MILAN-SAN REMO, the first monument classic of the cycling year took place on Saturday and was won by Matthew Goss (HTC-High Road).
Goss finished the 298km race by sprinting to the head of a group of eight riders to claim the biggest victory of his career. Fabian Cancellara (Leopard-Trek) finished in second place and Phillipe Gilbert (OmegaPharma-Lotto) rounded out the podium as he came in third.
Goss is the first Australian (and first non-European) to win the Milan-San Remo classic.
The race came to life with about 80km to go when reigning champion Oscar Freire (Rabobank) took a tumble on a descent. The disorder that ensued resulted in a split in the peloton, as 44 riders escaped off the front and quickly built up a two minute lead. As well as Freire, riders who were caught in the large bunch behind on the road included major pre-race favourites Mark Cavendish (HTC-High Road), Tyler Farrar and World Champion Thor Hushovd (both Garmin-Cervelo), none of whom made it back to the front of the race.
The finale of this year’s Milan-San Remo was riveting. There was constant attacking, as what was left of the front group splintered on the final climbs of the race. Yaroslav Popovych (Team RadioShack), Greg van Avermaet (BMC Racing), Yoann Offredo (FDJ) and reigning Giro d’Italia champion Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) all lit up the front of the race, but all were pegged back by riders chasing behind. As the race approached the final three kilometres, there were ten riders in with a chance of victory, but Goss knew that he was the strongest sprinter there.
The patient Tasmanian watched Gilbert and Cancellara try to break away to steal the victory and remained calm as other riders diligently reeled them back in. As the group came back together in the final straight, Goss made no mistake and powered past the group of non-sprinters to take the win, his eighth of the year.
Earlier in the week, the An Post-Sean Kelly team took part in two separate Belgian one day races. First up was the Nokere Koerse semi-classic which took place on Wednesday. Irish riders Sam Bennett and Ronan McLaughlin made up part of the eight-man team, with Niko Eeckhout once again assuming the role of team leader. As is the case with most Belgian races of this calibre, Eeckhout has finished on the podium before. In 2001, one of his best ever years on a bike, Eeckhout finished third here behind Michel Vanhaecke and Wilfried Cretskens.
This year however, Eeckhout could only manage 12th in the bunch sprint which decided the race. Double Tour de France stage winner Gert Steegmans (QuickStep) took the victory which was his first in over two years. Ronan McLaughlin finished in the bunch in 63rd position, whereas Sam Bennett did not finish. Irish road race champion Matt Brammeier (HTC-High Road) also took part and was the best placed rider on his team in a solid 26th place.
But there was more to come from Eeckhout in the Handzame Classic on Friday. This is a race which has previously been included as a stage in the Three Days of West Flanders. This year however, the race has separated itself from that particular stage race and has been run for the first time as a one-day race in its own right. In awful conditions the race came down to a bunch sprint between 40 riders. The dash to the line was won by Steve Schets (Donckers Koffie – Jelly Belly) as Niko Eeckhout finished just behind in third place for the An Post-Sean Kelly team.
The race was notable for a crash which took place just as the riders were crossing the finish line. An over-eager spectator leaned out to take a photograph and a camera strap hooked the handlebars of the rider who finished in second place, Kenny van Hummel (Skil-Shimano). The crash brought down several riders including the winner Schets as he was in mid-celebration. Nobody was seriously hurt in the resulting chaos which led to the bizarre image of Schets lying on his back in the middle of the road with his arms aloft in celebration.
The next race for the An Post-Sean Kelly team is the Dwars door Vlaanderen this Wednesday, a race won by Niko Eeckhout in 2001 and 2005. Sean Kelly himself finished in third place back in 1987.
Volta a Catalunya
David McCann and Ryan Sherlock of the Giant Kenda Cycling Team are currently taking part in the Tour de Taiwan which got underway on Saturday with a prologue time trial and continued yesterday with a criterium race in Taipei City. McCann is the reigning champion and currently sits in 22nd place just nine seconds off the overall lead currently held by Australian Adam Phelan (Drapac Cycling). Sherlock is 75th in the general classification. The ten-day race continues today with a 118km stage which includes three categorised climbs which will be the first major tests for the riders.
Nicolas Roche, Daniel Martin and Philip Deignan are all due to continue their seasons in the Volta a Catalunya which gets underway today. They will be joined by major G.C. contenders such as Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans, Ivan Basso, Carlos Sastre and Denis Menchov. It is a seven-day stage race in which Irish riders have a good history. Daniel Martin finished second here in 2009 behind Alejandro Valverde and Sean Kelly won this race in 1984 and again in 1986.
Highlights of the 2011 Volta a Catalunya will be shown on British Eurosport every evening this week.