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Milan-San Remo opinion: Aftermath of the game

Gerran's Milan-San Remo win was crafty. No apology needed.

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Game (noun): a form of competitive activity or sport played according to the rules

– The Oxford Dictionary

If cycling (or any other sporting code, for that matter) were to adjudge the winner based on brawn alone, the majority of you would, before too long, stop watching.

Sport, at its most rudimentary, is a game. Strength, strategy, on-the-spot decision making, cunning and awareness all form part of that je ne sais quoi that make ‘the game’ so alluring and absorbing.

In professional road cycling, these factors are augmented as the milieu is far more variable and therefore less controllable than say, track cycling, or any sport held within the confines of a stadium. In a conversation with Garmin-Barracuda CEO Jonathan Vaughters about Bradley Wiggins’ tumultuous 2010 Tour de France that I referenced last week, he referred to that indefinable quality as the ‘X factor’.

“The X-factor in track cycling is two percent; the X-factor in road cycling or at least this stuff is 25 percent,” Vaughters told me.

“There just has to be greater flexibility (in decision making) because there is a greater X-factor, and I think a lot of stuff they’re (Team Sky) doing is actually really good. I don’t see any outstanding mistake they’ve made with Brad… It (the 2010 Tour route) is just a tough course and he has had a lot of pressure and I don’t know if it necessarily came from them. It’s expectation that he put on himself; it’s expectation that the media places on him.”

Team Sky, as we have seen, has since being able to harness the X-factor since their rocky maiden voyage. And Simon Gerrans, a former Team Sky member (2010-11), managed to control the X-factor to perfection at Milan-San Remo on Saturday.

Quite simply, he and GreenEdge played the game better than anyone else and perfectly within the rules. That Gerrans, according to my calculations, rode little more than half-a-kilometer at the front from the moment Fabian Cancellara joined Vincenzo Nibali and him near the top of the Poggio, roughly 7km from the finish, is irrelevant.

His teammate and defending champion, Matthew Goss, was sitting in the group behind, albeit suffering like a three-legged horse. As the tenacious trio bombed down the Poggio towards the Lungomare Italo Calvino, the seafront promenade in San Remo, Sean Kelly, Eurosport commentator and double MSR victor (1986, 1992) explained thus: “Simon Gerrans is in a great position here, because when we get to the flat run-in (to the finish), the final kilometers, he’s going to play the game.

“He’s riding for Goss, and he will try and get carried along as much as possible. And it’s going to be Cancellara and Nibali who’s going to have to do (much of) the riding; I would be surprised if we see Simon Gerrans doing a lot of the contributing to the pace setting.”

Gerrans did one minor turn, from 1.8-1.5km-to-go. Nibali, as it turned out, did zip. And Cancellara was stuck between a rock and a hard place: continue to press on and guarantee a place in the top three, albeit knowing the Australian was the quicker, or sit up and most likely lose out altogether. “No one helped… (But) I think that’s logical,” he later admitted.

Said Gerrans: “He (Cancellara) drove the break to the finish. I was confident the break would make it to the finish and I knew what I had to do to finish off the job and win. I did what I could for the breakaway, but knowing how strong Fabian is I kept some energy in reserve for the sprint. Fabian was racing to win in the finale; he perhaps thought he had enough to finish it off but perhaps he underestimated me in the finale.”

The Joker Card…

If you were a betting man (or woman), depending on where you placed your bet, the bookmakers gave Gerrans odds that paid anywhere from 50-1 to 100-1 to win, which roughly translates to not-a-hope-in-hell.

He just wasn’t on anyone’s radar for a high-speed sprinters’ finale. And that’s precisely what made him so dangerous.

Eight years ago, Gerrans, then aged 23, was struggling to find a top-notch pro contract. After riding as a stagiaire with the Portugal-based Carvalhelhos-Boavista team in 2003, he had a few offers with some second division pro teams, but decided to ride another year as an amateur in France in 2004. The Victorian, who found his way into the sport via Aussie cycling pioneer Phil Anderson, won a slew of races that did not go unnoticed, subsequently earning a stagiaire role at AG2R Prévoyance and finally a fully-fledged pro contract with the Vincent Lavenu-directed outfit in 2005.

