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Brains over brawn

The Milan-San Remo is the thinking man's race, says Richard Moore

Richard Moore Posted 19th March 2012 view comments

The role of tactics is often overstated in cycling.

Yes, it's a team sport, and teams have plans and strategies, but invariably it is still the strongest rider who wins, especially over the three weeks of a Grand Tour, or in tough Classics such as the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Gerrans: played his cards just right

Gerrans: played his cards just right

But that is what makes Milan-San Remo so great. And we saw it again at the weekend: a race in which tactics really did matter, in which the smartest rider, rather than the strongest, was the winner.

In fact, last year's Flanders saw a smart win by Nick Nuyens, when, as in San Remo on Saturday, Fabian Cancellara was the strongest, though he could only finish third. On Saturday he was again the strongest, but could only manage second behind Simon Gerrans in San Remo.

The Liquigas strategy seemed to comprise a plan A and plan B: A was for Nibali to attack and win alone in San Remo; B would see Sagan win the sprint if and when Nibali was caught. Neither plan seemed to factor in the possibility of Nibali attacking and taking others with him.

Richard Moore
Quotes of the week

The key moment came on the final climb, the Poggio. Or was it Le Manie, after 204 of the 298km? It was here that Mark Cavendish, the pre-race favourite and winner in 2009, began to struggle, letting gaps open and slipping to, and then off, the back.

It was Liquigas, on paper the team with the best cards to play, who applied the pressure that put Cavendish in trouble, then BMC and Omega Pharma-Quick Step who killed him off, driving the front group and distancing Cavendish, whose Sky teammates led the chase.

Cavendish knew he was on a bad day here. It was one thing to suffer on the climb, another to struggle on the relatively flat roads before the next climb, the Cipressa, after 270km. It was BMC, in particular, who were making it so tough here, even if, in the end, with Philippe Gilbert crashing, they were left empty-handed.

Launch pad

It was on the Poggio that the race was ultimately decided. But the crucial characteristic about the Poggio is that, although it is often decisive, it is not that difficult - you can see riders having to brake to avoid over-shooting corners.

It's less a climb, more a launch pad. And this is where, and why, tactics come in to play. Whereas on most climbs it is the gradient that does the damage, splitting up the race, sorting out the strongest from the weakest, on the Poggio the selection is entirely up to the riders: they make the race.

This is why I think Liquigas might have made a mistake here. They had two fancied riders, Vicenzo Nibali, a strong climber, and Peter Sagan, a strong sprinter. But when a Liquigas rider attacked, at the foot of the Poggio, it was another of their riders, Valerio Agnoli. Near the top, once Agnoli had spent his bullets, Nibali went.

Everyone was waiting for Nibali to go, yet only Gerrans followed him. But this was probably because it was so hard. Though the Poggio is not steep, neither is it easy when you are making a series of lung-busting, eyeball-popping sprints all the way up.

While other riders might have been more alert to Nibali's initial move -- the other fancied Sky rider, Edvald Boasson Hagen, was too far back at this point -- only one rider was capable of bridging the gap once it began to open. And that was the strongest rider in the race: Cancellara. Yet even Cancellara admitted afterwards that he had lactic acid "coming out of my ears" as he made this effort, which effectively answers one question some asked later: why didn't he attack again? He couldn't.

Nibali, Gerrans and Cancellara went over the top of the Poggio together: it was the race-winning move. But I wonder if Sagan should have been the Liquigas rider to attack, rather than Nibali, who was never going to win a sprint. It seemed that Sagan was holding back, waiting to counter Nibali's move.

The Liquigas strategy seemed to comprise a plan A and plan B: A was for Nibali to attack and win alone in San Remo; B would see Sagan win the sprint if and when Nibali was caught. Neither plan seemed to factor in the possibility of Nibali attacking and taking others with him. In the end, Sagan did win the sprint in San Remo -- for fourth. Yet he might have been just as capable as Nibali of attacking on the climb itself, and he would almost certainly have beaten Gerrans and Cancellara at the finish.

A hopeles bind

Watch the climb of the Poggio again and you see one rider always in the first five, coasting where others look ragged: Cancellara. But Gerrans was there or thereabouts too, and he did the right thing to attach himself to Nibali's back wheel.

Once they were off the descent and in the streets of San Remo, Cancellara tried to encourage him to help with the pace-making, but Gerrans' only chance of winning was to stay behind Cancellara, to save his legs and keep the element of surprise for the sprint.

This put Cancellara in a hopeless bind. If he continued at the front he was doing for Gerrans what Mark Renshaw used to do for Cavendish: a wonderful lead-out, and victory on a plate. If he sat up, they'd be swamped by a group which was still only seconds behind.

It is the composition of the leading trio that underlines the unpredictability -- and the appeal -- of Milan-San Remo: a rouleur (Cancellara), a puncheur and canny opportunist (Gerrans), and a grimpeur and general classification rider (Nibali). There are very few races in which the winner could be any one of about 30 riders, all with different strengths and weaknesses. But it is what makes Milan-San Remo so fascinating and exciting -- as the latest one was on Saturday.

Twitter.com/richardmoore73

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