By Andrew Hood
Erik Zabel’s world went from bright to very black in a split second on the Via Roma at the end of the 95th Milan-San Remo on Saturday.
The German sprinter thought he’d come around Alessandro Petacchi (Fassa Bortolo) to win Milan-San Remo for the fifth time. But just as he was lifting his hands in celebration, Spanish sprinter Oscar Freire (Rabobank) shoved his bike across the line to snatch the win by inches.
“It’s frustrating to make such a stupid mistake, it’s something that only happens once in your career,” said Zabel, who won Milan-San Remo four times during 1997-2001. “I was sure I had won after passing Petacchi, who was so strong at Tirreno-Adriatico. In my career, I’ve always sprinted to the line. I never saw Freire.”
The surprise ending put some spark back into the season’s first big party, which seemed to have lost some of its fizzle when compared to last year’s attack-riddled finale, in which Paolo Bettini (Quick Step) bounced to victory after attacking hard on the famous Poggio climb 5.7km from the finish in downtown San Remo.
Ludo Dierckxssens (Landbouwkrediet-Colnago) was the last of a five-man breakaway to be swept up after a 200km flyer that came to an end near the Cipressa, just 21km from the finish in San Remo.
The bunch cleared the Cipressa without three of its biggest challengers: Mario Cipollini (Domina Vacanze) was dropped, while Michele Bartoli (CSC) slid into a guard rail coming down the technical descent, taking out Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) in the process.
The Poggio saw Erik Dekker (Rabobank) and Bettini try to get away, but the bunch hit the finishing stretch into San Remo with Fassa Bortolo firmly in control.
The stage was set for Petacchi to take the elusive World Cup win, but the 294km course took it out of the Fassa Bortolo star. Zabel was glued to Petacchi’s wheel and charged past his right shoulder with a clear shot to the line.
The proud German didn’t realize the tenacious Freire was still surging on his right. Zabel caught a glimpse of the orange-clad Spaniard too late and his hands – which were pointing to the heavens – turned to fists as he cursed his luck.
“I’m sure I would have won if I had kept my hands on the bars,” Zabel said. “I lifted my hands two meters too soon.”
Freire’s vigilance paid off with the biggest win of his career since his two world titles in 1999 and 2001. The often-injured Spanish rider enters the 2004 season in top form – he started Milan-San Remo with victories in Luis Puig, Tour of Mallorca and a stage in Tirreno-Adriatico last week.
“Until you cross the line you can never say you’ve won,” said Freire, “I’ve waited a long time for this. I’ve had good form in the past, but I’ve lost because I didn’t have luck. Sometimes you have to have the luck to go with the legs to win the big races.”
No Armstrong, Ludo leads charge
One name not taking the start Saturday morning in Milan was Lance Armstrong. The five-time defending Tour de France champion had traveled to Italy earlier in the week and visited the family of fallen ex-Motorola teammate Fabio Casartelli, who died in a crash in the 1995 Tour.
But Armstrong came down with a hint of bronchitis and didn’t want to risk becoming sicker as he makes a run at a record sixth Tour title later this season.
“I want to race because I love Milan-San Remo. It’s a long race and it’s good for my preparation,” Armstrong told La Gazzetta dello Sport. “But I don’t want to become sick and risk my form later in the season for the Tour.
U.S. Postal Service director Johan Bruyneel said it was safer to keep Armstrong out of the race. Besides, the Posties were counting on the red-hot Max Van Heeswijk and George Hincapie.
Big crowds turned out to cheer on the riders as they signed in at the Catholic university in downtown Milan. Some familiar faces were in the mix right from the gun, with Andrea Tafi (Alessio) and Jacky Durand (Landbouwkrediet-Colnago) attacking in the opening hour without luck.
Carlos Dacruz (FDJeux.com) crashed at 38km and was transported to a local hospital with a fractured vertebrae. Other injuries throughout the day included Pavel Padrnos and Benoit Joachim (both Postal), but none were as serious.
