Another bunch sprint, another win by the dominant Mark Cavendish. Was it really that easy?
This time around, definitely not. Milano-Sanremo is unlike any other race on the pro cycling calendar.
Today's 100th edition of the famous Milano-Sanremo classic race forced riders to face the longest single-day race of the year, a staggering 298 kilometers (186 mi). At breakneck speeds today, it still took the riders almost seven hours.
This race is notoriously hard with its steep climbs along the course, the last of which is situated less than 10 kilometers from the finish.
It is well known here that, although the race can come down to a bunch sprint, the sprinter who wins isn't necessarily the "fastest" sprinter in the world (aka. Mark Cavendish) but the one who is the freshest and ready to sprint after seven hours in the saddle.
Sometimes the race does not come down to a sprint. Last year, Fabian Cancellara (Saxobank) won the race in scintillating fashion with a huge attack just two kilometers from the line. He's not here this year, however, due to sickness and injury.
Mark Cavendish came into this race with little pressure. Almost no one has ever won the race on their first attempt due to the immense challenge of 300 kilometers of fast riding, typically 100 or more kilometers longer than a typical stage of a multi-day race, along with the many steep climbs.
Cavendish's goal this year was to try and stay with the pack on the climbs and learn the course, and he has been receiving coaching by now-retired four-time Sanremo winner Erik Zabel, because experience in this race is crucial.
For the bookies before the race, that meant that the more seasoned sprinters such as Daniele Bennati (Liquigas), Alessandro Petacchi (LPR-Brakes), Tom Boonen (QuickStep), and Thor Hushovd (Cervelo), along with perrenial Classics attackers Davide Rebellin (Diquigiovanni) and Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) were the main contenders for this brutal race.
This race, however, was not going by the books today.
An early breakaway of 11 riders never built up a significant lead over the peloton, only about five minutes, which is nothing in a race so long.
The race really started to heat up in the last 30 kilometers after the breakaway was completely swallowed up. The last two main climbs of the Cipressa and the Poggio saw several key attacks.
The peloton split into several pieces, leaving some contenders behind, like Julian Dean (Garmin) and Robbie McEwen (Katusha), along with more than three-quarters of the field. Those lucky to make the front end of the split showed no mercy on each other.
Huge attacks on the Poggio came from Davide Rebellin (Diquigiovanni) and Filippo Pozzato (Katusha), demonstrating the crowd's selection of them as race favourites.
Unfortunately for them, they were fiercely demolished by the pack, being led on by QuickStep, LPR, Cervelo, and also Columbia, showing that Cavendish had made it over the mountains and was in the front pack in the finale, something he, his teammates, and the cycling public did not expect.
A tight circuit leading to the finish made going dicey, and with 300 meters to go, Heinrich Haussler (Cervelo) jumped out from the group, expecting to lead out his teammate Thor Hushovd, but when Hushovd was not on his wheel, he went for it solo, opening up a big gap.
Cavendish, however, was charging fast, closing the gap to Haussler, came around him at the last moment, and pushed his bike over the line to win by just the width of a tire. Hushovd rounded out the podium.
Cavendish might not have made history by being the youngest winner, nor is he the first rider to win on attempt number one, but he has put an even tighter stranglehold on the pro peloton today by showing that he can be more than just a sprinter; he can also get over the mountains just like his sprinting competitors and win one of cycling's grandest races.