SANREMO, Italy (VN) — German John Degenkolb began the day in Milan as one of the favorites, but for him to shine at Milano-Sanremo 293 kilometers later, other stars had to fade.
“I was happier last year,” said 2014 winner Alexander Kristoff (Katusha). “Second place is not bad, it is the first loser. I feel bad because I almost had it, but it’s not the same feeling.”
The Norwegian was the top pick on the eve of the first of cycling’s five monuments after winning last year and storming through the next 12 months. That Sanremo victory opened up the floodgates for Kristoff, who won two stages at the Tour de France and the Vattenfall Cyclassics, and began 2015 with wins in Qatar, Oman, and Paris-Nice.
He nearly had it. He would have become only the 11th cyclist to repeat in Sanremo, the first since Erik Zabel’s wins in 2000 and 2001.
The red Katusha train led when it needed to. After the descent of the Poggio, Kristoff’s last man standing, the bearded Luca Paolini, pulled the group into town.
“I thought I could win until 50 meters to go but then John came too fast and that was it,” Kristoff said. “I couldn’t jump again.”
Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge), third in Sanremo, won a sprint in Paris-Nice last week and rode well enough last year to earn a favorite tag. Given his age, 24, his disappointment was not as great as that felt by some others.
“On the Poggio, I was in really good shape,” said the Australian. “It’s also a little disappointing coming so close, but you’ve got to be really happy with a podium finish.”
Mark Cavendish had his chain fall off on the climb up Cipressa. The Etixx-Quick-Step rider said he chased back to the group, but “was crippled afterwards.”
Teammates Zdenek Stybar and world champion Michal Kwiatkowski came off worse. Both fell alongside Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) on the descent of the Poggio.
Peter Sagan placed fourth, but his Tinkoff-Saxo team could be expecting more after he already placed second in 2013 and signed a reported $4 million contract over the winter.
The Slovak, who can sprint and attack, banked on the former option in Sanremo. He hinted at a long-distance launch on the flats with 2km remaining, then throttled back and waited for the eventual kick.
He refused to speak to waiting media at the finish, but the team issued a statement later.
“Although I was feeling very well and in form, I think I made a mistake when I approached the final sprint too far down in the pack,” Sagan said. “I was too far down after the last corners, which meant that I had to overtake too many to be successful at the end.”
What about the attackers Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Soudal), and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing)?
The wind blew strongly along the coast and pushed riders toward Sanremo. This kept the pace high on the seaside, but on the climbs, the wind blew directly in the faces of those who could have blown the race to bits.
Some insiders said Cancellara would shape the 2015 Milano-Sanremo: If he attacked, the race would crumble and an attack group would stay clear; otherwise, it would be a sprint. He banked on his kick after nearly 300km.
“In the end we stuck to our game plan, but we couldn’t finish it off well in the sprint,” said general manager Luca Guercilena. “We could have made that better. Of course, for us it is better to try and go solo in the finale, and that was always our goal, but with a 44kph average it was not so easy to do.”
Only BMC Racing played the attack card well, with Daniel Oss, followed by Sky’s Geraint Thomas, and again with Philippe Gilbert and Greg Van Avermaet.
“I couldn’t get enough advantage,” Van Avermaet said. “The perfect scenario would’ve been if Thomas let a slight gap open while I was descending down the Poggio. Or if the roads were still wet and helped cause splits to make my move work.”
None could make his move stick, leaving the door open for Degenkolb’s sprint.