John Degenkolb of Giant-Alpecin has won the 106th edition of Milan-San Remo in a sprint finish on Via Roma, hosting the end of cycling’s longest classic for the first time since 2007.
The German won from a select group that contested a thrilling sprint at the end of the 293-kilometre race from last year's winner, Alexander Kristoff of Katusha, with Michael Matthews of Orica-GreenEdge third.
Crashes plus a cracking pace towards the end of the longest one-day race on the WorldTour calendar put paid to the chances of many favourites, and Kristoff himself seemed to have fallen out of contention on the Cipressa as Team Sky's Luke Rowe, Geraint Thomas and Ben Swift set a cracking pace.
Thomas would attack again on the day's final climb, the Poggio, but was brought back and inside the final kilometre, Katusha's Luca Paolini, just as he did 12 months ago, was at the front of what was now a small group as he looked to set defending champion Kristoff up for the win.
Degenkolb timed his sprint perfectly though, to take the second German victory in three years following Gerald Ciolek's victory in 2013.
Earlier, when the peloton hit the foot of the climb of the Cipressa, with less than 30 kilometres of the 293 kilometre race remaining, one survivor of an 11-man break remained out front on his own, Matteo Bono of Lampre Merida.
Behind him, a crash, one of many on a day that started amid rain in Milan, had led to the Sky trio of Rowe, Swift and Thomas get off the front of the peloton.
Rowe dropped off on the ascent of the Poggio, and Thomas and Swift were also caught on the climb, but the punishing pace they and others were setting put a number of riders into trouble including Kristoff and past winner Mark Cavendish of Etixx-Quick Step.
Following a twisting descent that saw the peloton strung out in a long line as the riders negotiated the hairpin bends, BMC Racing’s Daniel Oss and Sky’s Thomas attacked, building a 30-second gap at one point.
Onto the Poggio, and Thomas attacked again, with the chasing group happy to let Paolini do the work on behalf of Kristoff, pre-race favourite to repeat last year’s win following a strong start to the season.
Briefly, it seemed that the Sky rider might have enough of an advantage over the top of the climb to stay away to the finish.
However, an attack by van Avermaet saw the Welshman caught just after turning the left-hand bend onto the descent, where riders including world champion Michal Kwiatkowski of Etixx-Quick Step, BMC Racing’s Philippe Gilbert and MTN-Qhubeka’s Ciolek crashed.
The front group came back together for the flat final 2.2 kilometres, Degenkolb, who like his team had kept a low profile throughout the day, coming with a late surge inside the final 300 metres to become the first man to win on the Via Roma since Oscar Freire in 2007.
Afterwards, Degenkolb spoke of his feelings after winning the sprint: “For a moment I couldn’t believe it. 50 metres before the line I definitely thought I would not be able to beat Alex [Kristoff] in the sprint because he started really fast. But I kept believing in myself.
"There was still a difference in power and speed, but just before the line he died and I came across first. It was pure emotion, and I thought about last year, when I had tears in my eyes because I had the biggest disappointment in cycling in my life [he finished 39th]. This year I had tears in my eyes because I had won. It’s cool.”
He agreed that keeping hidden as late as possible was crucial to his victory.
“That’s the magic, I would say. This race is really special. You start in Milan and already in the neutral zone, so many guys are nervous. Then you have a lot of traffic islands and railways and cobblestones. The most important is to relax, stay calm, save your legs, save your legs, and save your legs until the Via Aurelia.
"You have to have a good position: not too far to the front, and not too from at the back. You have to find the balance.
"We did it really well today. The team really positioned me perfectly and I’m really proud of them.”
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.