By Andrew Hood
Quick Step’s Paolo Bettini delivered a thrilling victory in Saturday’s Milan-San Remo, denying world champion Mario Cipollini his hoped-for big gift on his 36th birthday.
Indeed, Bettini did what no one has done since 1995, successfully attacking on the final climb, the famed Poggio that tops out just 5.7km from the finish, to stymie the sprinters in the World Cup opener that’s finished in a mass gallop five out of the past six years.
“With two kilometers to go, I said to Luca (Paolini), ‘Come on, we can do it,’” said an emotional Bettini. “I wasn’t sure we were going to make it. I thought on the descent off the Poggio the same way I felt last year. I didn’t want to look back because I was afraid we were going to get caught.”
The defending World Cup champion had also attacked on the Cipressa climb with under 30km to go, but was reeled in by a hard-working Domina Vacanze team hungry to give Cipollini a run at another Milan-San Remo title.
But it was on the Poggio – the short, but steep climb added to Milan-San Remo in 1960 – that showed things would be different this year. Saeco’s Danilo Di Luca went first, and Bettini was followed by Quick Step teammate Luca Paolini and Saeco’s Mirko Celestino.
The trio dropped a weary Di Luca on the descent and roared onto San Remo’s Via Roma with just enough to spare for the win. Bettini sprung around Paolini to score an impressive victory.
A dejected Cipollini led the main bunch across 11 seconds back.
“We saw there were a lot of riders to control today. When I arrived to the Cipressa I had good sensations and my team did excellent work to bring back the first Bettini move,” Cipollini said. “This Milan-San Remo was important for me, but Bettini was the strongest today. I demonstrated I am the strongest sprinter at the finish.”
The remnants of an eight-man break were reeled in just coming to the base of the Cipressa and the group, led by Rabobank, was absolutely flying. Posties Viatcheslav Ekimov, Max Van Heeswijk and Matthew White were bumping shoulders at the front to fill in for the absent George Hincapie, who’s out of the classics because of a lingering virus.
Saeco moved its entire team to the front in a chance to spring Di Luca. A cautious Cipollini pulled up to keep an eye on them. The first Saeco to jump was Celestino and Ag2r’s Alexandre Botcharov gave chase. With 26km to go, Celestino was 20 seconds off the front with Botcharov 8 seconds back.
Off the back, riders were already falling off the pace, including CSC’s Andrei Tafi, Alessandro Petacchi (Fassa Bortolo), American Fred Rodriguez (Sidermec) and Michele Bartoli (Fassa Bortolo), in his first race back since breaking his hip in January.
“There were guys going good, guys going backward, guys going left and right. It was a mess,” said U.S. Postal’s Tony Cruz, who crashed early in the race, but fought to come back on before Cipressa. “I was going okay and I was only 10 seconds off the main group coming off the Cipressa and there was a crash, and that was it. There was a big whip in that lead group and we never saw them again.”
Quick Step’s Bettini attacked on the Cipressa climb with 25km to go and was quickly followed by Alexandre Vinokourov (Telekom), Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) and Oscar Freire (Rabobank). The quartet looked to have some winning legs.
“At that point, I didn’t think it was going to be a sprint,” Freire said. “I went with Bettini because I sensed he was the strongest. Later on the Poggio, I saved myself for the sprint because I thought it would come down to one.”
Cipollini’s Domina Vacanze team did excellent work, especially Danielle Bennati and Alberto Ongarato, to neutralize the attack with just 10km to go. Another crash in the bunch split the group and took Fassa Bortolo’s Filippo Pozzato out of contention.
The Poggio was introduced in 1960 to split the field and reduce the likelihood of a mass gallop. That seemed to work until the high-flying 1990s, when the top sprinters had enough gas to get over the Poggio. The last time a break succeeded was in 1996, when Gabriele Colombo went with a break on the Cipress and dropped them with his attack on the Poggio to win on the Via Roma, while in 1995 the Poggio itself cut the field, when Laurent Jalabert and Maurizio Fondriest barnstormed their way onto Via Roma.
A host of Italians were determined to keep Cipollini from arriving at the finish. Saeco animated the final 30km and Di Luca popped off the front of the lead bunch coming up the first steep ramps at the Poggio.
Serguei Honchar (De Nardi) and Andrea Peron (CSC) tried to close the gap, while Cipollini hung on tough. Bettini tried one more time, attacking yet again off the lead bunch. Following him were Celestino, again up for a second chance, and Quick Step’s Paolini. The trio caught and dropped Di Luca coming down the steep, narrow Poggio descent and had 16 seconds on the leaders.
