Can an attacker foil the sprinters in San Remo?

Solo breakaways find it tough going in Milan-San Remo, the sprinters' classic.

2011 Milan-San Remo, the podium
Your podium: Two attackers flanking the winning sprinter. Photo: Graham Watson |

SAN REMO, Italy – A group of just seven riders came to the line in San Remo for the sprint in the season’s first monument. Many of the top attackers in the sport were there, but they were beaten in the end by the Aussie sprinter Matt Goss (HTC-Highroad).

The result raises the question of whether an attacker can win Milan-San Remo.

Fabian Cancellara (Leopard-Trek) was active in the finale, but finished second to Goss in a wide-open group sprint Saturday. The last rider to win solo in San Remo, in 2008, Cancellara said earlier this week that it was possible to make a late attack for the victory in La Primavera, and that he could once again carry it out.

“Have you seen in the past that a rider can go away on the Poggio? Is a rider so super strong that he can go away alone or make a difference?” he asked. “The last few years that has not happened. I believe that once this comes again, I believe that I can win alone and I believe that something can happen on Saturday.”

Toward that end, the world and Olympic time trial champion, winner of three of five of the sport’s monuments, did a load of work bringing the lead group together under heavy attack in the last kilometers.

But in the end, he fell short.

“I tried to arrive on my own but everyone else had my wheel,” Cancellara said. “I think I had one of the best sprints of my life but Goss was very strong.”

Unlike Cancellara, Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) rolled out of Milan as a dark horse. He shed that label when he attacked low on the Poggio. Nibali’s violent move brought out what would eventually be the final group. One of the best descenders in the sport, Nibali made a second effort past the summit.

“I tried again. I knew it was difficult, especially with a group of these riders,” he said. His move wouldn’t stick, though, and the Italian came through three seconds off the group.

“I’m happy,” said Nibali. “I tried to do all that I can. I’m satisfied and I’m happy with the good action. One thing is good action and one thing is to win. It’s a new experience for me and I know one day I can win Milan-San Remo.”

Can he? Can an opportunist and climber turn the tide and win the sprinters’ classic with a late attack? Cancellara and Paolo Bettini are only non-sprinters to earn the title in La Classicissima since 1995. The roll call of winners since the mid-1990s includes four-time champ Erik Zabel, three-time winner Oscar Freire and Mario Cipollini. Despite the work of organizers to topple the sprint trains with the addition of two climbs — the Cipressa (1982) and Le Mànie (2008) — the fast men have ruled the San Remo roost.

Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) tried to change that Saturday. He arrived to Milan as one of the top favorites, having finished third previously in San Remo and showing strong form, winning a stage at Tirreno-Adriatico last week. If anyone could cut loose on the Poggio, it was the Tour of Lombardia champion.

Gilbert’s moment arrived high on the final climb. He surged away from the chase group but could not shed Nibali and company. Eight riders dropped through the sharp left-hander marking the start of the descent with BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet just out of sight. Among them was Goss.

“I accelerated on the steepest part, but I could not get an advantage,” said Gilbert. “The situation was not easy for me. I was a bit isolated in the finals and there was a lot of effort to be made.”

He tried again on the flats in San Remo, but Cancellara closed Gilbert down. In the end, it was a small group – not a solo rider or a bunch – arriving to the line after 298km. It was the most animated finale in San Remo since the Swiss riders’ solo bid two years ago.

Still, when Goss launched his finishing kick off Gilbert’s wheel, he added another notch to Milan-San Remo’s title belt as the sprinters’ classic.