Alaphilippe takes third in debut Milano-Sanremo
A cunning display of the 24-year-old saw him finish on the podium at cycling's longest one-day race.
Seven hours of sweating, staying focused on the bike and fighting for positioning ahead of the key points of a race which is usually decided in the final 15 minutes. To sum it up, that's what Milano-Sanremo is about, but despite being action-packed only inside the last hour, it remains one of the most spectacular, thrilling and popular races on the calendar.
Lining out at the start on the Via della Chiesa Rossa, in the shadow of Milan's Castello Sforzesco, Julian Alaphilippe didn't know what to expect from "La Primavera", as this was his first outing at the 291km-long race which suits more the sprinters than the climbers and has a special way of taking the sting out of the riders' legs while breaking their hopes and dreams.
Fresh off a great Paris-Nice, where he scored a stage win and finished fifth overall in addition to conquering the green and white jerseys, Alaphilippe was one of Quick-Step Floors' protected riders for the Italian classic, and stayed safely tucked in as the peloton left Lombardy behind and headed to the coast, where the real race was expected to start.
Attacks came on the succession of Capi, but it wasn't until the Cipressa, the penultimate climb of the course, that several riders decided to make a move and test the bunch once the 10-man breakaway waved the flag. Quick-Step Floors, who until that point majestically led the pack thanks to an impressive and tireless Julien Vermote, had Philippe Gilbert track down the attackers and the Belgian Champion made sure no one got a gap.
On the flat section towards the Poggio, it was all together again, with Tom Boonen – making his final appearance at the race – driving the bunch. A regular feature on the route of Milano-Sanremo since 1960, when Gastone Nencini was the first rider at the top, Poggio (3.7 kilometers with an average gradient of 3.7%) played a huge role in the outcome, as Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) surged clear, putting some daylight between him and the other contenders.
Julian Alaphilippe was the first to respond, before Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) joined him, and it was thanks to the splendid effort of the Frenchman that the duo closed the gap and bridged to the front 500 meters from the top. On the fast and winding descent, the trio built a lead of 19 seconds, an advantage which proved impossible to be erased by the charging bunch.
The sprint of the iconic Via Roma was an enthrailling one, and Julian concluded a close third, behind Kwiatkowski and the world champion. It was his second career podium in a Monument, after the 2015 edition of Liège–Bastogne–Liège, where he made the headlines by finishing second.
"Today, my role was to cover the attacks on the Poggio, because Fernando was our road captain and we were hoping to bring him to the finish in the best possible position. So, when Sagan went, I followed. I went full gas on the Poggio and had hoped to recover a bit on the descent, but we rode really hard also there. My legs were empty at the finish and I sprinted against two very strong riders, but I don't have any regret, despite coming close to winning this beautiful race. I am happy with this top 3 and I hope one day I will be victorious in Milano-Sanremo", said Julian, first debutant in three years to podium at "La Classicissima".
Alaphilippe, who made a big jump in the World Tour individual classification following this race, had words of praise for his teammates at the finish:
I am very grateful to them, they all did a wonderful job.
"Julien stayed at the front of the peloton for more than 200 kilometers, Philippe covered some of my rivals' moves, Tom pulled hard before the Poggio, all of them were fantastic and deserve a big thank you. Today you could see again why this team is so great!"
Besides Alaphilippe, Quick-Step Floors placed another young and talented rider in the top 10, Fernando Gaviria. The 22-year-old was well placed in the peloton ahead of the Cipressa, but a saddle problem forced him to start the 5km-long climb at the back and due to the fast and furious pace it was impossible for him to change the bike, so he had to spend vital energy in order to return to the front by the time the bunch arrived at the bottom of the Poggio.
In the end, despite this incident and the pain he felt in his right wrist following Thursday's training crash, Fernando sprinted from the peloton on the Via Roma and finished fifth, the best ever result of a Colombian rider at Milano-Sanremo.
Photo credit: ©Tim De Waele