Milan-Sanremo is behind us as we head full-speed into the meat of the Spring Classics season. While Sanremo is traditionally a mere amuse bouche, this year’s version was an instant classic, and we still have E3 Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and the entire Ardennes triplet ahead of us. For single-day racing fans, the next few weeks are as good as it gets. Let’s run down who the winners and losers are coming out of this past week of racing.
Let’s take a look at three riders trending up coming off the first big block of serious racing.
Who’s Looking Good
Bravissimo! Vincenzo Nibali, the shark of Messina, lived up to his nickname by displaying extremely aggressive racing to become the first Italian to the win Milan-Sanremo since Filippo “Pippo” Pozzato in 2006, and the first Grand Tour winner since Sean Kelly won in 1992. With this victory, the Italian goes a long ways towards cementing himself as the best all-around racer of his generation. This Milan Sanremo victory was his third Monument victory. This adds to an already impressive list of wins, which includes all three Grand Tours.
Milan Sanremo is normally billed as the “Sprinters Classic,” and is often won from a reduced bunch sprint. However, Nibali turned the race on its head by attacking the slopes of the final climb of the race, the Poggio, and beat the long odds by making the solo move stick to the line. Fabian Cancellara won La Classicissima solo in 2008, but the Swiss strongman snuck away on the final 2km run into the finish, not with a dramatic attack on the slopes of the Poggio. The attack and solo win harked back to cycling’s age of heroes, specifically Eddy Merckx’s solo win in 1971. Nibali ‘s attack with 7km to go in the race was perfectly timed, as he was able to play the remaining sprint rivals off each other, which meant any significant chase failed to materialize until it was far too late.
Nibali’s solo win in the sprinter’s classic adds much-needed excitement to the Italian Spring Classic and Italian racing in general. The finish line was awash with a palpable energy as victory-hungry Italian fans cheered as the chasing pack looked to swallow the lone Nibali. The image of the climbing specialist posting up for victory in front of the chasing groups of sprinters was powerful enough to land on the front page of La Gazzetta Dello Sport, real estate that is almost exclusively reserved for soccer news. Watching an attacking climber/non-sprinter foil the fast men will certainly inspire similar racers, and hopefully, mean more lively finales in the future.
As a bonus, the Italian wants to get a feel for the cobblestones ahead of the cobblestone-ridden Tour de France Stage 9 and is heading north for the Tour of Flanders in two weeks time. Cycling fans are in for a treat If the Italian can capture some of that magic at La Ronde.
If Nibali is the most versatile racer of his generation, he is merely following in the footsteps of Alejandro Valverde. The Spanish all-rounder has been around for ages, winning his first professional race all the way back in 2002. Valverde crashed out of the 2017 Tour de France with a severe kneecap fracture and many questioned if time had run out on his already long career. The answer came in his first major race of the 2018 season when he rode away from a full Team Sky train to victory on stage 2 of the Tour of Valencia. Just to make sure we knew this wasn’t a fluke, Valverde chased down Adam Yates two days later on Stage 4 to win on the brutally steep summit finish. Just to make sure we hadn’t missed the message, Valverde stormed away on the Queen stage of the Abu Dhabi Tour, winning the stage and taking the overall lead. After an impressive fourth place at the one-day Strade Bianche, he found his place in the winner’s circle once again by taking the sprint and putting himself in the driver’s seat for the overall at the Volta a Catalunya. This run of form is incredible, especially when we consider Valverde is 37 years old and coming off a potentially career-ending leg injury. One has to wonder how Nairo Quintana feels while he watches this run of victories. Movistar announced plans in December to send all three leaders, Quintana, Valverde, and Landa to the Tour de France. At the time, I assumed Valverde would be lucky to be at the start. Now I’m marking him as a favorite for every Ardenne Classic, as well as a major name to watch as he head into a Tour de France with minimal time trialing kilometers and an excess of technical challenges.
The young Australian sprinter wasn’t mentioned among the favorites for Milan-Sanremo, but if not for the heroics of Nibali, Ewan would have walked away with the biggest victory of his career. Ewan’s burst of speed at the end of a hilly 300-kilometer race was highly impressive and showed that he a pure, flat-line sprint specialist. Ewan was on my “Trending Down” list in the January Power Rankings, but on Saturday he showed that he was added a previously unseen depth of fitness and climbing ability to his lethal sprint. Watch out for the young Australian to make some waves when he takes the start line at his first Tour de France start this July.
Now let’s take a moment who I have trending down after the first big monument of the season.
Who’s On Blast
Michal Kwiatkowski & Team Sky
Kwiatkowski was highly touted by some coming into Milan-Sanremo, and while his fitness seemed to be there, the tactics employed by the former World Champ and his team left a lot to be desired. After setting a quick tempo on the Cipressa, they moved to the back of the pack leading into the divisive climb, the Poggio, and were caught looking when Nibali made his move. What makes this an especially horrible tactic is that they lacked a sprinter that could have won from a big group at the finish. They seemed to be setting pace out of habit, and then sat on their hands when they needed to be the aggressor up the Poggio. If Kwiatkowski was going to the race, he needed to get clear with Nibali on the Poggio, not sitting back and waiting for others to pull the move back and rolling the dice in the sprint finish. The good news is that the Polish rider looks to be on good form physically and has a strong team heading into the Northern Classics.
Greg Van Avermaet
Where is the Greg Van Avermaet we all fell in love with last spring? GVA has been MIA for the meat of the spring season outside a few impressive climbing days at Tirreno-Adriatico. There have been moments this spring where I’ve legitimately forgotten Van Avermaet exists. Becoming that anonymous that fast is an incredible feat after posting one of the most impressive run of Classics results ever in 2017. So far in 2018, he laid a goose egg at Strade Bianche and was a non-factor at Milan-Sanremo. Keep an eye on the dominant Belgian this weekend at E3 and Ghent-Wevelgem. If he is going to turn his season around, he’ll need to back some noise before we get to the big-show of Flanders and Roubaix.
The Italian dazzled at the end of the 2017 season and was a high-profile signing by the Mitchelton-Scott team heading into 2018, but his solo flyer with 4 kilometers remaining might have cost his teammate Caleb Ewan the win. If he had displayed patience and used his energy to pull Nibali back for his fast-finishing teammate, it certainly would have given the chasing back the firepower it needed. One has to imagine choice words were exchanged between Ewan and his new teammate back in the privacy of the team bus.