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Foes and teammates alike tipped their hat to the unstoppable Julian Alaphilippe.
The Deceuninck-Quick-Step star led the attack over the Poggio and then out-sprinted an all-star elite group to claim his first career monument in stunning fashion Saturday at Milano-Sanremo.
Runner-up Oliver Naesen (Ag2r-La Mondiale) had a front-row seat to Alaphilippe’s exhibition. He described it as a “funny feeling” when he was powerless to change the outcome.
“I never made a mistake during the entire race,” said Naesen, who scored his first career monument podium with second. “I had room to make my sprint, but I could not get past Julian’s rear wheel. I saw who was going to win Milano-Sanremo, and I could do nothing about it.”
Naesen’s comments sum up the feeling from many in Saturday’s 291km trek to open the monument calendar. Alaphilippe came into Sanremo as one of the top favorites, and did not disappoint. After finishing third in 2017, Alaphilippe rode with panache to fend off some of the biggest names in the peloton.
After finishing third in a photo-finish in 2017, Alaphilippe made sure he was first this time. He uncorked a powerful sprint that fended back everyone, including Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), who was fourth behind Naesen and Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky).
“It was a strange, and very slow one,” Sagan said of the 110th edition of the race. “The final attacks were launched quite late. I was squeezed in, and when I found space to sprint, it was too late.”
Another rider who could not answer was 2017 winner Kwiatkowski. Hot off third at Paris-Nice, the former world champion was equally awed by Alaphilippe’s impressive kick.
“I dreamed to win today but Julian was the strongest rider today,” he said. “I think everybody saw what he did on the Poggio. Having the legs to sprint the way he did after that is absolutely impressive.”
A tailwind helped push along the pack once it hit the final “capi” along the Italian Riviera. The pack stayed largely together until the late strategic accelerations on the Poggio. For the third year in a row, the peloton’s sprinters were denied a chance to try to win the so-called “sprinter’s classic.”
“It was another year where the sprinters don’t make it,” said Elia Viviani, who also started as a favorite alongside teammate Alaphilippe.
“Everyone was looking at us today, and he [Alaphilippe] was the first to attack. I think he had confidence in his sprint from last week in Tirreno,” said Viviani, who explained he had to step out of his cleats near the base of the Poggio to avoid falling.
“I could get back to the front group, but I was just in bad position. I was the last one in the group,” he said. “When they made the call on the radio, I just said, go! Alaphilippe, he didn’t spend any energy before the attack, and he had more legs than anyone else in the sprint.”
The victory puts an exclamation point on Alaphilippe’s start to the 2019 season. He’s already won seven races in 22 days of competition.
“This guy is crazy, so he wins two stages in Tirreno, Strade Bianche before, and now Sanremo. He is so impressive,” Viviani said. “He is a super-talented guy, and he is still young. That is amazing. For the team, it is a good start.”
On Saturday, Alaphilippe confirmed his pre-race favorite status with a superb performance that put the entire peloton on notice that Deceuninck-Quick-Step could be unstoppable in the northern classics.
The team has already won 19 races across four continents this year, including a sweep of the opening weekend of the Belgian classics and Strade Bianche.
“We always race as a team,” Alaphilippe said. “Look at today, [Zdenek] Stybar rode for me, and so did [Philippe] Gilbert, who’s had such a great career. With that kind of support, it really lifts you up.”
Up next for Alaphilippe: Itzulia Basque Country and then straight into the Ardennes. With the way he’s riding now, Alaphilippe could be hitting a few more exclamation points before the spring is over.