Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: Against all odds

It was with grit, great class and perfect timing that Matt Goss won Milan-San Remo on Saturday. He wasn’t meant to win though.

Editor’s note: Every week through the 2011 road season, VeloNews Editor-at-Large John Wilcockson is writing about key features of the week’s racing. This sixth installment focuses on the year’s first monumental classic and its amazing winner.

It was with grit, great class and perfect timing that Matt Goss won Milan-San Remo on Saturday. He wasn’t meant to win though.

Goss overcame the odds and the oddsmakers to take the win

All the signs to such an outcome pointed in the opposite direction. But in the tradition of natural-born classics riders, the self-confident 24-year-old Tasmanian ignored all the negative indications and raced with the aplomb of a superstar.

First, he wasn’t the team leader of HTC-Highroad for the season’s first monumental classic. That was the role of Mark Cavendish, whose victory in San Remo two years ago at age 23 established the Manxman as more than just the world’s fastest sprinter. On Saturday, Goss set out from Milan as Cav’s lead-out man for the expected group finish seven hours later in San Remo, designated to ride for his sprinter in the way George Hincapie (now with BMC Racing) did in 2009.

Second, not only had no Australian previously won Milan-San Remo, but nobody from outside of Europe had ever taken Italy’s Classicissima. The closest anyone came to performing that feat was American Greg LeMond, who in 1986 reached the San Remo finish in a three-man breakaway group and narrowly lost to Sean Kelly (the first “offshore” winner). Two other non-Europeans have since placed second in mass field sprints at San Remo: Californian Fred Rodriguez (behind Mario Cipollini in 2002) and Aussie Allan Davis (behind Oscar Freire in 2007).

Third, conventional wisdom decrees that a modern San Remo winner has to compete in Tirreno-Adriatico, the Italian stage race that finishes four days earlier, before contesting the year’s longest classic (298km). The previous 11 winners of La Classicissima all rode the Race of the Two Seas; the last one not to come off Tirreno was 1999 winner Andreï Tchmil, who completed the French stage race, Paris-Nice, before winning in San Remo. Goss also rode Paris-Nice.

Fourth, no one is supposed to win a major classic without having ridden the event several times to familiarize themselves with the course and learn all of its idiosyncrasies. Goss did ride Milan-San Remo once before, in 2010, but he didn’t finish the race.

Fifth, and this is probably the most significant negative, Goss wasn’t even considered to be a potential winner, let alone a favorite, by the European media. In the Continent’s leading sports paper, L’Équipe, the editors named 13 pre-race favorites, from five-star picks Philippe Gilbert and Oscar Freire down to one-star choices Tyler Farrar and Daniele Bennati. As for Italy’s Gazzetta dello Sport, which organizes Milan-San Remo, it listed 12 favorites, including HTC team leader Cavendish at No. 12 — but there was no mention of Goss.

Changing fortunes

None of those five negative influences disturbed Goss. In fact, they worked in his favor.

First, his role on the HTC team changed from helper to its best hope halfway through the race, and the weather conditions were an important factor in that change.

2011 Milan-San Remo, the peloton
2011 Milan-San Remo, the peloton

Cavendish, reflecting on his 2009 victory, remembered how the peloton left behind a cold mist on the Milan side of the Passo del Turchino halfway through the race and emerged from the summit tunnel into warm sunshine before heading down to the Mediterranean coast. And 150km later, after surviving the demanding climbs in the finale, he sprinted home ahead of Heinrich Haussler and 50 others in the shade-streaked streets of San Remo.

Something similar was expected this year, but the weather was reversed. After riding in sunshine for the first half of the race, the peloton emerged from the Turchino tunnel into cloudy conditions with occasional rain showers making the roads slick. Cavendish flatted on the coast road after one of the showers and as the peloton had sped up to close down the early breakaway, he and several teammates were still near the back when a mass pileup split the peloton just before the key climb of La Mànie, 100km from the finish.

Being stuck in the big second group on La Mànie’s narrow roads proved a bad place to be. Not only for Cav and teammates, but also for two other favorites: world champ Thor Hushovd, who was caught up in the pileup, and defending champ Freire, who slid out on a wet, downhill turn and banged his bike on a crash barrier. None of them would get back to the front of the race.

This wasn’t a scenario envisioned by HTC’s sprinting consultant and four-time San Remo winner Erik Zabel, who the day before said this about Cavendish: “I believe in him … and if he isn’t feeling his best I know that he will be the first to sacrifice himself for (Peter) Velits or Goss, our two other candidates.”

But Cav, Velits (who finished 10th in the 2009 San Remo) and five teammates were in dire straits at the back, leaving just Goss in the front group of some 50 riders, who now controlled their destiny. By the day’s second feed zone at Ceriale, with 70km still to race, the gap between the two groups was 2:15.

That gap would be tough to close because up front six teams were pushing the pace: BMC Racing for Alessandro Ballan; Katusha for Filippo Pozzato; Liquigas for Vincenzo Nibali and Peter Sagan; Omega-Lotto for Gilbert; Quick Step for Tom Boonen; and Leopard-Trek for Fabian Cancellara and Daniele Bennati. Also among the leaders was former race winner Alessandro Petacchi, who was getting a free ride as his Lampre teammates were pulling the chase group for the on-form Michel Scarponi, who later said, “I went to sleep on La Mànie.”

All this meant that Goss was on his own. He had no one to guide him on the climbs, no one to help if he flatted, and no on to lead him out if he was still there at the end. So he’d have to ride a very smart, patient race if he were to become the first Aussie to win the Classicissima.

