|It’s taken him 14 years but Mario Cipollini has finally won Milan-San Remo, the race he covets above all others. With the score between sprinters and solo winners tied at 46 each, it was very apt that SuperMario put the sprinters back into the lead in this 93rd edition of ‘la primavera’.
After a late break by Paolo Bettini and Giuliano Figueras had been snuffed out by Cipo’s Acqua e Sapone team-mates little more than a kilometre from the line, Cipollini hit the front with 250 metres left and no one ever looked like catching him. Domo’s Freddy Rodriguez took second and achieved the best finish ever by an American rider in the race, with Rabobank’s Markus Zberg another surprise podium finisher in third.
World champion Oscar Freire was the best placed of the other favourites in fifth place. Unfortunately a crash on the run-in to the Poggio took four-time winner Erik Zabel out of the action. Robbie McEwen’s chance went at the same time as he punctured and had to be handed a wheel by a team-mate.
But the main casualty in the melee that always takes place in the approach to the Cipressa was defending World Cup champion Erik Dekker, who broke his hip when he went to the ground and was later reported to be out of action for the next three months. Danilo Di Luca was another pre-race favourite who went down here and lost all chance of victory.
While the Poggio is the most notable climb in the race because it’s the last, the Cipressa is the most crucial. After bumping along the wide coastal road for so many kilometres, the already hot pace reaches frantic levels as riders jostle for position before the Cipressa.
The bottom of this climb is like a funnel. If you’re near the front you get shooting through no problem, but if you’re not in the top 30 it’s almost impossible to fight your way back into contention.
Matters today were complicated by the break of the race still holding a
quickly diminishing advantage just prior to the Cipressa. Abraham Olano (ONCE), Rene Andrle (ONCE), Torsten Schmidt (Gerolsteiner), Vladimir Douma (Panaria) and Inigo Cuesta (Cofidis) started it off, and Laszlo Bodrogi (Mapei) and Martin Hvastja (Alessio) joined them later.
Once caught by the speeding bunch led by Mapei, there were constant attacks on the descent from the Cipressa. Mirko Celestino, Saeco’s new leader with Di Luca out of it, was the first to try his hand, and Euskaltel’s David Etxebarria also had a go. But the speed of the bunch was too high before the Poggio for anyone to stay clear on their own.
Juan Antonio Flecha (iBanesto) joined Andrea Peron (CSC) in one vain attempt to get away. On the Poggio it was Paris-Nice winner Alexandre Vinokourov who showed first, but he was passed by the extremely promising Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel).
For a moment it seemed the Spanish might have a sensational winner, but sanity returned with the expected thrust from Paolo Bettini, the first of two cards Mapei had to play. Bettini was joined by former team-mate Figueras (Panaria), and the two Italians opened up a small but potentially decisive gap on the descent from the Poggio.
Eight seconds isn’t much, but victory in San Remo has been won many times with just such at attack. But, unfortunately for Bettini and Figueras, not today.
The bunch brought them back and victory went to SuperMario. And who can deny that he deserves it? His best before today was second behind Giorgio Furlan in 1994, a race best remembered for Cipo flinging his bike through the back window of a commissaire’s car which had stopped just metres beyond the finishing line in front of the bunch.
Since then Cipo has had the added frustration of seeing Erik Zabel, his main rival for the title of best sprinter of the generation, win four times in San Remo. But, finally, and in a new team’s colours as well, Cipo has achieved his dream, and whatever happens now Acqua & Sapone have already had a season beyond their dreams.
1. Mario Cipollini (Italy) Acqua & Sapone
287km in 6-39-29
.2. Fred Rodríguez (Domo)
.3. Markus Zberg (Rabobank)
.4. Jo Planckaert (Cofidis)
.5. Oscar Freire (Mapei)
.6. Tomas Konecny (Domo)
.7. Andrei Tchmil (Lotto)
.8. Jan Svorada (Lampre)
.9. Paolo Bossoni (Tacconi)
10. Mario Manzoni (Index)
16. George Hincapie (US Postal)
17. Alessandro Petacchi (Fassa Bortolo) all st