When you are the five-star favorite to win Milan–San Remo, how do strategize? That was the question Peter Sagan was asked before the year’s first monument. “Well, we can speak a lot about tactics,” he said, “but it’s always different.”
Sagan had at least four different options. He could make his Bora-Hansgrohe teammates close down breakaways and take his chance in a sprint finish—though that didn’t work last year when he was balked by a late crash and finished 12th. A second choice was to let the other teams work toward a bunch finish and keep some teammates fresh enough to help him challenge the other top sprinters. Sagan could also wait for a Greg Van Avermaet to attack on a late climb and join him to make a winning breakaway. Then, again, a pre-race questioner suggested Sagan might be the one who attacks. “Me?” he replied, coyly. “Hooo…we’ll see…depends on the legs after 290 kilometers.”
All four options were still on the table nearing the summit of the penultimate climb, the Cipressa, with just over 20 kilometers to go. The peloton was strung out when eight riders attacked—and two of Sagan’s teammates closed the gap. It looked like tactic No. 1 might be working. After the descent and along the coast road, the Bora-Hansgrohe riders again closed down a dangerous move. The strongest sprinters were still in the 50-strong front group and their teams—including Fernando Gaviria’s Quick-Step, John Degenkolb’s Trek-Segafredo and Elia Viviani’s Team Sky—then moved to the front. It looked like tactic No. 2 might work.
Onto the final climb, the Poggio, with 9 kilometers remaining, Sky continued to set the pace before Tom Dumoulin, riding for his Team Sunweb sprinter Michael Matthews, stormed to the front. Dumoulin hammered away for most of the 3.7-kilometer climb, followed by three Team Sky men. It still looked like tactic No. 2 was working—though there was still time for a No. 3 attack.
That chance came when Dumoulin peeled off the front and the Sky riders continued at their high tempo. Van Avermaet wasn’t well positioned and the other favorites were playing possum for their sprinters. Assessing the situation, Sagan took the initiative—as he has done so many times in his career—and triggered tactic No. 4.
Still seated, Sagan accelerated hard for 100 meters to reach the grade’s steepest 8-percent pitch, a kilometer from the Poggio summit, a tactic that proved successful for seven-time San Remo winner Eddy Merckx back in the 1960s and ’70s. Upstart Italian Sonny Colbrelli jumped after Sagan, with Degenkolb on his wheel, while sprinters Gaviria and Viviani both shouted to their respective teammates, Julian Alaphilippe and Michael Kwiatkowski, to “go, go, go!”
When Sagan stood hard on the pedals on the 8-percent pitch, Colbrelli, already out of the saddle, quickly sat back down, defeated. Degenkolb then vainly tried to close the gap, and when Sagan briefly turned his head he saw that Kwiatkowski and Alaphilippe were moving up fast. As the world champion continued at his insane pace, Alaphilippe (with Kwiatkowski in tow) worked even harder to catch him just as the descent began. Van Avermaet led the chasers, five seconds back.
Sagan used his incomparable bike-handling skills on the twisting 3-kilometer descent and increased the trio’s lead to 17 seconds. Alaphilippe and Kwiatkowski took only brief turns at the front in the 2 kilometers remaining, knowing their sprinters were in the group behind ready to contest the victory. Under the kilometer-to-go marker, the gap was still 10 seconds. That wasn’t a large enough cushion to employ cat-and-mouse tactics, so Sagan again took the initiative, ramping up his speed and launching his final sprint with 200 slightly uphill meters to go.
He and Kwiatkowski both stood on the pedals, wringing every last ounce of speed from their bikes as they lunged for the line. It’s now history that the Polish rider, world champion in 2014, took the verdict by half a wheel, with Alaphilippe in third. The spectacular finale was entirely of Peter Sagan’s making. His initiative. He may have lost, but he insisted: “I believed I was going to win the sprint. Yes, I believed….”