Who won Milan-San Remo and how?

Road cycling is an endurance sport. That was the message after this year’s Milan-San Remo. We tend to think of riders enduring endless climbs up mountains, but here they endured shitty weather and a very long day in the saddle. Technically, the race finished with a sprint, but it wasn’t the usual kind of sprint.

As the winner, Alexander Kristoff from Norway, said:

“A sprint after 300km is different from one after 200km.”

I’ll say. In my experience a sprint after just 100km is a rather laughable caricature. In fact sometimes, if I’m really tired, standing on the pedals can actually lead to a decrease in speed due to the greater wind resistance.

There’s another, related meaning of ‘endure’ which also applied to the riders at the end of Milan-San Remo. Like ancient ruins, it was about what was left of them. For proof of that, we need only look to the fact that of the 25 riders who were given the same finishing time as Kristoff, Andre Greipel came second to last. Mark Cavendish and Peter Sagan were also in the lead group, but they were all beaten. In fact, let’s look at these three losing sprinters specifically to give a clearer perspective of what happened.

Andre Greipel really struggled on the two climbs that feature in the closing kilometres. 25 riders sounds like a big group, but think about how it came to be that size. Only 25 riders could hack the pace. Greipel was off the back on the final climb, just about fought back on in time for the finish but all those desperate efforts meerely meant that he had nothing left to give.

Something similar happened with Mark Cavendish but to a lesser extent. You see that he finished fifth and it looks like a failure, but it was a magnificent effort to stay with the favourites over the climbs – particularly when other teams were riding specifically to get rid of him. He was able to have a go at the finish, but in a bunch of tired riders there’s no saying who’s going to be right to sit behind during the approach. Cavendish found himself sprinting for the line quite early and ran out of strength to the extent that he had to sit down, pause, and then stand and sprint again. He was more Manx Moped than Manx Missile, if I’m honest.

The Cannondale team of Peter Sagan had tried to get rid of Greipel and Cavendish before the finish, but the hectic pace and huge distance took just as much out of their man. Once again, Sagan failed to win a monument.

The podium

You may not know Kristoff, but if you think back, you may half-remember him winning the sprint for third place at the Olympic road race. Long hard days with sprint finishes against tired men appear to be his speciality. Fabian Cancellara managed to take second, which emphasises how the sprinters were compromised, and then Yorkshireman, Ben Swift, took third. Swift is the other British sprinter – the one who doesn’t really win much – but this was a very good performance.

What’s next?

The Tour of Catalonia is ongoing and offers decent stage racing, but our next big appointments are two one-day races – E3 Harelbeke on Friday and then Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday. These too will be all about endurance, and as they’re cobbled classics, you can add ‘grundle-pummelling’ to the endurance mix.