African cycling in general and team MTN-Qhubeka in particular captured a landmark triumph on Sunday when squad leader Gerald Ciolek left the the favourites reeling in a rainsoaked and snow struck Milan-Sanremo.
As Africaâ€™s first ever UCI Professional Continental TeamÂ - and the first to take part in the UCI WorldTour this season - according to team principal Douglas Ryder, MTN-Qhubeka were hoping for a top 20 place at best in their debut at Milan-Sanremo. Instead, in one of the toughest editions in years Ciolek neatly outsprinted Peter Sagan (Cannondale) to claim an unexpected but well-deserved victory in 2013â€™s first Monument Classic. Overall in the UCI WorldTour, Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) now leads.
For Ciolek, 26, victory in the Milan-Sanremo was by far the high point of his career so far. For MTN-Qhubeka, meanwhile, the win in Italyâ€™s biggest Classic confirms that, whilst also sponsoring the World Cycling Centre in Africa, in their first year at Professional Continental (second division)Â level, they are already making big inroads into the European cycling scene. In that sense, Milan-Sanremo 2013 is a victory for all the African continent.
â€śItâ€™s unbelievable,â€ť said Ciolek after crossing the finish line. â€śThis is an unbelievable success for us and just an incredible day. We just came here as a wildcard and now weâ€™re standing here with the trophy. This is great. I knew I had to follow all the best riders on the Poggio and it worked out perfectly.
â€śWhen I chose this team, people wondered why I would join a Pro Continental team but itâ€™s just been unbelievable. The coaching and staff on this team is so professional. I have never seen management care so much for the riders. I am happy to be on this team,â€ť an elated Ciolek concluded.
With the race suspended mid-course because of the snow on the Turchino and Manie passes, Milan-Sanremo became a non-stop series of late moves in a collective bid by the non-sprinters to ambush the faster riders such as Sagan. And one of the most effective moves came when Sylvain Chavanel went on the attack late in the day with Britainâ€™s Ian Stannard (Sky) and Eduard Vorganov (Katusha).
Stannard and Chavanel made it over the top of the Poggio and came within just four kilometres of battling it out for the bunch sprint. But despite being reeled in by four counter-attackers including Sagan, Ciolek and another top favourite,Â former Sanremo winner Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard), Chavanelâ€™s fourth place in the sprint that finally decided La Primavera has now placed him at the top of the WorldTourâ€™s individual classification.
There can be no denying that Chavanelâ€™s advantage is slight - with 120 points, just seven ahead of the former leader Richie Porte (Sky ProCycling) and nine on Santos Tour Down Under winner Tom Jelte Slagter (Blanco ProCycing). But as a gifted Classics rider with a strong record in the upcoming cobbled Classics, such as second in the Ronde Van Vlaanderen 2011 behind Nick Nuyens, Chavanel should be able to reinforce that lead.
The teams classification remains relatively stable, with Sky ProCycling remaining in control for a second successive week after they moved into the number one spot at Paris-Nice. Their advantage over the new runnersâ€™-up Omega Pharma-Quick Step is 112 points, a mere five points less than theirÂ margin on their previous closest pursuers Blanco Pro Cycling - who drop to number five overall. RadioShack, partly thanks to Cancellara, move up to third overall, whilst Katusha, whose veteran Luca Paolini scored a fifth place in the six-man sprint at Milan-Sanremo, gain three spots to take over in fourth.
Spain remain in command, too, in the nations classification, but with a considerably reduced advantage over second placed USA. In one race, the USA has slashed off 30 points on Spainâ€™s overall lead, reducing it from 112 to 82. Meanwhile Great Britain, partly thanks to Stannard and Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), who took ninth - meaning Britain was the only country with two riders in Milan-Sanremoâ€™s top ten -Â are now third best placed nation overall.
Next up in the UCI WorldTour is the week-long Volta a Catalunya, starting on Monday March 18th in the coastal town of Calella and finishing the following Sunday in the Montjuic park in Barcelona.
Top names taking part include 2012 Tour and Giro winners Bradley Wiggins (Sky ProCycling) and Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp), WorldTour 2012 champion Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), Thomas De Gendt (Vancansoleil-DCM), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Robert Gesink (Blanco ProCycling). The two most decisive stages are the third to Vallter 2000 and stage four to Port AinĂ©, both summit finishes deep in the Pyrenees. Could Rodriguez, currently 16th, make a repeat bid for the UCI WorldTour leaderâ€™s title on home territory and in a race he already won back in 2010? Donâ€™t rule it out....