Arnaud Demare became the first French winner of a major cycling classic since 1997 when he sprinted to victory in the 107th edition of a crash-marred Milan-San Remo on Saturday.
Demare crossed the finish line of the first of the season’s five ‘monuments’ in 6hr 54min 45sec after surviving a late crash that upset the plans of a number of well-placed favourites.
v He is the first Frenchman to win one of cycling’s ‘monuments’ since Laurent Jalabert won the 1997 Tour of Lombardy.
Only months earlier Frederic Guesdon, Demare’s sporting director on Saturday, had won Paris-Roubaix.
“There are some days when everything works out for you,” said the 24-year-old, who had to perform a late chase with 30 km to race after being split from the bunch by a crash.
Demare, the 2001 under-21 world champion, added: “Everything went to perfection. I’m surprised at what I’ve achieved.”
Britain’s Ben Swift, of Team Sky, finished a close second with Belgian Jurgen Roelandts, who started the final dash for the line, completing the podium.
BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet, the Belgian winner of last week’s Tirreno-Adriatico, finished in fifth place just ahead of Norway’s 2014 winner Alexander Kristoff, while 2008 champion Fabian Cancellara slipped to outside the top ten on his final participation before retirement.
A breakaway group of around a dozen riders formed early in the race, and they were among the first to be informed as organisers were forced into some impromptu reorganisation.
A landslide near Arenzano, roughly 130km into the race, left huge boulders on the road and forced organisers to send the peloton along an adjacent motorway, adding an extra four kilometres to the scheduled distance of 291km.
The frontrunners were reeled in with 25km remaining as the peloton steadily increased the pace in anticipation of the main hostilities on the decisive climbs of the Cipressa and the Poggio.
It was early on the Cipressa, with 24km remaining, that former champion Mark Cavendish was left hanging off the back, just as fellow Briton Geraint Thomas (Sky) began to see his hopes fade.
The first attack came from Giovanni Visconti, the Movistar teammate of race hopeful Alejandro Valverde, who pulled away to lure Ian Stannard on his wheel.
They built a 14-second lead on the peloton but, after being joined by three Italians, were kept on a tight rein as they raced the flat, 8km stretch leading to the foot of the Poggio.
Their hopes of starting the final, 3.7km ascent with an advantage evaporated quickly as the peloton upped the pace.
A number of leading teams and riders appeared at the front in a bid to secure the best positions ahead of the frantic drop into the principality.
Poland’s former world champion Michal Kwiatkowski raced off the front for Team Sky and opened up a small lead as he crested the summit, but a series of hairpin bends on the descent meant a select chase group were never far behind.
In the closing three kilometres a series of counter-attacks came thick and fast, Vincenzo Nibali, Cancellara then Frenchman Tony Gallopin all having a go before being reeled in.
When Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) accelerated with 1km to race, Van Avermaet, Fernando Gaviria and Sagan were quickly on his wheel.
Sagan’s hopes, however, were dashed when Gaviria crashed in front of him in the closing 500 metres. The incident rocked momentum and caused late panic, but failed to shake Demare.
After waiting until Roelandts made his final bid for the line, the Frenchman kept his composure to launch his sprint in timely fashion and overtake Swift in the closing 20 metres to become the first French winner since Jalabert in 1995.
1. Arnaud Demare (France / FDJ) 6:54:45″
2. Ben Swift (Britain / Team Sky) ST
3. Juergen Roelandts (Belgium / Lotto)
4. Nacer Bouhanni (France / Cofidis)
5. Greg Van Avermaet (Belgium / BMC Racing)
6. Alexander Kristoff (Norway / Katusha)
7. Heinrich Haussler (Australia / IAM Cycling)
8. Filippo Pozzato (Italy / Southeast)
9. Sonny Colbrelli (Italy / Bardiani Valvole)
10. Matteo Trentin (Italy / Etixx – Quick-Step)