Michal Kwiatkowski pips Peter Sagan to win thrilling Milan-San Remo
Poland’s Michal Kwiatkowski stunned Slovakian favourite Peter Sagan in the final metres to win a thrilling 108th edition of Milan-San Remo, with Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe finishing third.
Kwiatkowski gave Team Sky something to smile about after weeks in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, the 26-year-old Pole having just enough in the tank to beat Sagan by a whisker after more than seven hours in the saddle.
An enthralling three-up sprint at the conclusion to La Classicissima di Primavera saw the world champion Sagan of Bora-Hansgrohe surge clear on the Via Roma having made the decisive move on the famous Poggio climb at the business end of the gruelling 291km race.
But Kwiatkowski closed the gap on the home straight quite magnificently before sealing the first Monument of his career thanks to a superior lunge over the line. Quick-Step Floors rider Alaphilippe – making his first appearance in the race after a strong performance at Paris-Nice – completed the podium before Norway’s Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin) led the chasing pack over the line five seconds in arrears.
The race looked destined to conclude in a mass bunch sprint until Sagan lit the torch paper with a sumptuous attack on the Poggio, 6.5km from the finish. Both Kwiatkowski and Alaphilippe were able to close the gap as the trio crested the summit with around 15 seconds to play with over the pack.
Sagan looked to be the clear favourite as the leading trio zipped down the hairpinned descent and under the flamme rouge but, having been forced to lead out the sprint from the front, Sagan couldn't summon the strength to hold off Kwiatkowski’s stunning late surge.
The pair almost collided into one another after their desperate lunges before Sagan showed his sporting side by reaching out to congratulate his rival after one of the most dramatic finishes to Milan-San Remo in recent years.
Under cloudy skies but clement temperatures, 10 riders – Australian William Clarke and Latvian Toms Skujins (both Cannondale-Drapac), Italians Mattia Frapporti (Androni-Sidermec), Mirco Maestri (Bardiani-CSF), Alan Marangoni (Nippo-Fantini), Umberto Poli (Novo Nordisk) and Federico Zurlo (UAE Team Emirates), Spaniard Julen Amezqueta (Wilier-Selle Italia), Germany's Nico Denz (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Russian Ivan Rovny (Gazprom-Rusvelo) – broke clear shortly after the start in Milan.
A strong headwind meant the average pace got slower over the first three hours of racing as the escapees approached the Passo del Turchino with a four-minute gap over the pack, which was being controlled by the FDJ team of defending champion Arnaud Demare.
Once on the Turchino the gap was halved before stretching back out to five minutes as the sun started to break through the clouds on the Ligurian coast. FDJ and Team Sky combined on the front of the peloton to keep the break in check ahead of the “tre capi” climbs.
The gap was down to one and a half minutes on the Capo Mele before Frenchman Alexis Gougeard (Ag2R-La Mondiale) made the first move from the pack, attacking on the Capo Cervo with 45km remaining in pursuit of teammate Denz and the other nine escapees.
One by one Poli, Frapporti and Zurlo were dropped on the Capo Berta, while Gougeard’s short-lived attack was neutralised by the peloton. The seven remaining escapees were swept up shortly after the start of the Cipressa climb inside the final 30 kilometres as Britain’s Mark Cavendish – the 2009 winner from Dimension Data – was dropped as the pack strung out under some fierce pace-setting by Dutchman Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb).
The flares being fired by fans soon turned to fireworks as a series of stinging attacks whittled down the pack. Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal), Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) and Tony Gallopin (Lotto Soudal) all tried their luck on the descent before Dumoulin returned to the front of the pack as the race hit the Poggio.
Trailed by four Team Sky riders, Dumoulin was unable to open up a gap in his bid to pave the way for Australian teammate Michael Matthews. And when the Dutchman peeled wide, Sagan sniffed his moment and launched his decisive attack.
Kwiatkowski and Alaphilippe were the only riders who could bridge over to Sagan, the bookmakers’ favourite before the race. Having picked up two victories in the recent Tirreno-Adriatico, the man in the rainbow stripes looked certain to add a second Monument to his swelling palmares.
But Sagan was unable to add Milan-San Remo to his Tour of Flanders crown from last year – beaten by a rider whose previous best finish in La Classicissima was 40th. Kwiatkowski’s victory gifted a second Monument for the beleaguered Team Sky following Wout Poels’ victory in last year’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
The pack was led home by 2014 winner Kristoff, who took a consolation fourth place ahead of Colombia’s Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors), the defending champion Demare and Germany’s 2015 winner John Degenkolb (Trek Segafredo). A stellar top ten was completed by Frenchman Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), Italy’s Elia Viviani (Team Sky) and Australian debutant Caleb Ewan (Orica-Scott).