Arnaud Démare recovers from a crash to sprint to victory ahead of Ben Swift and Jurgen Roelandts in the first monument classic of 2016

Arnaud Démare (FDJ) took the biggest victory of his career Saturday in the 107th edition of Milano-Sanremo. Less than an hour after hitting the deck on the run-in to the day’s penultimate climb, the 24-year-old triumphed in a hectic finishing sprint to give France its first Milano-Sanremo winner since Laurent Jalabert won the race in 1995.

2014 third-place finisher Ben Swift (Sky) added another Sanremo podium performance to his palmares, taking runner-up honors, while Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto – Soudal) nabbed third at the end of a stressful day in north-western Italy.

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A landslide forced race organizer RCS Sport to send the peloton on a detour early on in the afternoon, but the action was otherwise relatively calm for the first few hours of racing. An 11-rider breaker jumped clear and was given more than eight minutes of an advantage as the peloton bided its time in the 291km event.

Eventually the gap began to fall, and the pace began to pick up in the peloton as the flat parcours turned lumpy inside the final 60km. The escapees saw their gap drop to three minutes as the riders began to take on the succession of small climbs that lined the road to Sanremo.

That’s when things turned hectic.

A string of crashes saw several riders hit the deck as the peloton approached and then began to climb the Cipressa, the penultimate climb of the race. Around 30km from the finish, a crash brought down Démare himself, as well as Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge) and Geraint Thomas (Sky) among others. Démare and Matthews would make it back into the bunch, though Matthews found himself dropped again after making the effort to catch up.

Soon after, the pack closed down the early breakaway, putting everything in play for the peloton. With Katusha trying to keep things under control at the front of the bunch, Giovanni Visconti (Movistar) and Ian Stannard (Sky) went on the move on the Cipressa and opened up a small gap.

Matteo Montaguti (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Daniel Oss (BMC Racing), and Fabio Sabatini (Etixx – Quick-Step) jumped across, but the quintet could only hold on until just before the foot of the Poggio, where they were swept up by the peloton.

Southeast’s Andrea Fedi kicked off the action on the Poggio and that spurred several others to go on the attack. That was the cue for Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) to jump clear. He took a small gap over the top of the climb and despite attempts to bridge by Fabian Cancellara (Trek – Segafredo) and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) he managed to hold out even into the last 2km before a charging peloton made the catch.

Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) and Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) led the way, trying to string out the bunch.

That set up a messy sprint for the win, where one last crash left its mark on the race. Fernando Gaviria (Etixx – Quick-Step) hit the deck while winding up his sprint inside the final kilometer. The crash put him out of contention, and it also put several riders, Tinkoff’s Peter Sagan included, on the wrong side of a moment’s slow-up.

Démare emerged from the chaotic finale to take a convincing sprint win ahead of Swift, with Roelandts nabbing third ahead of Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), who slammed his bars in frustration at missing out on the win and even the podium.

“This is incredible, Démare said. “There are days like this one in which everything works despite the occasional hiccup, like crashing at the bottom of the Cipressa. I made it across at the bottom of the Poggio and the entire way I felt fantastic. I became the under-23 world champion in similar conditions after crashing.

“I’m delighted to win Milano-Sanremo. This is a big one and has been running for over a century. It’s extraordinary. I’m extremely happy.”

For Démare, it’s the third win of the season and the second time he has finished just in front of Ben Swift — the Frenchman pipped the Brit to the line two weeks ago in stage 1 of Paris-Nice.

Milano-Sanremo results