Watching the legend of Peter Sagan is both a moment of cycling history and a reminder of how cruel the sport can be. In race after race, the World Champion is able to assert himself and whip hundreds of riders into chaos trying to stay in contact and deny him another feather in his already considerable cap. But from the chaos comes a rider or two who also maybe knows a thing about racing, and then Sagan’s favorite status can become a millstone around his neck.
Such was the scene today in a riveting final last 40 minutes of Milano-Sanremo, as Sagan made the race again in this beautiful monument of cycling, only for Sky’s Michal Kwiatkowski to steal his thunder. The Bora-Hansgrohe star was the one who moved up into the Sky train, first on the Cipressa, the race’s last hors d’oeuvre, and again on the Poggio, as the peloton began devouring the main course. Sagan watched Tom Dumoulin of Sunweb try to get clear of Sky’s pacemakers, with no success, but as soon as Dumoulin gave up the ghost, Sagan himself accelerated and made a move that would have gone down — no, still will go down — in cycling history.
Within seconds it was clear that this move threatened every single rider in the 50-ish peloton behind him, and Kwiatkowski, who last held the rainbow jersey before Sagan made it his personal property, stormed away himself with Quick Step’s Julian Alaphilippe to catch Sagan in the final phase of the Poggio ascent. The trio got comfortably clear in the twisting descent that followed and came into town together prepping for a sprint.
But here is where Sagan’s burden becomes a heavy one. His terrific sprint makes him the clear favorite in almost any small bunch, and Kwiatkowski and Alaphilippe mercilessly maneuvered him into the front position, knowing he couldn’t just drop them, but that he wouldn’t simply slow down and allow the peloton back in either. Sagan was willing to take the risk of sprinting from the front.
And the ever-clever Kwiatkowski made him pay.
With 500 meters to go, Sagan desperately flicked his elbow at Kwiatkowski, to no avail. With 400 meters left he looked back in disgust. With 200-ish meters to go Sagan launched his sprint, opening up a couple meters’ worth of space, but no more. And with no more than 20 meters left, Kwiatkowski managed to come by on Sagan’s left side by mere inches. The throw on the line confirmed the Pole’s position, and Sagan was beaten. His tragedy nearly turned to horror as Sagan swerved accidentally into Kwiatkowski’s hip, but Sagan regained control and the trio avoided the photographer’s well. Half a minute later Kwiatkowski got word that his apparent win was in fact confirmed, and the Slovak’s tragedy was complete. Alaphilippe was consigned to a great front row seat for this incredible conclusion, and chapeau to him for getting there, but you can’t win with a pair of kings when you’re up against aces.
Watch from the 26 minute mark:
The incredible finale capped off a pretty typical march of serenity across Liguria. Predictably enough the action heated up just before the start of the Cipressa, if not really before (excepting the usual Alexis Gougeard attack for no reason). The day’s early break was swept aside there with nary a thought. But a small group did move off the front on the climb, including Greg Van Avermaet, Tim Wellens, Philippe Gilbert, Luke Rowe, and Tom Dumoulin. It was pulsating action, with Wellens in particular being unwilling to give up hope, but the peloton refused to let anyone get clear. Still, as the race tends to play out, it’s not so much about the dramatic action as it is matches being burnt before Sanremo, and surely a lot of matches expired on the Cipressa.
Right after the Cipressa descent Tony Gallopin and Philippe Gilbert launched a move of their own but with little success as riders from the back end of the Cipressa (where former winner Mark Cavendish had been dropped) left behind by the rampaging reduced peloton of some 50 riders.
Sky took the front at the start of the Poggio with Trek alongside and Tom Dumoulin the first to move up and try to get away, but Gianni Moscon and Danny van Poppel kept him on the Sky leash. Sagan placed himself right behind Sky, and with 6km left attacked alone and broke the peloton! Alaphilippe and Michal Kwiatkowski were the only ones who could respond quickly enough to go with him as the Poggio headed downhill. Sonny Colbrelli found himself leading the chase (not good) as Sagan bombed the descent with Alaphilippe and Kwiatkowski on his wheel, not helping and not getting in the World Champion’s way. That put him a good 11 seconds clear of the chase.
Inside the final 3km the gap grew to 17 seconds and Alaphilippe and Kwiatkowski took a turn as they hit the flat roads entering Sanremo. BMC led the chase behind but the gap kept growing as they hit the final 1500 meters. They were beaten by not one but two great champions, and a third rider who might reach that level someday.
Fernando Gaviria of Quick Step, one of the favorites on the day, confirmed people’s feelings about him by making it into the bunch sprint for fourth, sandwiched between 2014 winner Alexander Kristoff of Katusha and last year’s winner Arnaud Demare of FDJ, ahead of 2015 winner John Degenkolb of Trek, and Cofidis sprinter Nacer Bouhanni. Without Sagan’s initiative and instinct — the stuff that cycling dreams are made of — the Norwegian would have been a double winner, with the Colombian and the Frenchman rounding out your ho-hum bunch sprint MSR podium.
Sagan was bidding to become the first rider in the rainbow jersey to win MSR since 1983, when Giuseppe Saronni reached Italian cycling nirvana by throwing up his hands in Sanremo to reveal his rainbow stripes. A large number of prior or future world champions have won the race, including Kwiatkowski but also names like Freire, Cipollini, Bettini, Bugno, and Fondriest (are you seeing a pattern here?) on the relatively recent list too.
Kwiatkowski, meanwhile, continues to add to his list of “firsts by a Polish rider,” including a big one here, the first Monument win for the nation. A number of countries are still looking for theirs. So chapeau to our eastern friends who can celebrate the brilliance of their classics ace. It’s also the second Monument for Team Sky, the powerful squad that couldn’t win a classic, except of course they always could and it was just a matter of things working out correctly.
- Michal Kwiatkowski (Pol) Team Sky
- Peter Sagan (Svk) Bora-Hansgrohe
- Julian Alaphilippe (Fra) Quick-Step Floors
- Alexander Kristoff (Nor) Katusha-Alpecin, at 0:05
- Fernando Gaviria (Col) Quick-Step Floors
- Arnaud Demare (Fra) FDJ
- John Degenkolb (Ger) Trek-Segafredo
- Nacer Bouhanni (Fra) Cofidis, Solutions Credits
- Elia Viviani (Ita) Team Sky
- Caleb Ewan (Aus) Orica-Scott
- Magnus Cort Nielsen (Den) Orica-Scott
- Michael Matthews (Aus) Team Sunweb
- Sonny Colbrelli (Ita) Bahrain-Merida
- Daniele Bennati (Ita) Movistar Team
- Francesco Gavazzi (Ita) Androni Giocattoli
- Luka Mezgec (Slo) Orica-Scott
- Ben Swift (GBr) Team UAE Emirates
- Tim Wellens (Bel) Lotto Soudal
- Edvald Boasson Hagen (Nor) Dimension Data
- Marco Canola (Ita) Nippo - Vini Fantini