Every year the same question, pondered Peter Sagan when asked how he intended to win Milan-San Remo ahead of this year’s race, “but I haven’t won yet so I don't know how to answer. Maybe I'm going to be smarter on the Poggio."
You can understand Sagan’s eagerness to learn from the 2017 edition – last year’s race saw the world champion attack on the final climb, only to drag Michal Kwiatkowski and Julian Alaphilippe along with him and have the Pole beat him on the line.
So did he play it smarter in 2018? Well the bare statistics suggest not – Vincenzo Nibali won via a stunning solo break, and Sagan finished sixth.
And yet, could Bora-hansgrohe’s world champion have actually done himself more good in the long run as a result of his ride? Clearly he wanted to win in San Remo, but he also wanted to show there would be no more free tows to the line for his rivals either. Perhaps that was the smartest move he could make.
Here’s what else the first Monument of the season taught us ahead of the rest of the Spring Classics, which continue with E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem this week.
Mind games on the Poggio
Typically for Milan-San Remo, Saturday’s near-300km race saw little action before the final climb.
With the earlier trip up the Cipressa not causing much of a selection the peloton remained together as it hit the Poggio. From the bottom Sagan employed lieutenant Marcus Burghardt to drive the pace and thin the bunch, however after several kilometres it still consisted of a large group including plenty of dedicated sprinters.
Climbing too slowly to distance the big men or their teams, the pace was low enough that Krists Neilands of Israel Cycling Academy felt able to go for a break, and even Nibali escaping after him didn’t galvanise the riders behind.
With everyone expecting him to chase, despite being on the front Sagan didn’t employ remaining domestique Daniel Oss, instead forcing Sky’s Michał Kwiatkowski and Michael Matthews of Sunweb to work before eventually sending Oss to try and close the expanding gap to Nibali.
Nominally leading the chasers over the summit and down the other side despite Sagan being on the front there appeared little impetus to the pursuit, allowing Mitchelton–Scott’s Matteo Trentin to pedal off the front.
With Nibali gaining time rather than losing it, by the bottom Sagan was practically sat up. With the riders on the flat section and looking at each other it was left to the sprint teams of FDJ and Quickstep, both still with plenty of riders, to start organising their lead outs.
Sagan was still there for the sprint. But the chasers, led by Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott) were fractionally too late. Nibali’s was able to win a stunning victory, but one that was undoubtedly aided by the procrastinating behind.
Later saying that if he attacked he knew it had to be alone, Nibali had clearly learnt from Sagan’s mistake last year.
And in a way Sagan had learned too, finding himself in the unusual position of marking Kwiatkowski up the climb. It did him no good immediately, but you can not imagine the peloton will give a rider of Nibali’s pedigree such a gap again. Sagan lost the battle, but might he have won the war?
“Nobody answered Vincenzo, and I wanted to see the other rider’s reactions," said Sagan after the race. “But there was no reaction. I’m very happy for him. He was the only one who showed balls today."
Trailing around the team cars after the race we even heard rumours Nibali asked Sagan to go with him on the climb, so his attack likely didn’t come as a surprise.
The Cancellara complex
Clearly for his rivals, Sagan not chasing did come as a shock. And while he didn’t win he may have done better out of this Milan-San Remo than his sixth place would suggest.
The favourite in almost every race, for other riders the temptation is to follow before pipping him on the line. With the Tour of Flanders being the only Monument Sagan has won, despite coming second in three others, it’s a subject the world champion has been vocal on before. His responses to those who’ve shadowed him ranging from teasing to genuine irritation.
It was a problem also encountered by the previous generation’s most dominant Classics rider. Throughout much of his career Fabian Cancellara found himself similarly dogged. Yet there were also plenty of proud riders unwilling to follow on his coattails, such as his great rival Tom Boonen.
A time-trial specialist, Cancellara was also able to overcome his status, and a perceived lack of tactical nous, by burning everyone off his wheel. More of a classic puncheur than Sagan, the Slovakian doesn't have the same luxury. So what’s he to do?
Lose some to win some
It seems less likely Sagan misread the situation than the other riders who let Nibali get away. By making everyone work and showing he’s prepared to sit back and let a race get away rather than pull it back together, only to be jumped on the line, Sagan may have made a good investment for the coming season.
With the Tour of Flanders the next Monument on the calendar – after the dress rehearsals served up by E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem this week – we’ll see what happens. Already Greg Van Avermaet is suggesting the Ronde will again be ‘Sagan against the rest’.
Should everyone sit on him, Flanders may prove too painful to let slip away without a fight. Still if Sagan can make sitting in his slipstream a less attractive bet it might give him the liberty to win more races, even if means giving up the possibility of a podium in others.