At 60km , Nicolas Portal (Ag2r), Dierckxssens, Toni Tauler (Illes Balears), Carlos Barredo (Liberty Seguros) and Guilio Tomi (Vini Caldirola) attacked and the bunch was content to let them have some early TV time.
After three hours, the gap was north of 16 minutes and the main bunch started to come back to life. By the top of the day’s main obstacle – the cold and foggy Passo di Turchino at 143km – the gap was narrowed to 10:30.
The leading quartet’s lead was getting smaller the closer they drove southwest along the stunning Italian Riviera toward San Remo. With 44km to go, the gap was down to three minutes as they plowed over the first “capi” or large bluffs that jut into the Mediterranean Sea. Dierckxssens tried his luck alone but was swallowed by the bunch as it hit the Cipressa.
Up the Cipressa
All the big names surged to the front as the peloton roared to the base of the Cipressa.
Bettini made an early move to soften up the bunch, with Yaroslav Popovych (Landbouwkrediet-Colnago) quick on his tail. Next, Erik Dekker (Rabobank) made a jump with Steffan Wesemann (Telekom) in tow and the pair opened up an 11-second gap.
“I attacked early to up the pace a little bit,” said Bettini, who ended up eighth in the sprint. “The pace wasn’t nearly fast enough to make a difference. I was disappointed with how the race was unfolding and I wanted to make it faster.”
Cipollini (Domina Vacanze) lost contact on the acceleration and never came back. The Lion King had put a lot on winning Milan-San Remo for a second time, but the 2002 winner suffered with flu during Tirreno-Adriatico and entered La Primavera not firing on all cylinders; he finished a disappointing 109th at 5:40 back.
“It was too bad for Mario, but we still have the Giro and the Tour,” said Domina Vacanze manager Vicente Santoni. “It’s a Milan-San Remo that didn’t go well for us. At least Freire is a worthy champion. Petacchi saw that to win a race at 200km is not the same to win one that’s 300km in length.”
Bobby Julich (Team CSC) and Alessandro Spezialetti (Saeco) led the chase to catch Dekker and Wesemann and the bunch still totaled more than 100 riders as it cleared the top together.
Last year’s winner Mirko Celestino (Saeco) attacked on the descent and opened up a gap on world champion Igor Astarloa (Cofidis) and Fabian Wegemann (Gerolsteiner).
Disaster struck the animated Team CSC on the twisting descent. Michele Bartoli, riding with a bandana tucked under his helmet in honor of Marco Pantani, spun wide through a corner, clipped a guardrail and fell hard on his right hip. Crashing into him were Rebellin and Peter Van Petegem (Lotto-Domo). All three carried on, but it took Bartoli out of the hunt.
“The plan was for Bartoli to follow Bettini if he attacked on the Poggio,” said Team CSC sport director Alain Gallopin. “It’s too bad because he was very strong and very motivated for today’s race. It’s frustrating, but we are optimistic for the upcoming classics because Bartoli was clearly strong.”
Up the Poggio
Fabio Saachi led the chase coming down the Cipressa for Fassa Bortolo, which had nearly all of its riders charging hard at the front. With 15km to go, Celestino was holding a 12-second gap, but was reeled in near the base of the Poggio.
Matteo Carrara (Lampre) made the first move on the Poggio, with Dekker, Angel Vicioso (Liberty) and Oscar Pereiro (Phonak) quick to follow. Bettini counterattacked, and Alexandre Vinokourov (T-Mobile) tried to grab his wheel, but there would be no miracles this year.
Bettini quickly gapped the Dekker group and Vicioso was the only one to able to follow, but their escape was short-lived. Fassa Bortolo drove hard to squelch the move and the bunch reached the top of the Poggio together.
“The team wasn’t clearly as strong as last year,” Bettini said. “I was hoping some of the others would help me to attack, to animate the race. I am not a rider who is afraid to try and not succeed. Obviously there are others who don’t feel that way.”
Down the Via Roma
The big group hit the finishing straight along the packed streets of San Remo with Fassa Bortolo firmly in control. Max Van Heeswijk (U.S. Postal), however, was sure he was going to win the race once they cleared the Poggio together.
