Milan-San Remo 2014: five observations
Fabian Cancellara misses out again but is Team Sky's Ben Swift on the rise?
Milan-San Remo provided all the thrills and spills we have come to expect from the season’s first Monument, as 294km of racing ended with Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) sprinting to victory.
The Norwegian had given an earlier indication of his form with a super-strong sprint to win stage two of the Tour of Oman, and the 26-year-old proved he can do it on the top stage too with the biggest victory of his career.
Where Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) started his sprint too early, finding he did not have the legs to stay up front, Kristoff timed his to perfection to hold off the likes of Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) and Ben Swift (Team Sky).
For Cancellara it was yet another near-miss at La Primavera with a second win to accompany his 2008 triumph remaining elusive.
Swift had much more reason to be cheerful however, securing one of the biggest results of his career as Team Sky enjoyed their first Milan-San Remo podium finish.
Could it be the result which kick-starts the next phase of the Yorkshireman’s career, after injury setbacks slowed the promising start made in 2010? Read on for our five observations.
[part title="Mark Cavendish – mixed day"]
Mark Cavendish was considered one of the leading contenders for Milan-San Remo as soon as Omega Pharma-Quickstep confirmed he would be riding the race when organisers were forced to remove the Pompeiana climb. With just the Cipressa and the Poggio to climb in the closing stages, hopes of Cavendish securing his second career win in the race were high, and the British champion defied the brutally cold and wet conditions to stay in contention. Television close-ups showed the Manxman shivering against the cold but he remained with the leading group over the climbs, showing a steely determination to win.
However, with the hard work done, his sprint let him down – be it tiredness after 294km of racing, or just poor timing, after leading the sprint out early his challenge faded in the face of Alexander Kristoff’s acceleration. Ultimately he had to settle for fifth place – still the second best result of his career in the race, but perhaps left wondering what might have been.
After 294 cold/wet km's, I had to go for broke (win or nothing) & start my sprint early. It didn't pay off, but I gave my all #MilanoSanremo
— Mark Cavendish (@MarkCavendish) March 23, 2014
He later admitted his error on Twitter, but if he is looking for positives there were plenty there. Sticking with the rouleurs until the end, if the Pompeiana remains off the Milan-San Remo agenda he may well get another shot at victory.
[part title="Andre Greipel for the cobbled Classics?"]
German champion Andre Greipel showed great endurance to fight his way back into the leading group after the Poggio, but ultimately ran out of steam when it came to competing in the final sprint. The Lotto-Belisol man finished at the back of the first group of riders across the line, with team-mate Jurgen Roelandts for company. However, it proved once more the Gorilla is capable of mixing it over the modest climbs, something he did with aplomb in Adelaide and Oman.
All of which raises the question as to which direction Lotto-Belisol will go at the cobbled Classics. Last year, Greipel was deployed as a domestique for Roelandts, repaying the role his chief lead-out man had perfected for him in the stage races. Having hung with Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellara at Milan-San Remo however – albeit only just – does the German have the legs to do it himself? He finished 11th at last year’s Gent-Wevelgem, and while the Ronde is much hillier, team boss Marc Sergeant may have an interesting decision to make next month.
[part title="Fabian Cancellara – nearly man again"]
While Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) was celebrating a famous triumph, just behind him there was a much more telling sight – Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) pounding his handlebars in frustration after once again missing out on top spot. Cancellara won Milan-San Remo in 2008 but it has been frustration since then for Spartacus. In the last four years he has finished second three times and third last year. Four podium places but none on the top spot.
His 2008 victory came from a late, solo attack but it his lack of an out-and-out sprint that has been his undoing in recent years. Having been unable to break clear on the Poggio, Cancellara gambled all on the sprint finish but it did not pay off. He comfortably beat the likes of Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quickstep), but Kristoff now joins Matthew Goss, Simon Gerrans and Gerald Ciolek in having outsprinted Spartacus at the line. Anyone with a decent sprint now knows, if they can stick with Spartacus on the descent of the Poggio then they are in with a chance of victory.
[part title="Peter Sagan – still no monument"]
The stage was all set for pre-race favourite Peter Sagan to take his first Monument victory and kick-off his Classics season in perfect style. A stunning effort by Cannondale, who provided near-perfect support for the Slovakian, had left Sagan among the leading riders over the final kilometres. Vincenzo Nibali’s attack did not faze them, as they calmly led Sagan over the Cipressa. But he was reduced to ‘also-ran’ at the denouement as he rolled in tenth, a mere spectator to Alexander Kristoff’s victory.
His team-mates, Alessandro de Marchi in particular, had provided almost faultless support but a first career Monument remains elusive for Sagan. He is now targeting a clean sweep of the cobbled Classics, with E3-Harelbeke and his defence of Gent-Wevelgem this week. His form there will be a good indicator as to whether he can finish the spring with a ‘big one’ in the bag – the Ronde being his next opportunity.
[part title="Ben Swift takes flight"]
Ben Swift was determined to bounce back this season after a frustrating, injury-hit campaign last year and the Yorkshireman has got off to the perfect start with a career-best performance. A stage winner at races such as the Tour Down Under and Tour of Poland, this is his first podium finish in a major one-day race and has proved there is more in the 26-year-old’s armoury than just a sprint.
Where Edvald Boasson Hagen faded, Swift stayed in the mix on the Cipressa and the Poggio and was rewarded with third place in the sprint. A strong one-day season has remained elusive for Team Sky, but Ian Stannard’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad victory, and now Swift’s third place at Milan-San Remo show the times may be changing. If Swift can show similar form throughout the rest of the year, it could be a very big season for him.