Blazin' Saddles

Hot tea’s the difference as Nibali bemoans lack of peloton panache

Blazin' Saddles

View photo


He tried to do what has not been done since 1996 and win Milan-Sanremo from a break on the Cipressa. But Vincenzo Nibali was the only rider with cojones big enough for the challenge.

On numerous occasions after launching his attack 3km from the top of the Cipressa, 'the Shark' looked over his shoulder in expectation but no one took the bait and all he saw was a streamlined peloton pursuing at a safe distance.

Nibali caught the two remaining escapees Marc de Maar and Maarten Tjallingii on the descent before opening up a 50-second gap over the chasing pack. But his lead was whittled down to just 12 seconds going onto the Poggio and the 2013 Giro d'Italia champion ended up crossing the finish line in lowly 44th place, 3:15 down on surprise winner Alexander Kristoff.


After the rain-soaked 294km sufferfest, Nibali took to Twitter to voice his dismay towards the other non-sprinters in the main pack who failed to join him in an attempt to defy the odds:

"I waited for good company. And it was bloody difficult. But where are the riders with the balls of once upon a time?"

Nibali certainly has a point. Back in the day, the likes of Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi would win 'La Primavera' not with attacks on the Cipressa - but attacks from the outset or, at the latest, on the Passo del Turchino.

The last rider to win off the back of a Cipressa catapult was Gabriele Colombo of the unfortunately named Gewiss-Playbus team in 1996.

Nowadays, Milan-Sanremo is like an episode of Poirot: you wait for an absolute age to find out whodunnit but it only gets interesting in the closing moments once the Belgian sleuth has assembled all the main protagonists in one room and launched his attack.

But that, paradoxically, is one of the delights of the first Monument of the season.

After the best part of 300km - in conditions not quite as apocalyptic as last year, but nevertheless hampered by blustering wind, heavy rain, sporadic hail storms and freezing temperatures - you're not going to get the same kind of regular bunch sprint that you see on the sunny Champs Elysees.

That, in a nutshell, is why Mark Cavendish - who rode over the Cipressa and Poggio with impressive gusto - could only muster a solid fifth place.

Knowing he wouldn't stand a chance in a bunch sprint, Nibali only really had two options, specially in the wake of the dual cancellation of the Pompeiana and Le Manie climbs: attack on the Cipressa or attack on the Poggio.

He went for the earlier climb because he had good reason to believe others would follow suit and give the break a chance of survival.

"I had spoken with a lot of guys in the peloton, especially with [former Liquigas team-mate] Peter Sagan. He told me that he wanted to attack on the Cipressa but when I went myself, I saw that none of the riders who wanted to make the race hard before the finish were following me."

There were signs that Sagan was planning a Cipressa coup when his Cannondale team-mate Alessandro De Marchi set what seemed like a blistering pace onto the steep early segment. But when Nibali darted clear, Sagan simply stayed in De Marchi's wheel.

It was odd tactics for Sagan, who last year failed to beat Gerald Ciolek in a small bunch sprint and so probably stood even less of a chance with the likes of Cavendish and Andre Greipel still around.

Poor Sagan. The Slovakian has seven Grand Tour stage wins and two green jerseys to his name - but he's yet to add a Monument to his otherwise swelling list of palmares.

He's a bit like the Lewis Hamilton of cycling: undoubtedly fast, but often tactically at a loss. In fact, isn't that a bit unfair to Hamilton - at least he has a notched a few Grand Prix victories, not to mention a world championship.

Nibali wasn't the only Italian to bemoan the animated cycling of yesteryear. His Astana manager Giuseppe Martinelli was also convinced the Cipressa would play host to numerous attacks.

He said, perhaps with unjust reference to Sagan and Fabian Cancellara:

"I think cycling is changing and people are only riding for places now. They're not riding to win. By not responding to an attack by Vincenzo, people who have finished second and third without winning Milan-Sanremo - and who haven't won it again this year even though they have the legs to do so - have shown that they don't understand very much."

To be fair to Cancellara, riding aggressively in the past three seasons has only seen him ride onto the lower rungs of the podium. The Swiss joined Nibali in an attack on the Poggio in 2012, only to be pipped by a sandbagging Simon Gerrans in the finale.

Spartacus is fast becoming the Raymond Poulidor of Sanremo - his second place on Sunday his third in four years since winning the race in 2008. On the other occasion he finished third. Cancellara's record in the past 10 Monuments that he has finished remains pretty extraordinary: 1/1/2/3/2/2/3/1/1/2.

He can hardly blame himself for punching his handlebars in anger after trying out a different tactic this year and still getting pipped by Kristoff over the line.

As for Mr Consistency Kristoff, he owed the biggest win of his career not only to his strong kick and tenacity - but also to the stellar support of his Katusha team-mates.

Of all the riders who took part in the final sprint, Norway's Kristoff had the best wingman in Luca Paolini. The bearded Italian marshalled his man up both testing climbs - an impressive feat given Paolini was reduced to pouring hot tea from a bidon over his freezing hands ahead of the three "capo" coastal inclines an hour or so earlier.

Being an Italian riding for a Russian team, the tea in question was no doubt some monstrosity with a cheap Lipton label. Not the odiferous Earl Grey or traditional English Breakfast to which Team Sky's riders have 24/7 access (rumour has it, their post-race ice baths are in fact filled with chilled Nestea).

Despite giving Ian Stannard - the only rider in the peloton who relishes such hellish conditions - a rest ahead of the Belgian cobbles, Sky rode a credible race, with Salvatore Puccio doing some beastly legwork for Edvald Boasson Hagen and Ben Swift.

When Boasson Hagen burst onto the scene a few years ago, the smart money on Norway's first ever Milan-Sanremo win was - if not on the sturdy shoulders of Thor Hushovd - surely on the more rounded glutes of 'Eddy the Boss'. But on Sunday both Boasson Hagen and Hushovd were eclipsed by their compatriot Kristoff.

Boasson Hagen - whose best result in Sanremo remains his 25th from 2012 - was in fact reduced to domestique work alongside the impressive Puccio for Ben Swift, who rewarded Sky's faith in him with the third place on the podium in his debut appearance in 'La Classicissima'.

With compatriot Cavendish finishing fifth, Swift was the first of two Brits in a top five that didn't include any Italians. Heading towards the three "capo" climbs, Cavendish's teeth were chattering so much that you wouldn't have been surprised had he followed Omega Pharma-Quick Step team-mates Mark Renshaw, Michal Kwiatkowski and Alessandro Petacchi into the broom wagon.

But Cav rallied and, aided by Zdenek Stybar, he crested the Poggio in a much better position than fellow pure sprinter Greipel, who was forced to chase back on during the wet, winding descent.

Where Greipel's body gave up with one kilometre remaining, Cavendish's kept on going until the last one-hundred metres. Had Sacha Modolo not gone so early, Cavendish could well have been celebrating his second Sanremo scalp.

But Kristoff held all the trump cards and in the end won with relative ease. As for Nibali, he was left rueing the tactical timidity of his fellow non-sprinters. Meat balls and pasta were on the menu for most of the peloton that night; if only their own balls were that bit meatier then Nibali's cojones commiserations could have been celebrations.

Still, with the route set to take on a hillier profile in 2015, next year's Milan-Sanremo will be take on a whole new dynamic. Sagan and Nibali may finally fancy their chances - although the likes of Chris Froome, Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez may bid to join the tea party.

Felix Lowe | Follow on Twitter

View comments (4)