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Roundtable: Why did Nibali’s tactic work at Sanremo?

Saturday’s Milano-Sanremo reminded us why we love watching professional cycling. After 185 miles of racing, the race came down to the final inches, with Vincenzo Nibali taking the win after mounting a daring raid on the Poggio. What factors led to Nibali’s win? What did we learn about Milano-Sanremo? Let’s roundtable!

As a TV viewer and overall fan of cycling, what was your overall impression from this year’s MSR?

Spencer Powlison @spino_powerlegs: You really couldn’t have asked for a better way to kick off the big spring classics (apologies to Omloop/Kuurne). If this race doesn’t get your blood pumping, I don’t know what will. There was the edge-of-your-seat uncertain outcome. We had an intriguing dichotomy between the intrepid attacker and the pure sprinters. And, we had the first Italian winner at MSR in 12 years. It is CYCLING SEASON baby!

Andrew Hood @eurohoody: No one ever said you have to watch the entire race. The real action begins once the race hits the coast, and turns up the heat after passing every ‘capo’, so you can sleep in on a Saturday morning. I’ve always been a big fan of Sanremo, and perhaps there’s no race as important with so much uncertainty coming into the final kilometer. The inevitable tug-of-war coming down the Poggio onto the Via Roma is one of cycling’s best spectacles. This one was a keeper.

Dane Cash @danecash: You have to embrace Sanremo’s length and mostly flat first 250 kilometers to really enjoy it. If you can make peace with the fact that nothing especially interesting will happen for the first five hours, you can really enjoy the finale, particularly the one we were treated to on Saturday. I can’t think of a more thrilling 15 minutes of racing that I’ve watched in the past year.

Fred Dreier @freddreier: Best 20 minutes of cycling I’ve seen since last year’s MSR. I’ve been the sole inhabitant on Milan-Sanremo Is Boring Island, and I suppose it’s time to sell my condo after Saturday’s thrilling finale. Or is it? Here’s what I like about the other Monuments: there are sections of the course that can totally derail someone’s race. The protagonists need to be alert and awake for the last 100km of Flanders and Roubaix. That’s not the case with MSR.

What tactics contributed to Nibali’s victory?

Spencer: Nibali should probably buy Krists Neilands a Aperol spritz or something. The Latvian champ’s early attack was a great launchpad for Nibali’s winning move. It gave him a mark to aim for on the early stage of the early part of the Poggio, and it could have disrupted the chase slightly when Neilands came back to the bunch. Also, there were a couple moments of hesitation when the sprinters’ teams failed to drive the pace coming into the Via Roma, especially when Matteo Trentin was caught.

Andrew: The bunch took too long to reorganize and begin to chase in earnest once they came off the Poggio. At that point, Nibali’s lead was down to a fistful of seconds. Had the bunch collectively put pedal to the medal, Nibali would have been caught. It was too late by the time Quick-Step came to the fore with about 1km to go. Nibali’s descending chops and time trial skills were essential, especially against a brisk headwind. Almost any other rider would have been reeled in.I hope Krists Neilands gets a nice Christmas present.

Dane: Three things come to mind. First, Bahrain-Merida executed the set up to perfection, bringing Nibali into position for his move and then casually mobbing the front to give him a few seconds to get clear without response from the pack. Second, two crashes in the finale were critical—Cav’s horror crash created just enough chaos to give Nibali a perfect chance to go, and Greipel’s collarbone-breaking crash took one very well-staffed team out of the chase. Third, Bora-Hansgrohe wasted way too much time putting new team member Daniel Oss on the front. This is exactly why he was brought in, but Oss didn’t get into gear on the Poggio until Nibali had a big gap.

Fred: Nibali had Sonny Colbrelli back in the pack, so anybody who chased knew they would be towing Bahrain-Merida’s fast man to the line. If you remove Colbrelli, then perhaps the other teams keep the leash short.

Which team played its cards poorly?

Spencer: All I could think about last week was Quick-Step Floors. For me, the Belgian team should have been in the mix. Gilbert got delayed by Cavendish’s crash — he should know better than to be positioned so far back with 10km to go. Viviani was a non-factor in the sprint. Richeze couldn’t hang on the Poggio. It makes me wonder what would have happened if Fernando Gaviria had been there.

Andrew: Perhaps Mitchelton-Scott’s Matteo Trentin should have sat in and helped lead the chase for Caleb Ewan instead of trying to bridge across. It’s too easy to play Monday morning quarterback. It was the collective hesitation at the base of the Poggio that gave Nibali the extra few pedal strokes he needed to win.

Dane: Two teams get failing grades on the day. As noted above, Bora-Hansgrohe’s Daniel Oss was near the front of the peloton when Nibali went but didn’t take up the chase until it was way too late. Mitchelton-Scott’s Matteo Trentin was another strong Italian making a very questionable call, trying to bridge to Nibali instead of hitting the front for teammate Caleb Ewan. Considering how close it was in the end, surely the sprinters would have caught Nibali if Trentin had just put his watts to work for the bunch.

Fred: I’m still miffed by why Sky flogged themselves up the Cipressa, and then sat at the back of the pack for the remainder of the race. I expected to see Michal Kwiatkowski launch a move on the Poggio after an effort like that.

What lessons about MSR, if any, did we learn from Nibali’s raid?

Spencer: We learned that literally any rider can win this so-called “sprinters’ classic.” We’ve seen time trialists, pure sprinters, classics riders, and now a guy who won all three grand tours take the laurels. Yes, the first six hours of racing are boring to watch, but they’re the reason why the final 30 minutes are so great. They’re also the reason why it’s a wide-open race when the peloton reaches the Poggio.

Andrew: A singular rider or a strong pair gets down the Poggio faster than a chasing group. Cancellara a few years ago was pushing huge power out of the corners when he was attacking with Gerrans. It’s harder to do that following the wheel in a chasing group, and that often makes a decisive difference in such a razor-thin race. Finally, it pays to attack. Nibali’s tried before in vain to attack on the Poggio, and he played the same card until it worked. It’s worth it making a bet with your wife. “I made a bet with my wife before the race. If I win, she buys me a Porsche.”

Dane: It apparently is possible for a solo attacker to get clear at Sanremo, even though it hadn’t happened before in this decade. It just takes the right combination of strength, team support, an awful chase effort, and a few crashes. I still see a sprint as the most likely outcome on this Sanremo parcours moving forward. Frankly, I still saw it as the most likely outcome with two kilometers to go.

Fred: Hesitation is the dagger in your heart if you’re a sprinter team at MSR. Chapeau to Vincenzo Nibali for making his move at precisely the correct moment. But it was the hesitation from his rivals that let the move get away.

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