Five years in the making

Even though the Euro media saw Goss as a marginal rider, he’s well known to the Anglo-Saxon press. He first showed some of his qualities in 2006 at age 19, when he won a track worlds gold medal in the team pursuit and briefly wore the leader’s jersey at the Tour of Britain when riding for the South Australia-AIS development squad. That ride earned him a pro contract with Bjarne Riis’s Team CSC, with whom he came to race Philadelphia’s 250km International Championship in 2007.

Goss handled that classics-length distance just fine for a rookie: He wasn’t fazed by another rider bumping into his back wheel as the final sprint began and continued to lead-out teammate JJ Haedo to the win, while he held his speed to take second place ahead of Highroad’s Bernhard Eisel, with another rookie, Cavendish, in sixth.

Goss on the Manyunk Climb at Philly in 2010. Photo: Casey B. Gibson
Goss on the Manayunk Wall at Philly in 2010. Photo: Casey B. Gibson

The following year, his most telling ride came in a messy edition of the Belgian semi-classic Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, where he took third place by out-sprinting Boonen and 12 others in a strong chase group. Another 12 months on, in April 2009, Goss again showed his fortitude in a wet and windy Ghent-Wevelgem. He didn’t win but helped power a three-man chase group and out-sped his companions at the finish to take his first podium in a ProTour classic.

Despite that result and his later win in a field sprint at Paris-Brussels, Goss didn’t re-sign with CSC-Sax Bank and moved to HTC in 2010. His solid progress continued with a team that had Cavendish and André Greipel as its top sprinters, but the young Aussie still got his chances. He won a 50-man sprint (ahead of Pozzato and Farrar) to win stage 9 of the Giro d’Italia, returned to Philadelphia to take the title ahead of Sagan in a 34-man charge and then took his first ProTour classic, the GP de Plouay in France, in a 60-up bunch gallop (again ahead of Farrar and Sagan).

With those five solid seasons in his legs, Goss began this year as a rider far more experienced and successful than the average 24-year-old. He added to his growing palmarès with stage wins at the Tour Down Under and Tour of Oman this year; those successes also came in field sprints (over Greipel in Australia and Bennati in Oman). And the European media’s pigeon-holing him as a field sprinter only gained traction when he won stage 3 of this month’s Paris-Nice at Nuits-Saint-Georges (out-kicking Haussler after rival Sagan had a nasty crash on the last turn).

Even though riding Paris-Nice and not Tirreno-Adriatico was considered a negative, it turned out to be a plus for Goss. He had time to recover from the tribulations of a final weekend of wet, windy and hilly racing and then had an easy few days of training, out of the media spotlight, preparing for the big race.

2011 wins for UCI ProTeams

(in UCI .1 races and higher through March 21)

1. HTC-Highroad 15 (seven riders)
2. Rabobank 12 (five riders)
3. Garmin-Cervélo 10 (five riders)
4. Liquigas-Cannondale 7 (three riders)
5. Team RadioShack 6 (five riders)
6. Lampre-ISD 6 (three riders)
7. Sky 5 (four riders)
8. Saxo Bank-SunGard 5 (three riders)
Vacansoleil-DCM 5 (three riders)
10. Movistar 4 (three riders)
Omega Pharma-Lotto 4 (two riders)
12. AG2R-La Mondiale 2 (two riders)
Quick Step 2 (two riders)
14. BMC Racing 2 (one rider)
15. Katusha 1 (one rider)
Leopard-Trek 1 (one rider)
Astana 1 (one rider)
(Euskaltel-Euskadi remains as the only ProTeam yet to register a victory in 2011.)

His European base is in Monaco, not far from San Remo, and so last week he was able to scout the San Remo finale several times, taking special note of the last 10km: up the winding climb of the Poggio and down its tight, switchback descent into the streets of the City of Flowers. That knowledge helped Goss overcome his not having finished the Classicissima before, and it was particularly important knowing that, without teammates in the March 19 monument’s final hour, he would have to be ready to respond to any accelerations made by the likes of the far more experienced Cancellara, Gilbert, Nibali or Pozzato.

No one was expecting Goss to have the strength at the end of seven hours’ racing to match the world’s best on difficult climbs. Except maybe for those who really know Gossy, including a near-neighbor in Monte Carlo, Quick Step leader Boonen, who on the eve of Milan-San Remo said this about the young Aussie: “He’s a real hard man who doesn’t yet know his possibilities. In my eyes, he’s better than Cavendish.”

Determination and dash

Goss chased his possibilities to the max on Saturday afternoon. Throughout the final 30km, up and down the Cipressa, along the coast road and into the Poggio, he was always among the first dozen riders in the group as they chased a dangerous four-man break. And on the Poggio itself, where he’d learned how to take every turn of the 3.7km climb and knew where the steepest pitch of 8 percent was followed by a false flat to the top, he stayed in the first five or six.

While BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet remained the only the breakaway and Nibali jumped after him from the chase group, Goss kept right in the wheels of Cancellara, Gilbert and Ballan. So when they closed on Nibali at the start of the descent, there were only eight men left in contention. And after Van Avermaet was reeled in with 2.5km to go, Goss continued to ride like a veteran. He let the others close down an attack by FDJ’s Yoann Offredo (one of the earlier breakaways), and he was the first to chase after a dangerous move from Gilbert before the one kilometer’s red kite.

And in the eventual drag-race finale, he again followed Gilbert’s wheel before launching his own impressive effort in the last 200 meters that took him over the line a good bike length ahead of Cancellara, who said this was his best-ever sprint but was still no match for Goss — the rider who wasn’t supposed to win.