“He owes me a few beers,” world champion Peter Sagan said of Poland’s Michal Kwiatkowski, after narrowly losing the legendary Milan-San Remo race to him on Saturday. His ability to make light of the situation was vintage Sagan. And his game-changing attack, only a few kilometers earlier on the Poggio climb, was vintage Sagan as well.

By James Startt and AFP | Image: Yuzuru Sunada

 To say that Sagan started the 291-kilometer race as a heavy favorite was no understatement. But, as the 27-year-old Slovak said before the race, “I start every race as a favorite!”

 And Sagan assumed his position admirably. He only made one attack in the race. But it was perfectly placed in the final portions of the Poggio climb. The Poggio, which rises above the Mediterranean Sea in the final 10 kilometers of the race, is reputed as the last chance for punchers to avoid a sprint finish in San Remo. And while there are always attacks on the climb, they rarely work.

 Just ask Michal Kwiatowski, himself a former world champion, who tried and failed with his attack here last year. But when Sagan blasted off the front this year, it was immediately apparent that this attack was different. Kwiatowski was one of the only riders capable of reacting, and he immediately bridged across with Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe, who narrowly beat Sagan last year in the Tour of California.

 All three riders are noted descenders, and as they hit the descent of the Poggio with nearly a 10-second gap, it was evident that this break would be the one of the rare one’s to get away.

 Sagan looked for little help from the others, driving the effort towards the finish. Sagan of course, possesses a better turn of speed than either Kwiatowski or Alaphilippe. They understood that they only had a chance if they could wear him down. And they did.

 If Sagan made one error, it was in jumping too early, nearly 350 meters from the line. And while he initially appeared to surprise his opponents and grab a gap, in the final drag to the line, Kwiatowski reeled him in and just nipped him at the line, while Alaphilippe remained in third. The pack, led by 2014 winner Alexander Kristoff, finished just five seconds back.

“His attack reshuffled the cards. He actually made the race,” Kwiatkowski admitted, when asked about Sagan’s performance. “But when he escaped, I knew we absolutely had to catch him.” The Team Sky rider was, of course, elated by his stunning victory. “I’m very happy, although I actually didn’t expect to win,” said Kwiatkowski, who had been scheduled to work for teammate Elia Viviani and help set the Italian up for a winning sprint. “I won Strade Bianche recently, and now to come and win ‘La Primavera’ is just …incredible. Last year I learned my lesson. I attacked but it didn’t work. Attacking alone doesn’t work here. But if a group can get away on the Poggio they have a chance of avoiding the sprint.”

 Although he was disappointed to finish second, Sagan shed no tears. “Second, I’m used to that. I have other goals. At the beginning of the break I was alone, and then they came and took a couple of pulls. But obviously they were able to recover a bit more in the final kilometers. I still continued (i.e. to pull) because I believed I could still win the sprint.”

 And then in what can only be considered more vintage Sagan, he put his defeat in perspective. “What’s important, is putting on a good show for the public that came to see the race.” And in that regard, at least, Sagan was the hand’s down winner.