Milan-San Remo: Degenkolb the Conqueror

At 293km, Milan-San Remo is the longest of the five Monuments and is sometimes referred to as a ‘Sprinters Classic’. This year the recent trend of sprint wins continued with Giant-Alpecin’s John Degenkolb delivering from a reduced bunch. The German endured the climbs well and played the waiting game well into the final kilometre. Last year’s winner Alexander Kristoff looked good value as he launched his final sprint but Degenkolb powered past to win by half a bike length. A Monument win for the man with the moustache.

Think the final climbs look easy? Try riding them.

I chose Degenkolb as my man for this race. His progression to a classics winner is something I have been quite sure of since his string of impressive 2014 results. Riding for the same team as Marcel Kittel, he had to offer something quite different to avoid becoming a, possibly superb, lead-out man. In Dubai this year it was quite clear that big, flat bunch sprints are not his happiest of hunting grounds and he finds greater success on hillier finishes. This gives him an advantage in two sorts of races- bunch sprints with a slight sloped finish (even for as little as 300m) and ones with a bump in the last 10km testing enough to eliminate some of his rivals. Milan-San Remo is the latter kind of race. He won well on Stage 4 of last year’s Vuelta into Cordoba and again the following day in Ronda. He was second to Tony Gallopin on Stage 11 of last year’s Tour De France, a stage which featured four categorized climbs in the last 45km. That day Tour stage winners Kittel and Kristoff finished over 20 minutes behind him.

But this shouldn’t peg Degenkolb as a non-sprinter. He claimed a number of scalps at San Remo, including the aforementioned Kristoff. He has speed and strength and more often than not looks at home in the manic bunch finishes. He isn’t a Peter Sagan or Zdeněk Štybar, he doesn’t need a hilly finish, but when they come about you wouldn’t bet against him. Sprinting is continually changing with riders like Robbie McEwen, and arguably Mark Cavendish, being usurped by powerful riders who churn out sky high wattage. With power usually comes weight, and with weight comes the nagging inability to survive the climbs (see Marcel Kittel). Riders like Degenkolb and Australian Michael Matthews, third at San Remo, seem to be almost as tough as Sagan, but even quicker when it matters- a dangerous combination.

It would also be wrong to say Degenkolb’s first Monument win has come as a shock or that predicting him to win was an outside pick (I took him at odds of 9/1 on Friday with only a handful of riders at a shorter price). Though he disappointed in San Remo last year, he has two top 20 finishes at the Tour of Flanders and has been even closer at Paris-Roubaix, finishing second to Niki Terpstra last time out. The German’s promising classics form suggested he would deliver given just a few more opportunities. His performance in Roubaix also showcased his ability to handle the cobbles. He will hope to go well again this year on April 12th.

Though an Italian race held a good way into the spring, Milan-San Remo is somewhat known for the bad weather. After snow and a route reduction in 2013, the last two editions have seen the riders blasted with wind and rain. In conjunction with the race distance some riders are happy for the opportunity to just finish San-Remo. After a relatively boring and breakaway-certain first 200km, the peloton tops two iconic climbs. The first, and possibly tougher, is the Cipressa which was added to the route no earlier than 1982. This year it proved too tough for many sprinters, including for a short time Mark Cavendish. The Brit was in good company as he hovered just off the back, and easily re-joined the lead group on the descent. His joy was short lived as less than 10km later arrives the Poggio- a climb used since 1960 and the site of many winning moves.

In the past it has seen constant attacking and back-and-fourth efforts to test legs. This year the only move that really stuck involved Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas and Italian Daniel Oss. It caused a bit of a problem for the chasers as Team Sky and BMC both had strength in numbers and the two were reluctant to chase their own men. Lampre-Merida and Kristoff’s Katusha eventually took to the head and the pair were reeled in. Oss was the first to crack and Thomas’ noble efforts ended not long after. The attacking on the Poggio was limited and you could wonder why the forever impressive Fabian Cancellara didn’t launch himself off the front. The Swiss strongman stayed in the bunch and sprinted to 7th ending his outstanding streak of San-Remo podiums.

After the Poggio came around 5km of racing as the route returned to Via Roma- the finishing stretch used for many years and last in 2007 for Óscar Freire’s third win. There was an absence of lead-outs but Luca Paolini did a sterling job of bringing Kristoff to the front of the race. The Norwegian went early with many of the other names lining up behind. The long sprint looked like it could be a vintage Kristoff performance but Matthews and Degenkolb drew close and the line was just far enough away for the German to snatch the win. Sagan arrived late, round the outside, and took 4th. If the Classics specialists want to make this their race again they need to throw caution to the wind on the Poggio and make life tough for the sprinters. It seems this year they were too worried about counter-attacks to really ‘have a go’ or maybe the Poggio just isn’t quite tough enough anymore. Either way, a bunch arrived in Via Roma  and their chances had gone. Degenkolb claimed his first San Remo- just six more needed to equal Eddy Merckx.

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