Katusha delivered Alexander Kristoff to a sprint victory on Sunday in a cold, rainy edition of Milano-Sanremo.
Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) was left to pound the bars in frustration as he took second ahead of Ben Swift (Sky) in third.
“I feel great,” said Kristoff. “It was a fantastic victory. I didn’t really believe until I crossed the line that I had won Milano-Sanremo.”
Cancellara pronounced himself “disappointed but also happy.”
“Finishing second means you’re the first of the most disappointed riders. And I race to win, not to finish second or third,” he said. “But if I look back at the race, I think I can be satisfied. I gave it everything and the team did a great job. That’s important to me.”
The day’s break went early in the 294km race — Jan Barta (Netapp-Endura), Nicola Boem (Bardiani-CSF), Matteo Bono (Lampre-Merida), Marc de Maar (UnitedHealthcare), Nathan Haas (Garmin-Sharp), Antonio Parrinello (Androni Giocattoli) and Maarten Tjallingii (Belkin).
Trek Factory Racing, Cannondale and Giant-Shimano were leading the chase.
The weather provided one more obstacle on a long, hard day, with cold, rain and hail, a small lake at the finish line, and riders layering on a variety of kit, from arm warmers only to rain capes and knee or leg warmers. A few were employing Ass Savers, mini-fenders that attach to the saddle rails.
Boem was the first to fall off the pace as the race entered the final 100km. Twenty kilometers further along the road the break’s advantage was six and a half minutes.
Next to go was Haas, who punctured and found himself chasing with 73km remaining.
With 70km remaining the break’s edge had dipped under six minutes. Ten kilometers later it had lost another man, Parrinello, and four riders — Barta, Bono, De Maar and Tjallingii — barreled along through the rain.
Fifty kilometers from the line the difference was just over five minutes and plummeting. Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) was in the bunch and looking none too comfortable, but he had plenty of company in that regard. Cancellara was there, too, as were John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) and Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol), while Cannondale and Katusha worked at the front of the pursuit.
Barta popped on the Capo Berto, leaving three men out front with a three-minute cushion and 40km to race, including the Cipressa and the Poggio. Behind, reports came that Omega Pharma had lost Michal Kwiatkowski and Mark Renshaw, leaving Cavendish shy two key helpers.
Thirty kilometers out the gap was two and a half minutes and it was clear the break was doomed. On the Cipressa Tjallingii showed a bit of leg and Bono went bye-bye. Behind, Lotto, Giant and Cannondale massed at the sharp end of the chase, with the men in green piling on the pressure for Peter Sagan, who was parked on Alessandro De Marchi’s wheel. Defending champion Gerald Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka) was there, too.
And then Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) rocketed away from the peloton. He swept past Bono and went after the leaders, while Cannondale continued ticking along at the front of the bunch, apparently unconcerned.
“I was hoping that someone would come with me because it was always going to be really hard to get to the finish alone. So be it, I had to go for it alone, but it was very hard,” said Nibali.
As Nibali inched across to the leaders the bunch continued setting its own pace, awaiting the descent off the Cipressa and the final grind of the Poggio.
The Astana man crested the Cipressa a dozen seconds behind De Maar and Tjallingii. The bunch followed 35 seconds down.
Nibali joined the two leaders on the descent and then zipped away, slashing through the wet corners. Behind, with 17km to race, the peloton was ripping itself to shreds as riders tried to escape in ones and twos.
Nibali was committed — he quickly built a lead of 48 seconds as the chase whittled itself down to a few dozen riders. A gritty Tjallingii clung to second.
The Italian hit the Poggio with just over a half minute’s advantage. In the bunch were Greipel, Cavendish, Degenkolb, Cancellara, Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky), Philippe Gilbert and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), among others.
The chase chipped away at Nibali’s advantage, and with 10km to race he had only 14 seconds and would soon be dragged back into the fold, and then spat out the back.
Gregory Rast (Trek) leaped across to Nibali just before the catch came and opened a small gap of his own. Enrico Battaglin (Bardiani) then followed and Rast let him set the pace.
Six kilometers to race and the duo had the slimmest advantage. Gilbert punched it, Daniele Bennati (Tinkoff-Saxo) followed, and the escape was erased. Luca Paolini (Katusha) came forward to give it some stick, and then a Belkin rider launched over the top of the Poggio and down the other side, followed by Van Avermaet and a long string of riders.
Van Avermaet was next to accelerate, but he couldn’t grab any daylight from what was proving to be a very long line of 20-some-odd contenders.
Two kilometers out and Omega Pharma and Katusha were trying to take control of the finale. The Russian squad finally took the point going under the red kite, and though Cav went hard right and took his best shot, it was Kristoff who took the win for Katusha.
“This is the biggest victory I could imagine. It is the victory that saved my career,” he said.
Cancellara tipped his hat to the victor, saying Kristoff “is a sprinter and so a better sprinter than I am.”
“I’m not a sprinter but after 294km I was able to beat the likes of Cavendish and other sprinters, so that’s satisfying,” he added. “There was only one rider who finished ahead of me and unfortunately the finish came too soon for me to get past him.
“But Katusha deserved to win. They did a good race too.”
Cavendish had to settle for fifth on the day, while Zdenek Stybar (Omega Pharma) took a convincing seventh and Sagan could manage only 10th.