Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) launched a powerful late assault to win Il Lombardia on Sunday.
Martin, who had been part of an small group of hopefuls preparing to battle for the victory in the final kilometers of the 254km race from Como to Bergamo, caught them all by surprise with a blistering acceleration up the right-hand side.
The Irishman swept through the final right-hand corner and just kept on going, straight to the victory. It was the fourth by an Irish rider, 23 years after Sean Kelly rode to his third win in the race.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) led a too-late pursuit that brought him second on the day, while Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) rounded out the podium in third.
“It’s just incredible to win it after all the bad luck this year,” said Martin. “The team believed in me all the way. To win this is just, ah, incredible.
“I actually planned to attack on the last climb but I couldn’t get through. There were too many people. I needed to try something and the opportunity happened. I just had to go as hard as I could and not crash in the last corner, as I did at Liège.”
Pieter Weening (Orica-GreenEdge) and Ben Hermans (BMC Racing Team) had been off the front in the final kilometers, pursued by an elite group of favorites that did not include the newly minted world champion, Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), who apparently cramped up and nearly came to a stop.
As the escapees were retrieved going into the final climb, Tim Wellens (Lotto-Belisol) had a go some 4km from the line. He was pulled back, and a strong group formed at the front, including Martin, Valverde, Costa, Philippe Gilbert and Samuel Sanchez (BMC), and, Michael Albasini (Orica-GreenEdge).
It was looking like a group dash to the line, until Martin punched it with 400 meters to go. As the others hesitated, Martin ripped around the final right-hander to take the win.
It was redemption for Martin, who had endured a crash-marred season. A fall on the final bend of Liège-Bastogne-Liège in April prevented him from defending his title. The following month he crashed in the opening stage of the Giro d’Italia in Belfast and was forced to retire with a broken collarbone. He subsequently skipped the Tour de France.
“It’s been a difficult year but this victory makes all my sacrifices worth it,” said Martin, who was racing Il Lombardia for the sixth time. “I love the Tour of Lombardy, I love the roads, and I’m proud to now have it among my trophies.
“I knew I’d be beaten in the sprint if we arrived together, there were faster riders than me. That’s why I anticipated and made the break.”
Valverde admitted he and the other riders in the group had been taken by surprise by Martin’s attack.
“Nobody reacted to Dan Martin’s attack, we continued to watch each other,” he said. “It’s a second place like last year but I have the feeling of a job accomplished. The aim we had fixed with the team was to take first place in the WorldTour standings.”