John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin) fought back the tears as he savoured his maiden Milan-San Remo victory – the first Monument success of his career.
Degenkolb outsprinted defending champion Alexander Kristoff after an enthralling, attack-filled run-in to the Via Roma finish line.
Victory for the 26-year-old capped a turn around in fortune from 12 months ago, when the German’s race was ended by an ill-timed puncture.
“It was pure emotion,” Degenkolb said. “For a moment I couldn’t believe it. Fifty metres before the line I definitely thought I would not be able to beat Alex in the sprint but I kept believing in myself.
“Last year I had tears in my eyes because I had the biggest disappointment in cycling in my life. This year I had tears in my eyes because I had won.
“This race is really special. You start in Milan and already in the neutral zone, so many guys are nervous.
“Experience is very important. It took me four years to gain the necessary experience… I believe you have to do it yourself, and also mature because of disappointments like mine last year.”
Kristoff had looked set to become the first man to defend his La Primavera title since Erik Zabel in 2001 as he opened up an early sprint but Degenkolb burst through with a perfectly-timed acceleration to snatch victory.
However, the final sprint barely scratches the surface of how an enthralling race unfolded, with both Team Sky and BMC Racing lighting up the race on the climbs of the Cipressa and Poggio, but ultimately for no reward.
In wet conditions, 11 riders had earlier booked their tickets for a day in the break almost from the flag but Trek Factory Racing and Katusha were among the teams to keep their lead in check before the rain abated.
Sky took the race on with 50 kilometres remaining, led by Luke Rowe on the Capo Berta, with in-form Geraint Thomas and last year’s third-place finisher Ben Swift with him.
The trio led the peloton on the descent of the Capo Berta and team-mate Salvatore Puccio’s crash inadvertently opened up a gap behind them, which Rowe immediately looked to take advantage of – driving hard as the trio approached the Cipressa.
Lars Petter Nordhaug then ramped the pace up on the climb, repeating the trick that served Sky so well on the Croix de Chaubouret at Paris-Nice.
Andre Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) was among those caught out, while Mark Cavendish (Etixx-QuickStep) suffered a dropped chain to effectively end his race. Nordhaug’s effort served to thin the group before Thomas and Daniel Oss (BMC Racing) forged clear.
Thomas took over on the Poggio, leaving his former breakaway companion behind and prompting Luca Paolini (Katusha) to hit the front of the front of the bunch hard.
BMC Racing had more tricks up their sleeve, with Philippe Gilbert trying and failing to go clear before Greg van Avermaet set off in pursuit of Team Sky’s lone leader.
Behind him, a crash took out Gilbert, world champion Michal Kwiatkowski, team-mate Zdenek Stybar and former Milan-San Remo winner Gerald Ciolek.
Van Avermaet led the way at the front but saw his challenge fade with barely two kilometres remaining, before Paolini took the peloton under the flamme rouge with Kristoff seemingly set up for victory.
It was Degenkolb who timed his sprint to perfection, however, and the German paid tribute to the efforts of his team-mates in setting up a famous victory.
“You have to have a good position: not too far to the front, and not too from at the back,” he explained. “You have to find the balance. We did it really well today. The team really positioned me perfectly and I’m really proud of them.”
Milan-San Remo 2015: result
1) John Degenkolb (GER) – Giant-Alpecin – 6.46.16hrs
2) Alexander Kristoff (NOR) – Katusha – ST
3) Michael Matthews (AUS) – Orica-GreenEDGE
4) Peter Sagan (SVK) – Tinkoff-Saxo
5) Niccolo Bonifazio (ITA) – Lampre-Merida
6) Nacer Bouhanni (FRA) – Cofidis
7) Fabian Cancellara (SUI) – Trek Factory Racing
8) Davide Cimolai (ITA) – Lampre-Merida
9) Tony Gallopin (FRA) – Lotto-Soudal
10) Edvald Boasson Hagen (NOR) – MTN-Qhubeka
13) Ben Swift (GBR) – Team Sky – ST
31) Geraint Thomas (GBR) – Team Sky +12″
37) Simon Yates (GBR) – Orica-GreenEDGE +23″
46) Mark Cavendish (GBR) – Etixx-QuickStep – ST