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By Andrew Hood
After 14 seasons as a professional, 35-year-old Mario Cipollini finally won the race he wanted to win more than any other.
Cipollini, riding in the zebra-esque colors of his new team, Acqua & Sapone, survived a long day that saw many pre-race favorites succumb to crashes and injuries to win the 93rd Milan-San Remo.
Cipollini and the lead sprinters reeled in a two-man breakaway of Mapei’s Paolo Bettini and Panaria’s Giuliano Figueras with less than a kilometer to go after the pair had pulled away on the Poggio climb just seven kilometers from the finish.
The Poggio — the steep, short climb overlooking a brilliant sun-splashed Italian Riveria — split the lead group of about 50 riders, but in a replay of the last several Milan-San Remo races, the group came back together for a sprint. Cipollini, thanks to help from teammates Massimilio Gentili, Guido Trenti and Giovanni Lombardi, won by a bike length.
“Something extraordinary happened today for me. I always dreamed about this race. After winning here, it’s like I’ve entered another world,” said Cipollini, second here twice. “I started my sprint very early because I was worried that someone would come around me. I prayed that I had enough strength to win.”
American Fred Rodriguez (Domo) nearly spoiled Cipollini’s story-book day, finishing a strong second to become only the second U.S. racer to finish on the top-three podium of “La Classicissima,” the traditional opener of the 10-race World Cup. Greg LeMond was second in 1986 behind Sean Kelly.
“I was on Cipollini’s wheel with 500 meters to go and he jumped first. I tried to come around him but he was just stronger than me,” said Rodriguez, riding in the stars and stripes jersey of the U.S. champion. “It feels good to have such a strong result this early in the season.”
Marcus Zberg (Rabobank) was third while U.S. Postal Service’s George Hincapie crossed the line 16th in the sprint to the line. Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong made his first appearance of the season, this time to help Hincapie. He crossed the line safely with the lead group in 44th place.
“I am satisfied. It was better than I had hoped, but I am tired. This Milan-San Remo is an amazing race, very dangerous, very fast,” Armstrong said. “I will go back to Spain to train and then race in the Criterium International next weekend.”
Early in the race, several riders broke away clean over the day’s highest obstacle – the 773-meter Bric Berton at 140 kilometers. By 188 kms, six riders – Vladimir Duma (Panaria), Abraham Olano and Rene Andrle (ONCE), Torsten Schmidt (Gerolsteiner), Inigo Cuesta (Cofidis), Laszlo Bodrogi (Mapei) – are 4 minutes, 2 seconds ahead of the peloton. Telekom, Saeco and Acqua & Sapone put down the hammer and end the break with 30 kilometers to go.
Four-time Milan-San Remo champion Erik Zabel (Telekom) lost contact with the leaders after his rear wheel was destroyed when another rider’s pedals took out his derailleur and spokes on the approach to the Cipressa climb.
“Someone hit me from behind and destroyed my back wheel. I switched bikes and when I tried to catch up and suddenly the road was blocked,” Zabel said. “When I was in the group at the base of the Cipressa, I realized I was in the third group back and then it was lost of the day.”
Blocking Zabel’s way was a crash involving several riders, including defending overall World Cup champion Erik Dekker (Rabobank) and Saeco’s Danilo Di Luca. Dekker was sent to the hospital with a broken left leg while Di Luca was knocked out of contention.
The peloton split into three groups over the Cipressa. Andrei Kiviliv (Cofidis) attacked and Jose Ivan Gutierrez (ibanesto.com) countered, but the pair were caught on the descent. Mirko Celestino (Saeco) and Michele Bartoli (Fassa Bortolo) then Juan Flecha (ibanesto.com) and Andrea Peron (CSC-Tiscali) try in vain to escape the lead group, charged by Mapei.
At the foot of the Poggio, the Zabel group, which also includes Marco Pantani (Mercatone Uno), is 1:40 back. Alexandre Vinokourov, Zabel’s teammate on Telekom, is given the freedom to attack. Bettini and then Figueras each counter, topping over the Poggio with a small gap of 13 seconds. The pair held off the peloton until 700 meters to go.
“The head wind really stopped my progress on the descent,” Bettini said. “I tried with everything today but it was impossible. If we had three, we could have done something.”
Coming into the sprint, Cipollini was clearly the strongest. Rodriguez rode a brilliant race, staying near the front of the group over the closing kilometers. World champion Oscar Freire said he was bumped by a rider, which threw off his sprint.
The party’s just begun for Cipollini. Cheered wildly by fans, he cancelled a trip to Monte Carlo on Saturday night to instead celebrate with his new teammates at the team hotel in San Remo. The Lion King has roared and he promises it won’t be the last we hear of him this year.
93rd Milan-San Remo, Italy. March 23.;;
1. Mario Cipollini (I), Acqua & Sapone, 287km in 6:39:30; 2. Fred Rodriguez (USA), Domo, same time; 3. Marcus Zberg (Switzerland), Rabobank, s.t.; 4. Jo Planckaert (B), Cofidis, s.t.; 5. Oscar Freire (Sp), Mapei, s.t.; 6. Tomas Konecny (Cze), Domo, s.t.; 7. Andrei Tchmil (B), Lotto, s.t.; 8. Jan Svorada (Cze), Lampre, s.t.; 9. Paolo Bossoni (I), Tacconi Sport; 10. Mario Manzoni (I), Alessio, s.t.;;
Others: 16. George Hincapie (USA), U.S. Postal Service, s.t.; 44. Lance Armstrong (USA), U.S. Postal Service, s.t.; 75. Tyler Hamilton (USA), CSC-Tiscali, at 3:38; 110. David Clinger (USA), U.S. Postal Service, s.t.; 135. Bobby Julich (USA), Telekom, at 11:43.