oss and Thomas had 17 seconds as they raced onto the Poggio. Three Katushas were on the front of the chase, led by Paolini — with a resurgent Kristoff on his wheel — and with 8km to go the bunch could see the leaders just 7 seconds ahead.
Thomas attacked as the chase closed in, leaving Oss behind. With 7km to go the Sky rider had pushed his lead back out to a dozen seconds.
The chase swept up Oss with 6.5 to go, and Philippe Gilbert (BMC) attacked, followed by Stybar.
Attack after attack
Then Van Avermaet went, followed by Sagan, Arredondo and Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge). Cavendish was distanced again, as was Vincenzo Nibali (Astana)
Atop the Poggio Thomas was still in the lead, but only by a whisker. Van Avermaet was right behind. And soon Thomas had all the company he could handle, a dozen or more riders, with more joining on by the moment.
Then yet another crash took a remarkable number of riders out of the hunt — world champion Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx), Tim Wellens (Lotto), Gerald Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka), Stybar and Gilbert all crashed on the technical descent. But Van Avermaet did not, and he pushed his luck onto the flats leading to the finish. Sagan, Matthews, Swift, and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) all joined up, followed by the remains of the reduced peloton.
Thomas was in front going into the final kilometer, and then Paolini took charge. Degenkolb, Kristoff, Fabian Cancellara (Trek), Edvald Boasson Hagen (MTN-Qhubeka) and Matthews all were within striking distance.
In the final, Kristoff went long, but too long. And it was Degenkolb who punched past in the final 100 meters and took the victory.
“At first I thought I had no chance of winning this race because the sprint went really early,” said Degenkolb. “Kristoff was really strong but he started to sprint early and it was just a little bit too long for him. I was lucky he died just before the finish line so I managed to overtake him.”
Matthews was disappointed to take third on the day, but credited his teammates for keeping him in the thick of things.
“It was a pretty cold and wet day today but we did what we had to do,” Matthews said. “As you could see on the Cipressa and Poggio climbs I had really good legs today so I am a little bit disappointed in the final.
“I guess I have got to believe that it’s Milano-Sanremo and it’s my first attempt at going for a result here, so I have to be positive about that. I’m really thankful for the team in believing in me and helping me deliver this result.”