“I was right on Zabel’s wheel and I never felt so strong, so good at Milan-San Remo,” said the Dutch rider, who had to settle for fifth. “But I lost his wheel coming through the final two turns. I lost 10 to 12 places and I had to make my sprint from 15th position. I’ve never felt so good on the Cipressa and Poggio. This just gives me confidence for the classics.”
Coming down the Via Roma, all eyes were on Petacchi. The Italian had won a record four or more stages in all three of last year’s grand tours to earn the title as cycling’s fastest sprinter.
Petacchi has never won a World Cup race, and he desperately wanted to add the prestige of La Classicissima to his palmares. But after Italian-American Guido Trenti took the last pull, Petacchi simply stalled going to the line. Zabel, Freire and Stuart O’Grady shot past him as though he were standing still.
“I thought I was going to win, but my legs were too tired,” Petacchi said after taking fourth. “We went hard on the Cipressa and the Poggio and I paid for the effort. My team rode great, but I got the consolation that now I know I can win Milan-San Remo one day.”
As for Zabel, he thought it was his day once again. The German veteran won the battle to grab Petacchi’s wheel and shot past the big Italian to see the line just waiting there for him. He threw up his arms in triumph, only to realize too late that Freire shot his bike forward to take the win.
“This victory means much to me,” said Freire, who dedicated his victory to the victims of the recent terrorist bombing in Madrid. “After I won the world title, I joined Mapei but I was never able to win a big race. I was either hurt or had bad luck. I gambled today and thought it might come down to a sprint. I didn’t want to waste my efforts on the Cipressa and the Poggio.”
1. Freire G. Oscar (Sp), Rabobank, 7:11:23 (40.892 kph)
2. Erik Zabel (G), T-Mobile, 7:11:23
3. Stuart O’Grady (Aus), Cofidis, 7:11:23
4. Alessandro Petacchi (I), Fassa Bortolo, 7:11:23
5. Max Van Heeswijk (Nl), U.S. Postal Service, 7:11:23
6. Igor Astarloa (Sp), Cofidis, 7:11:23
7. Romans Vainsteins (Lat), Lampre, 7:11:23
8. Paolo Bettini (I), Quick Step-Davitamon, 7:11:23
9. Martin P. M.a. (Sp), Saunier Duval, 7:11:23
10. Peter Van Petegem (B), Lotto-Domo, 7:11:23
11. Erik Dekker (Nl), Rabobank, 7:11:23
12. Mirko Celestino (I), Saeco, 7:11:23
13. George Hincapie (USA), U.S. Postal Service, 7:11:23
14. Philippe Gilbert (B), FDJeux.com, 7:11:23
15. Silloniz A. Josu (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, 7:11:23
16. Fabio Baldato (I), Alessio-Bianchi, 7:11:23
17. Guido Trenti (USA), Fassa Bortolo, 7:11:23
18. Marcus Zberg (Swi), Gerolsteiner, 7:11:23
19. Cristian Moreni (I), Alessio-Bianchi, 7:11:23
20. Sanchez G- Samuel (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, 7:11:23
21. Andreas Klier (G), T-Mobile, 7:11:23
22. Michele Gobbi (I), De-Nardi, 7:11:23
