Milano - Sanremo - Cavendish falls just short as Kristoff wins

Norway’s Alexander Kristoff of Katusha won a rain-soaked Milan-Sanremo ahead of Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara and Britain’s Ben Swift.

Milano - Sanremo - Cavendish falls just short as Kristoff wins

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Alexander Kristoff in San Remo

Kristoff proved the strongest in a large bunch sprint at the end of the gruelling 294km monument to power past Trek Factory Racing’s Cancellara and Team Sky’s Swift and secure the biggest win of his career.

Britain’s Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) led the pack inside the final one-hundred metres but the 2009 champion tired in the closing moments and crossed the line behind Spaniard Juan Jose Lobato (Movistar) to take fifth place.

Pre-race favourite Peter Sagan (Cannondale) could only manage tenth place in the wheels of defending champion Gerald Ciolek of MTN-Qhubeka.

“I feel great. It was a fantastic victory,” said an ecstatic Kristoff after netting the first major spring classic of the season. “[Katusha team-mate] Luca [Paolini] helped me a lot in the final. I didn’t believe it when I crossed the line – I was only hoping for a top ten finish.”

It had looked as though home favourite Vincenzo Nibali would take victory after the Astana all-rounder attacked on the famous Cipressa climb with 25 kilometres remaining. But despite opening up a 45-second gap over the streamlined peloton, Nibali was overhauled by the chasing pack and a sprint finish ensued.

Under light drizzle, the field of 200 riders rolled out of Milan on Sunday morning with the teams of the major sprinters harbouring high hopes of victory.

With the climbs of Pompeiana and Manie scrapped owing to landslides, what was thought to be a hillier route took on a more traditional sheen. The flatter course stacked the odds back in favour of the pure sprinters, with the likes of Cavendish and Germany’s Andre Greipel (Lotto Belisol) altering their schedules to enter the first of five Monuments of the season.

A break of seven riders - Matteo Bono (Lampre Merida), Nathan Haas (Garmin-Sharp), Nicola Boem (Bardiani), Antonio Parrinello (Androni Giocattoli), Maarten Tjallingii (Belkin), Jan Barta (Netapp-Endura) and Marc de Maar (UnitedHealthCare) – formed 15km into the race.

The leading septet passed through Novi Ligure, the home town of six-time San Remo winner Costante Giradengo, with a lead of over nine minutes on the peloton as the rain started to pound down.

A maximum lead of 11 minutes came tumbling down on the long Passo del Turchino climb, which saw the riders pulverised by heavy rain and hail. Blustery winds along the Mediterranean coast further complicated matters – but the meteorological conditions were a far cry from those which tore the race apart in 2012.

Many riders struggled with the rain and single-figure temperatures, with Kristoff’s Katusha team-mate Paolini – who proved such a valuable asset in leading out the Norwegian in the closing stages – resorting to pouring a bidon of hot tea on his freezing fingers.

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One by one, the escapees were caught by the peloton: Boem was dropped with 85km remaining, Haas punctured soon after, while Parrinello called it a day after one ‘sticky bidon’ too many.

Bono led the remaining quartet onto the first of three “captain” climbs, the Capo Mele, with a lead of 5’30” over the peloton, which was being controlled by the Cannondale team-mates of Peter Sagan.

Cavendish’s hopes suffered a blow when three of his OPQS team-mates – Michal Kwiatkowski, Mark Renshaw and Alessandro Petacchi – were swept up by the broom wagon. But the Manxman dug deep over the Capo Cervo and Capo Berta to remain with the main pack. With the likes of John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano), Greg van Avermaet (BMC) and Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) still in contention, the prospect of a bunch sprint looked more and more likely.

Dutchmen Tjallingii and de Maar were the final two escapees to be caught after Nibali made his bold move on the Cipressa. Nibali’s advantage was reduced to 12 slender seconds by the time the 2013 Giro d’Italia champion launched himself onto the often-decisive Poggio climb with 9km remaining.

The Poggio saw attacks by the likes of Philippe Gilbert (BMC), Enrico Battaglin (Bardiani), Gregory Rast (Trek) and Salvatore Puccio (Sky). Dutchman Bauke Mollema (Belkin) had a dig just before the summit but the race came back together on the descent to Sanremo.

Greipel fought back into contention after being distanced on the climb, but there was no sign of his fellow German, the in-form Degenkolb.

Gilbert led the pack onto the closing straight, turning round at the sound of two riders crashing into the barriers on the final tight bend. Greipel did not have the strength to jostle for position but Cavendish roared clear alongside Italy’s Sacha Modolo.

But Kristoff timed his late surge to perfection, zipping through a tight gap to take a comfortable win. Cancellara, winner in 2008, punched his handlebars in frustration after being beaten into second for the third time in four years. British youngster Swift completed the podium after an impressive ride.

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