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SAN REMO, Italy (VN) – Simon Gerrans (GreenEdge) had barely crossed the finish line Saturday in what was the biggest win of his career when the online armchair quarterbacks began criticizing his victory.
Bloggers and Twitterati immediately began to dig into the Australian champion, accusing him of “sitting in” and “stealing” the victory from Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan), who finished second.
Gerrans happily agreed with some of those comments Saturday, admitting that Cancellara was indeed the strongest rider in the winning three-man breakaway that held off the bunch coming over the Poggio, but he also reminded critics that it’s the first man across the line that wins.
“Without question, Fabian was strongest. He was going like a motorbike,” Gerrans said. “I was not as strong as Fabian, I will admit that, but you also have to play it a little smart.
“I did what I could to stay there,” Gerrans continued, adding he did his bit of the work. “I did a turn across the top of Poggio, another short turn going into the final kilometer. I wasn’t going to do too much, not with a guy like [Vincenzo] Nibali sitting on the back. I did what I had to do and I had the fastest turn of speed in the final.”
GreenEdge sport director Matt White said Gerrans followed the team tactics perfectly. He was the team’s designated rider to cover the attacks over the Cipressa and Poggio, while defending champion Matt Goss would ride for the win if it came down to a bunch sprint.
Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale), hot off his overall victory at Tirreno-Adriatico, sped clear with just over one kilometer to go on the Poggio. Gerrans quickly marked his wheel and Cancellara bridged across to create the winning threesome.
Nibali had a similar role as Gerrans, with a free hand over the climbs while Peter Sagan would wait for the sprint.
Like Gerrans, Nibali didn’t do much work, if any at all, after initiating the move. But as Gerrans admitted, it was work enough just to stay glued on Cancellara’s wheel down the twisting, diving, off-camber descent from the Poggio.
“That was my role in the team. We had the defending champion in Matt Goss. If it was coming back for a sprint, Goss was the main guy. My position was to follow break,” Gerrans said. “Cancellara’s one of best descenders in the peloton and he was committed to making it to the line. I was losing the wheel in the corners but I managed to get back on.
“I was able to give it one short turn with 1km to go. I was confident the breakaway going to the finish. I knew what I had to do to finish off the hard work and come around him in the final.”
Cancellara took second place in stride and said he understood that everyone had their respective team interests in the heat of the battle. Second last year in a bunch sprint to Goss, Cancellara decided to play his card over the Poggio.
“No one helped. I think that’s logical,” Cancellara said. “Vincenzo could not and would not because in the end he had Sagan behind. Gerrans gave two pulls, which was good, but in the end, if all three pulled until the end, maybe it would have been different.”
Thanks to Cancellara, Gerrans becomes the first rider since Paolo Bettini in 2002 to win Milan-San Remo with a successful attack that fended off the pack coming over the Poggio.
Gerrans is in the form of his career, with victories at the Tour Down Under and the Australian national championships to start the 2012 season. He shrugged off a crash at Paris-Nice and endured a light cold to ride into Milan-San Remo ready for battle.
A winner of stages in all three grand tours as well as such one-day races as the GP Ouest-Plouay, Gerrans said perhaps Cancellara made a mistake by overlooking him.
“Cancellara, he was very much racing for the victory, but maybe he underestimated me in the final,” Gerrans said. “By driving and doing so much in the front, he thought he had enough to finish it off for the win. Maybe what Fabian did was underestimate myself a little bit in the end.”
It is doubtful Gerrans will lose any sleep over the growing polemics, but he admitted it was a surprise even to himself to follow his compatriot Goss to win Milan-San Remo.
“It’s quite a surprise to be in condition to win. I worked very hard in the Australian summer to come into my best condition for the Ardennes classics,” he said. “It means a lot to get this victory. My stature in the peloton is increasing with these wins. I am really pleased.”