Gerald Ciolek of the South African UCI Professional Continental team MTN-Qhubeka just pipped the huge pre-race favourite Peter Sagan to win the 104th edition of Milan-San Remo, likely to go down in the history of the race as one of the most dramatic ever. The German sprinter's victory came on a day when the race missed the climb of the Passo del Turchino, rendered impassible through snow, with the ascent of Le Manie also cut out. RadioShack Leopard's Fabian Cancellara finished third.
Approaching the day's final climb, the Poggio, Ian Stannard of Team Sky and Omega Pharma-Quick Step's Sylvain Chavanel led by half a minute on a select chasing group, but were caught by Ciolek, Sagan, Cancellara and Luca Paolini on the way down.
British champion Stannard led the six through the flamme rouge, Sagan perhaps going a little too early and allowing Ciolek to counter and take victory in the first Monument of 2013 on a day when the weather put paid to the hopes of big names including Astana's Vincenzo Nibali, who abandoned ahead of the day's penultimate climb, the Cipressa.
The victory of the 26-year-old Ciolek marks the third year in a row that the race has produced a surprise winner, following Matt Goss in 2011 and Simon Gerrans last year.
Like Goss, who abandoned today, Ciolek had supported Mark Cavendish at HTC-Highroad, helping him to four stage victories in the 2008 Tour de France, but the rider from Cologne has found only sporadic success since leaving for Milram in 2009, his biggest success being a stage win in that year’s Vuelta.
There had been signs that he was in decent form in recent weeks with a stage win at the start of the month at the Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen, as well as a third-place finish on the opening road stage of Tirreno-Adriatico, but at best he was viewed only as an outsider to challenge today.
That he was riding at all was due to the decision of organisers RCS Sport to award a wild card entry to his MTN-Qhubeka team, which only stepped up to second-tier Professional Continental level at the start of this season, the first Africa-registered team to do so (Ciolek was prominent in a recent behind the scenes video shot with the team at Tirreno Adriatico which explained the rather different goals of the team backed by an African charity and a telecoms company).
Indeed, the focus around the team in the build-up to the race was not on whether Ciolek might challenge for victory, but rather on his 22-year-old team mate Songezo Jim, as the first black African rider to take part in Milan-San Remo.
Today’s victory makes Ciolek just the third German rider to win La Classica di Parimavera after Rudi Altig in 1968 and Erik Zabel, who finished first four times between 1997 and 2001.
As with Goss two years ago, Ciolek had largely escaped notice in the final kilometres of the race until he made his late dash for the line and into the history books. Instead, attention was focused on the huge pre-race favourite, Sagan, and Cancellara, winner in 2008 and runner-up in each of the last two editions.
Together with Ciolek and Katusha’s Luca Paolini, Cancellara and Sagan had pegged back a half-minute advantage that Chavanel and Stannard held approaching the top of the Poggio just 6.2 kilometres out from the finish, cresting the climb just seconds behind the front pair and catching them by the foot of the descent.
Sagan would attack when the road flattened out inside the final three kilometres, but was brought back, and also chased down a subsequent burst from Stannard, both moves which perhaps used up energy that the Slovak might have been better off conserving for that final dash to the line.
BMC Racing's Taylor Phinney, like Chavanel incorrectly reported to have abandoned earlier, chased the six riders ahead of him down from the Poggio, and while he wouldn't catch them, he did come home alone in seventh place to put the seal on a week in which his heroics in struggling on during Monday's tough stage of Tirreno Adriatico hit the headlines.
Chavanel and Stannard had been among several riders to follow an attack by BMC Racing’s Philippe Gilbert on the earlier descent of the Cipressa, the summit of which came with 22.1 kilometres to go.
When the Team Sky man attacked again, only the Omega Pharma-Quick Step rider and Katusha’s Eduard Vorganov, who would be dropped on the Poggio, would be able to go with him.
Both Sky and Omega Pharma-Quick Step had been forced to reassess their priorities, with the latter suffering a number of abandonments – Tom Boonen failed to take to the restart at Cogoleto and was highly critical of organisers over the earlier neutralisation of the race that saw the riders transfer by bus from Ovada, before the climb of the Passo del Turchino, to the Ligurian coast.
Other members of the team to abandon included Niki Terpstra and Michal Kwiatowski. Cavendish dug deep to battle on and was still in the mix, but couldn’t keep with that last burst of acceleration on the Poggio and finished ninth, coming home in the second group.
Sky, meanwhile, had built its hopes around Geraint Thomas and Edvald Boasson Hagen, but both riders’ plans were shipwrecked within the space of a few minutes.
Thomas crashed with Garmin-Sharp’s Tyler Farrar as the front group of 50 riders, reeling in the last of the day’s six-man break, approached the Cipressa, a climb on which Boasson Hagen was quickly distanced as the pace was cranked up ahead of the blistering finale.
While today’s race will be most remembered for being the first ever time Milan-San Remo has skipped the Passo del Turchino following the decision to reroute the race after this morning’s snowfall, Ciolek’s victory marks another first – a rider tweeting a picture of themselves with their feet up halfway through a Monument, before going on to win it.
All pictures copyright LaPresse/RCS Sport
Milan-San Remo 2013 result 1. Gerald Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka) 5:37:20 2. Peter Sagan (Cannondale) same time 3. Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) 4. Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) 5. Luca Paolini (Katusha) 6. Ian Stannard (Sky) 7. Taylor Phinney (BMC) 8. Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) at 14 seconds 9. Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) same time 10. Bernhard Eisel (Sky) 11. Francisco Ventoso (Movistar Team) 12. Sonny Colbrelli (Bardiani) 13. Heinrich Haussler (IAM) 14. Enrico Gasparotto (Astana) 15. Sébastien Turgot (Europcar) 16. Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto-Belisol) 17. John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano) 18. Yoann Offredo (FDJ)
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.