Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Super Mario in Gent-Wevelgem

Peter Sagan's charismatic win in Sunday's Gent-Wevelgem was superb, sign of a true champion who knows when to take charge and when to push for the win. While many expected him to wait for the final sprint, he put in more than his fair share in a break of 13 riders, and left them all in the dust by attacking away. In the end, he had a 23-second advantage in a race that had been threatened with cancellation just hours prior.

His win reminded us of "Super Mario" Cipollini's three wins in Gent-Wevelgem: in 1992, 1993, and 2002. His first win was perhaps the most amusing one (Watch video starting at 1:55). What was to be a formality -- a field sprint -- had "Tashkent Terror" Djamolidine Abdoujaparov pull on Cipollini's seat post as Cipo was surging past him. The tug was enough to push Abdou ahead of Cipollini, however Cipo kept his cool and raised his arms in celebration anyway.

"I knew he'd get penalized," he said calmly.

Cipo's 1993 win was straightforward: he simply hit the gas and sprinted literally from the front, nobody was able to get around him.

In 2002 he had established himself as the fastest field sprinter and fresh off a win in Milan-Sanremo with his team Acqua-Sapone. Not content with staying in the peloton, he made his way into a big breakaway of 21 riders, which included classics hardman Johan Museeuw of Domo, defending champion George Hincapie of USPS, fellow American Fred Rodriguez of Domo, and Robbie McEwen of Lotto. These last two are self-professed sprinters in their own right.

Hard riding on the second ascent up the Kemmelberg revealed a leading group of four, with Hincapie and Rodriguez making the selection. The tricky descent down the Kemmelberg increased their lead to 10 seconds. Instead of waiting for others to react, Cipollini powered across the flat exposed section all by himself, prompting Hincapie and Rodriguez to do a double-take. The stage was then set: were they to keep pushing or to play a tactical game against Cipollini? Sensing doubt, Cipollini was game to put his share of pulling on the front, and when attacks started from this group, he was able to play the riders against each other to nab the win in the end.

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