Outside of the grand tours, where he has won stages in all three races (the first Australian to do so), Gerrans’ first major one-day victory came in 2009, at the GP Ouest-France. That year he also finished in the top 10 in all three Ardennes classics, and after that, decided to set his sights on a win in at least one.

Since then he’s come closest in the Amstel Gold Race, where he finished third in 2011, beaten by the then unbeatable Philippe Gilbert and Joaquim Rodríguez in drag race up the Cauberg. The move to GreenEdge in 2012 was designed to facilitate and expedite the process of realizing his long-held goal; based on what he’s achieved in the past two months, never has the 31-year-old looked sharper.

Still, you’d be forgiven for precluding him from your list of contenders on Saturday.

Following Gerrans’ victory at the Tour Down Under, GreenEdge sport director Matt White told me: “I’d like to see Simon in the top 10 in the world at the end of the year. The next big goal for Gerro is the Ardennes. And if he can nail one out of the three in the Ardennes, and something again in summer, then he’ll be in the top 10 in the world. We’ve got a solid team around him — and he knows that he will be our sole leader at Amstel Gold and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.”

With a defending champ in your coterie, sole leadership for Gerrans was unsurprisingly not the case in MSR, as White outlined post-race.

“Simon had free rein to cover the big moves, and he certainly did today. We had two leaders in the race. If it went hard on the Cipressa or Poggio, Simon was our man; if it came back together for a sprint, we’d look to Gossy.”

Gerrans is a unique talent; he is sort of a Philippe Gilbert-Peter Sagan hybrid. And in 2012, he appears to have found the form which comes around perhaps once every 10 years. For most cyclists whose name is not Eddy Merckx, once in a career.

Why not La Flèche Wallonne, I asked White? After all, Gerrans came within a whisker of beating Alejandro Valverde, a winner of the mid-week classic in 2006, twice already this year, and both on mountaintop finishes (Stage 5 at the Tour Down Under and Stage 3 of Paris-Nice).

“It’s (the finishing climb of the Mur de Huy) a little bit steeper. And he has a lot more faith that he can win Amstel and Liège. We might even rest Simon in Flèche Wallonne just so he can concentrate more on Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Those two (Amstel and Liège) are the big ones, they suit him a lot more.”

By default, then, this year’s world road championships in Valkenburg, Netherlands that finishes atop the Cauberg, the same climb as the Amstel Gold Race, must surely be on Gerrans’ radar?

“It is. It’s definitely one of his goals for the year; I know Simon’s very, very keen to make that Olympic team as well. But looking forward to the world championships, it’s (on) a very similar course to when Cadel (Evans) won (in Mendrisio in 2009). So I think we’ll be playing the Cadel-Gerro cards in that world championship — it suits them very well,” said White.

“We’ll be up there three or four days before (this year’s) Amstel Gold, so we can (also) check out the worlds circuit. A lot of the guys know it already; it’s a very similar run-in to when the Tour went there (in 2006). I can’t remember his name, but a guy from T-Mobile (Matthias Kessler) won.”

The next monument arrives Sunday April 1, at the Tour of Flanders. The route changes that have been decried by numerous members of the peloton — the consensus seems to be that the parcours is borderline sadistic — are now said to lend themselves far more to an Ardennes-style protagonist.

On April Fools’ could Gerrans once again prove to be GreenEdge’s joker in the pack?

Realizing life in advertising was nothing like Mad Men and buoyed by the Olympic Games in his Australian hometown of Sydney, Anthony Tan turned his back on a lucrative copywriting career in 2000 in pursuit of something more cerebral. Combining wordsmithing with his experiences as an A-Grade club racer and an underwhelming season competing in Europe, a career as a cycling scribe beckoned… More than a dozen Grand Tours and countless Classics later, it’s where he still is today. He has been a contributor to VeloNews since 2006. In 2010, he won Cycling Australia’s media award for best story. Follow him on Twitter: @anthony_tan