“It was unfortunate luck for me because when I was attacking on the Poggio, I had a strong head-wind, and when the others caught me, I simply had nothing left to stay with them on the descent,” Di Luca said. “I feel good for the team and good for Celestino.”
Coming into the final two kilometers through the crowded streets of San Remo, there was no stopping Bettini.
Break spices up early action
Cipollini came to the start Saturday morning in Milan with matching white jersey and shorts highlighting his rainbow jersey stripes. There was a planned anti-war protest set for noon in Milan, but the race started just after 9:30 a.m. to get away clear.
The weather cooperated throughout the race, with sunny skies and warm, spring-like temperatures. Team Coast made their return to racing at Milan-San Remo after the UCI re-instated the team following a racing ban that kept the German squad out of Paris-Nice.
The day’s main break went away early, with nine riders attacking in the first hour of the race. Joining the break were Paul Van Hyfte (CSC), Jose Lopez Gil (iBanesto.com), Jacky Durand and Carlos Dacruz (Fdjeux.com), Peter Wrolich (Gerolsteiner), Jose Enrique Gutierrez (Kelme), Stephane Auge (Credit Agricole), Wim Vanseyenant (Lotto-Domo) and Niki Aebersold (Coast). The break held a lead of nearly 4 minutes after 36km and a maximum lead of 5:05 at 50km.
The break held over the day’s major obstacle, the Passo de Turchino about midway through the race.
Quick Step, Fassa Bortolo, Domina Vacanze, Rabobank and Telekom were leading the chase. Gerolsteiner’s Olaf Pollack threw a tizzy – and his bike – when he crashed and lost contact with the chasing bunch.
With about 45km to go, just after the course hit the Med, the break was reeled in and the fireworks began. Wrolich, Van Hyfte and Aebersold lingered 15 seconds off the front through Imperia heading to the base of Cipressa, but the adventure was over.
More bad crashes
The peloton was flying along the coast with about 40km to go when two riders went down in a crash in a scary reminder of the death of Andrei Kivilev just last week in Paris-Nice.
Landbouwkrediet-Colnago’s Volodymyr Bileka and Domina Vacanze’s Martin Derganc both fell, but Derganc was motionless on the ground knocked unconscious for several minutes. Derganc, a Slovenian on the same team as world champion Mario Cipollini, was wearing a helmet. After a few minutes, he regained consciousness and was transported to a hospital, wearing a neck brace, but without life-threatening injuries.
Alessio’s Raffaele Ferrara crashed alone coming at the base of the Cipressa and was holding his right shoulder in pain. U.S. Postal’s Tony Cruz crashed before the Turchino and cut fingers on his hand when he fell on some bikes in a pileup.
To see how today’s race unfolded just clickhere, to pull up our Live Update window.
1. Paolo Bettini (I), Quick Step-Davitamon
2. Mirko Celestino (I), Saeco
3. Luca Paolini (I), Quick Step-Davitamon
4. Mario Cipollini (I), Domina Vacanze
5. Dario Pieri (I), Saeco
6. Erik Zabel (G), Telekom
Today’s race time of 6:44:43 (43.580 kph)
is the fifth fastest in 94 editions of Milan-San Remo.
Zabirova takes Primavera Rosa
Russian Zoulfia Zabirova (Prato Marathon) attacked before the Cipressa and held off the main bunch of riders to win the 5th Primavera Rosa. The 121km race follows the final half of the men’s Milan-San Remo course along the Mediterranean Sea and climbs the Cipressa and the Poggio.
Zabirova, the 1996 time trial gold medalist, attacked on the lower flanks of the Cipressa and built up a 35-second gap over the summit. Riding alone, she chugged up the Poggio and widened her gap to 50 seconds with just nine kilometers to go.
Zabirova blew across the finish line in 3 hours, 5 minutes, 22 seconds to score the impressive solo win.German Regina Schleicher (Chirio Forno) led the bunch to take second at 34 seconds back while Australian Rochelle Gilmore (Ausra Gruodis) came across to take third.
Australian Sara Carrigan (Big Powerplate), a winner at the World Cup opener in Australia on March 2, came across the line 13th to score enough points to retain the overall World Cup lead.
Overall standings after two rounds
1. Sara Carrigan, 83 points
2. Zoulfia Zabirova, 75
3. Regina Schleicher, 61
4. Katie Mactier, 50
5. Rochelle Gilmore, 50
6. Judith Arndt, 42
7. Melissa Holt, 30
8. Oenone Wood, 30
9. Virginie Moinard, 30
10. Kristen Armstrong, 27