23. Inigo Landaluze (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, 7:11:23
24. Yaroslav Popovych (Ukr), Landbouwkrediet – Colnago, 7:11:23
25. Allan Davis (Aus), Liberty-Seguras, 7:11:23
26. Oskar Camenzind (Swi), Phonak, 7:11:23
27. Martin Elmiger (Swi), Phonak, 7:11:23
28. Fabian Wegmann (G), Gerolsteiner, 7:11:23
29. Serhiy Honchar (Ukr), De-Nardi, 7:11:23
30. Axel Merckx (B), Lotto-Domo, 7:11:23
31. Mickael Pichon (F), Brioches La Boulangere, 7:11:23
32. Danilo Hondo (G), Gerolsteiner, 7:11:23
33. Peter Wrolich (A), Gerolsteiner, 7:11:23
34. Rolf Aldag (G), T-Mobile, 7:11:23
35. Fabio Sacchi (I), Fassa Bortolo, 7:11:23
36. Jens Voigt (G), CSC, 7:11:23
37. Yuriy Krivtsov (Ukr), Ag2R Prevoyance, 7:11:23
38. Lastras G. Pablo (Sp), Illes Balears-Banesto, 7:11:23
39. Pereiro S. Oscar (Sp), Phonak, 7:11:23
40. Franck Renier (F), Brioches La Boulangere, 7:11:23
41. Noval G. Benjamin (Sp), U.S. Postal Service, 7:11:23
42. Anthony Geslin (F), Brioches La Boulangere, 7:11:23
43. Laurent Brochard (F), Ag2R Prevoyance, 7:11:23
44. Horrillo M. Pedro (Sp), Quick Step-Davitamon, 7:11:23
45. Sergio Barbero (I), Lampre, 7:11:23
46. Franco Pellizotti (I), Alessio-Bianchi, 7:11:23
47. Guido Trentin (I), Cofidis, 7:11:23
48. Casero M. Rafael (Sp), Saunier Duval, 7:11:23
49. Giuliano Figueras (I), Ceramiche Panaria-Margres, 7:11:23
50. Robert Hunter (RSA), Rabobank, 7:11:23
51. Lorenzo Bernucci (I), Landbouwkrediet – Colnago, 7:11:23
52. Sylvain Chavanel (F), Brioches La Boulangere, 7:11:23
53. Fernandez B. Bingen (Sp), Cofidis, 7:11:23
54. Danilo Di Luca (I), Saeco, 7:11:23
55. Gabriele Balducci (I), Saeco, 7:11:23
56. Simone Masciarelli (I), Sidermec Vini Caldirola, 7:11:23
57. Bert Grabsch (G), Phonak, 7:11:23
58. Steffen Wesemann (G), T-Mobile, 7:11:23
59. Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz), T-Mobile, 7:11:23
60. Pineau Jérome (F), Brioches La Boulangere, 7:11:23
61. Angel Vicioso Arcos (Sp), Liberty-Seguras, 7:11:23
62. Marco Velo (I), Fassa Bortolo, 7:11:23
63. Filippo Pozzato (I), Fassa Bortolo, 7:11:32
64. Gabriele Colombo (I), Domina Vacanze, 7:11:32
65. Bobby Julich (USA), CSC, 7:11:38
66. Frank Vandenbroucke (B), Fassa Bortolo, 7:11:43
67. Scott Sunderland (Aus), Alessio-Bianchi, 7:11:50
68. Inaki Isasi Flores (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, 7:11:50
69. Matthew White (Aus), Cofidis, 7:11:50
70. Mirco Lorenzetto (I), De-Nardi, 7:11:50
71. Paolo Tiralongo (I), Ceramiche Panaria-Margres, 7:11:50
72. Gutierrez P. José Ivan (Sp), Illes Balears-Banesto, 7:11:50
73. Matthew Wilson (Aus), FDJeux.com, 7:11:50
74. Vjatceslav Ekimov (Rus), U.S. Postal Service, 7:11:50
75. Tom Boonen (B), Quick Step-Davitamon, 7:11:50
76. Janek Tombak (Est), Cofidis, 7:11:50
77. Emanuele Mori (I), Saunier Duval, 7:11:50
78. Mark Scanlon (IRL), Ag2R Prevoyance, 7:11:50
79. Matteo Carrara (I), Lampre, 7:11:50
