HTC-Highroad‘s Matt Goss continued his fantastic start to the 2011 season by coming out on top in a tense eight-up finale to win the 102nd running of Milan-San Remo after a series of dramatic breakaways and attacks in the closing kilometres. In so doing, he became the first non-European rider to win this traditionally sprinter-dominated Classic, which was famously won by the great Eddy Merckx on no fewer than seven occasions.
At 298km, Milan-San Remo is the longest professional one-day race on the calendar, typically taking around seven hours to complete. The course is lumpy rather than seriously hilly, but features a series of testing challenges in its final quarter which can spell doom for the tactically unaware. There are the three ‘capi’, none overly taxing in isolation, but which are each attacked at a frenetic pace as the top sprinters ensure they are in prime position to avoid being dropped. These are then followed by the Cipressa and the Poggio in the final 20 kilometres. The latter in particular is narrow and winding, and its proximity to the finish provides the perfect springboard for an attack. By the final sprint, the speed of the bunch is always lactic acid-inducingly quick – if you lose a wheel at this point there is no getting back – and the winner is not necessarily the man with the quickest legs, but the one who has conserved his energy the best to launch himself to glory in the final few hundred metres.
As Goss’s HTC teammate Mark Cavendish, the winner in 2009, said at a press conference before the race:
If there’s one thing that goes wrong in 300km, it’s going to take its toll later on. Everything has to go right. In 2009 when I won, we had a team of eight riders and we used that team of eight riders throughout the whole race. I didn’t have one puncture, didn’t have anything go wrong and it just saves you [energy].
A race shaped by La Mànie
This year’s race began to take shape on La Mànie, just under 100 kilometres from the finish in San Remo, with several of the pre-race favourites effectively eliminated from contention.
Earlier in the day, Japanese champion Takashi Miyazawa had led the peloton in a minute’s silence for the victims of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, before launching himself into an early four-man breakaway after 15km which at one stage held an advantage of over 13 minutes. By the summit of La Mànie, however, only Mikhail Ignatiev and Alessandro De Marchi remained at the front with a vastly reduced lead of 1:20.
On the approach to and descent from the climb, two separate crashes split the peloton and put paid to the chances of several leading contenders. First a crash of around 20 riders delayed world champion Thor Hushovd and Goss’s teammate Cavendish – who said afterwards he had spent much of the day feeling sick – while on the descent 2010 winner Óscar Freire went down on a wet, sweeping right hand bend. With the remains of the break swallowed up, a lead group of 44 riders formed with a two-minute lead over the rest of the peloton, including big names such as Philippe Gilbert, André Greipel, Fabian Cancellara, Filippo Pozzato, Alessandro Ballan, Vincenzo Nibali, Heinrich Haussler, Tom Boonen and, of course, Goss. With significant numbers in the lead pack and a determined Liquigas team on the front determined to make the gap stick, there was to be no way back for the main bunch, with only Michele Scarponi able to successfully bridge the gap.
Cipressa and Poggio set up the decisive attacks
On the descent from the Cipressa, FDJ‘s Steve Chainel pulled teammate Yoann Offredo, Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and Stuart O’Grady (Leopard-Trek) off the front of the lead group, opening up a gap of close to 30 seconds as they attacked the final climb of the Poggio with ten kilometres to go. Van Avermaet launched a solo attack just inside the 9km mark, while behind him first Vincenzo Nibali and then Cancellara split the chasing bunch, dragging a select few across the gap. First Chainel was overhauled, and then O’Grady and Offredo were also swallowed up, as a small elite group hunted Van Avermaet down.
The catch was not completed until 2.5km from the finish, at which point Offredo immediately counter-punched. After he was hauled back by Cancellara, Gilbert then attacked, only for Pozzato to bring the others back to him. Just beyond the one kilometre flag Nibali then had a speculative try, only to quickly reconsider. It was left to Offredo to drag the leading eight through the final bends, with Scarponi the first to try his luck at around 200 metres. However, his exertions in chasing down the lead group earlier meant he had little to give, so as Gilbert ducked out from behind his wheel the pair were easy meat for the fast-finishing pair of Goss and Cancellara who swept past on either side of them. Goss had relied on others to do the chasing earlier, conserving energy which, coupled with his superior sprint, meant he had little trouble holding off Cancellara by more than a bike length to ease to victory.
It was a fantastic finish to a thrilling and unpredictable race which had viewers guessing right up until the final 50 metres.
Goss celebrates the biggest win of his career after a perfectly-judged effort (image courtesy of Graham Watson)
The 24-year old Goss had stated that he thought he could do well in pre-race interviews:
I’m really looking forward to it. This is the best form I’ve had at this time of year. I think I have the legs to be with the lead group on Saturday.
His form so far this season has indeed been superlative, having won stages at each of his three prior races – the Tour Down Under, Tour of Oman and Paris-Nice. And although the cards fell his way here he did a superb job of marshalling his resources to ensure he was in a position to unleash his devastating final burst. Afterwards he said:
I was actually a bit worried, there were so many strong guys and attacking guys in there. I knew I was going to have my work cut out, especially since I was one of the fastest sprinters in there. It was tough, but I’m happy.
I knew I’d been going well, I knew I could get a good result, but actually to get the win is incredible. I knew Gilbert was dangerous and would try for an attack on the Poggio, so I rode across to that front group just as we reached the top, and once I was with them I knew I was in with a chance.
It was an advantage knowing the route. I live nearby and I’ve trained over the Poggio a few times in the last few days just to check it again. The descent was fast, but it wasn’t too tricky because fortunately it wasn’t wet, and with 500 meters to go I just gave it everything I had and hoped for the best.
Cavendish has stated elsewhere that he is happy Goss is on his team, as he genuinely respects his speed and would consider him a serious threat if he was on another squad. With his eye-catching form so far, it is likely Goss will receive many lucrative offers from teams offering to make him their star sprinter and give him the opportunity to go head to head with Cavendish in 2012.
It’s a mouth-watering prospect for next year. For now, however, an HTC sprint train which can feature either or both Goss and Mark Renshaw in front of Cavendish for the Grand Tours looks like a pretty formidable combination.
1. Matt Goss (HTC-Highroad) 6:51:10
2. Fabian Cancellara (Leopard-Trek) same time
3. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) s/t
4. Alessandro Ballan (BMC) s/t
5. Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) s/t
6. Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) s/t
7. Yoann Offredo (FDJ) s/t
8. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) +0:03
9. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) +0:10
10. Stuart O’Grady (Leopard-Trek) +0:12