80. Alessandro Cortinovis (I), Lampre, 7:11:50
81. Samuel Dumoulin (F), Ag2R Prevoyance, 7:11:50
82. Alessandro Spezialetti (I), Saeco, 7:11:50
83. Luca Paolini (I), Quick Step-Davitamon, 7:11:50
84. Luca Mazzanti (I), Ceramiche Panaria-Margres, 7:11:50
85. Leonardo Bertagnolli (I), Saeco, 7:11:50
86. Eugeni Petrov (Rus), Saeco, 7:11:50
87. Peter Farazijn (B), Cofidis, 7:11:50
88. Graziano Gasparre (I), De-Nardi, 7:11:50
89. Antonio Cruz (USA), U.S. Postal Service, 7:12:15
90. Maarten Den Bakker (Nl), Rabobank, 7:13:01
91. Matteo Tosatto (I), Fassa Bortolo, 7:13:02
92. Victor Pena (Col), U.S. Postal Service, 7:13:30
93. Bradley Mc Gee (Aus), FDJeux.com, 7:13:46
94. Michael Rogers (Aus), Quick Step-Davitamon, 7:13:46
95. Lobato E. Ruben (Sp), Saunier Duval, 7:14:20
96. Gianluca Sironi (I), Sidermec Vini Caldirola, 7:14:31
97. Matthias Kessler (G), T-Mobile, 7:14:31
98. Ruslan Ivanov (MDA), Alessio-Bianchi, 7:14:31
99. Marc Wauters (B), Rabobank, 7:14:31
100. Leif Hoste (B), Lotto-Domo, 7:14:49
101. Roberto Petito (I), Fassa Bortolo, 7:16:10
102. Fabrizio Guidi (I), CSC, 7:16:10
103. Scott Davis (Aus), Ceramiche Panaria-Margres, 7:16:10
104. Marco Milesi (I), Sidermec Vini Caldirola, 7:17:03
105. Sergey Lagutin (UZB), Landbouwkrediet – Colnago, 7:17:03
106. Robbie Mc Ewen (Aus), Lotto-Domo, 7:17:03
107. Maximilian Sciandri (GB), CSC, 7:17:03
108. Stefano Zanini (I), Quick Step-Davitamon, 7:17:03
109. Mario Cipollini (I), Domina Vacanze, 7:17:03
110. Marco Serpellini (I), Gerolsteiner, 7:17:03
111. Marco Zanotti (I), Sidermec Vini Caldirola, 7:17:03
112. Rodriguez O. Joaquin (Sp), Saunier Duval, 7:17:03
113. Aart Vierhouten (Nl), Lotto-Domo, 7:17:03
114. Martin Derganc (SLO), Domina Vacanze, 7:17:03
115. Patrick Calcagni (Swi), Sidermec Vini Caldirola, 7:17:03
116. Gonzalez De G. Igor (Sp), Liberty-Seguras, 7:17:03
117. Mauro Gerosa (I), Sidermec Vini Caldirola, 7:17:03
118. Alessio Galletti (I), Domina Vacanze, 7:17:03
119. Giovanni Lombardi (I), Domina Vacanze, 7:17:03
120. Michele Bartoli (I), CSC, 7:17:03
121. Leon Van Bon (Nl), Lotto-Domo, 7:17:03
122. Frank Hoj (Dk), CSC, 7:17:03
123. Paolo Bossoni (I), Lampre, 7:17:03
124. Rast Grégory (Swi), Phonak, 7:17:03
125. Rubens Bertogliati (Swi), Saunier Duval, 7:17:03
126. Heras H. Roberto (Sp), Liberty-Seguras, 7:17:03
127. Verdugo M. Gorka (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, 7:17:03
128. Gonzalez L. Gorka (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, 7:17:03
129. David Millar (GB), Cofidis, 7:17:03
130. Gianpaolo Caruso (I), Liberty-Seguras, 7:17:03
131. Devis Miorin (I), De-Nardi, 7:17:03
132. Ruggero Borghi (I), De-Nardi, 7:17:03
133. Serguei Ivanov (Rus), T-Mobile, 7:17:03
134. Sergiy Matveyev (Ukr), Ceramiche Panaria-Margres, 7:17:03
135. Jan Boven (Nl), Rabobank, 7:17:03
136. Andy Flickinger (F), Ag2R Prevoyance, 7:17:03
137. Vladimir Duma (Ukr), Landbouwkrediet – Colnago, 7:17:03
138. Mario Scirea (I), Domina Vacanze, 7:17:03
139. Fagnini Gian Matteo (I), Domina Vacanze, 7:17:03
140. Benoit Joachim (Lux), U.S. Postal Service, 7:17:03
141. Magnus Backstedt (SWE), Alessio-Bianchi, 7:18:37
142. Jan Svorada (Cz), Lampre, 7:18:37
143. Jan Hruska (Cz), Liberty-Seguras, 7:18:37
144. Dario Pieri (I), Saeco, 7:18:37
145. Paolo Fornaciari (I), Saeco, 7:18:37
146. Volodymyr Bileka (Ukr), Landbouwkrediet – Colnago, 7:18:37
147. Ventoso A. Francisco Josè (Sp), Saunier Duval, 7:18:37
148. Steffen Radochla (G), Illes Balears-Banesto, 7:18:37
149. Pagliarini M. Luciano A. (BRA), Lampre, 7:19:23
150. Marco Fertonani (I), Phonak, 7:19:23
151. Davide Bramati (I), Quick Step-Davitamon, 7:19:24
152. Mauro Zinetti (I), Sidermec Vini Caldirola, 7:19:24
153. Mariano Piccoli (I), Lampre, 7:19:24
154. Laurent Lefevre (F), Brioches La Boulangere, 7:19:24
155. Mathew Hayman (Aus), Rabobank, 7:19:24
156. Galparsoro M. Dionisio (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, 7:19:24
157. Giulio Tomi (I), Sidermec Vini Caldirola, 7:21:41
158. Sebastian Lang (G), Gerolsteiner, 7:22:01
159. Andrea Tafi (I), Alessio-Bianchi, 7:22:26
160. Lars Michaelsen (Dk), CSC, 7:22:26
161. Michael Blaudzun (Dk), CSC, 7:22:26
162. Nazon Jean Patrick (F), Ag2R Prevoyance, 7:22:26
163. Bram De Groot (Nl), Rabobank, 7:22:26
164. Ludo Dierckxssens (B), Landbouwkrediet – Colnago, 7:22:26
165. Massimo Strazzer (I), Saunier Duval, 7:22:26
166. Mark Renshaw (Aus), FDJeux.com, 7:22:26
167. Simone Cadamuro (I), De-Nardi, 7:22:26
168. Davide Rebellin (I), Gerolsteiner, 7:22:26
169. Andrus Aug (Est), Domina Vacanze, 7:22:26
170. Niki Aebersold (Swi), Phonak, 7:22:26
171. Nicolas Fritsch (F), FDJeux.com, 7:22:26
172. Luca Nardello (I), T-Mobile, 7:22:26
173. Andrle René (Cz), Liberty-Seguras, 7:22:26
174. Barredo L. Carlos (Sp), Liberty-Seguras, 7:22:26
175. Wim Vansevenant (B), Lotto-Domo, 7:22:26
176. Nick Nuyens (B), Quick Step-Davitamon, 7:22:26
177. Igor Pugaci (MDA), De-Nardi, 7:22:26
178. Nicolas Portal (F), Ag2R Prevoyance, 7:24:20
179. Thomas Ziegler (G), Gerolsteiner, 7:24:52
180. Thierry Marichal (B), Lotto-Domo, 7:25:16
181. Jacky Durand (F), Landbouwkrediet – Colnago, 7:25:16
182. Rony Martias (F), Brioches La Boulangere, 7:25:16
183. Borrajo Alejandro Alberto (ARG), Ceramiche Panaria-Margres, 7:25:16
184. Brown Graeme Allen (Aus), Ceramiche Panaria-Margres, 7:31:44
Alexandre Naulleau (F), Brioches La Boulangere
Zubeldia A. Haimar (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi
Baden Cooke (Aus), FDJeux.com
Carlos Dacruz (F), FDJeux.com
Bernhard Eisel (A), FDJeux.com
Daniel Becke (G), Illes Balears-Banesto
Antonio Tauler (Sp), Illes Balears-Banesto
Vicente Reynes (Sp), Illes Balears-Banesto
Uros Murn (SLO), Phonak
Pavel Padrnos (Cz), U.S. Postal Service
Brett Lancaster (Aus), Ceramiche Panaria-Margres