'Shark' Nibali wins cycling's Milan-San Remo classic

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San Remo (Italy) (AFP)

Italy's Vincenzo Nibali made a late solo break and held off a desperate chase from the pack to win the first big classic of the season, the Milan-San Remo on Saturday.

The 2014 Tour de France winner, nicknamed 'The Shark', shook off the sprint favourites on the Poggio hill 10km from home in the 294km race through north-western Italy.

Nibali cruised to victory with his arms aloft as Australian Caleb Ewan and France's Arnaud Demare led the chasing pack over the line a good bike length behind after the struggle that had gone to the wire.

As Nibali pulled away on the final climb, pre-race favourite Peter Sagan just watched him go, refusing to chase the Italian down after being pipped on the line in 2017 by Michal Kwiatkowski as the Sky man again sat on his wheel.

At the summit Nibali led by just eight seconds, but his sheer mastery on the descent earned him a lead that allowed him to hope for victory.

"When I knew I was 20 seconds ahead I gave it the gas," said the 33-year-old, who still had almost 5km to ride. "I'm speechless."

"We were racing for (teammate) Sonny Colbrelli but in the last 15km, I felt good and decided to go."

"This is the race I least expected to win, the one I'm least suited to win," said the man renowned for his climbing and descent work.

Ewan, who made an impressive last thrust to try and catch Nibali, added: "I realise it's a massive result but to come so close to winning it's a pretty big disappointment."

Three-time world champion Sagan eventually settled for sixth place as the Slovak, who came second last year, once again failed to seal victory on his eighth attempt.

Defending champion Kwiatkowski of Poland finished in eleventh.

Nibali's victory ended Italy's 12-year wait for a first home winner since Filippo Pozzato in 2006.

The 33-year-old Sicilian is one of the few riders to have won the three big Tours -- Giro, Tour de France and Vuelta.

But he has already won 'Monument' classic races, notably the Tour of Lombardy.

- Cavendish, Greipel crash -

The 109th edition of the race, which is the longest in the cycling calendar, started under the rain before the sun came out with 60km to go.

But there were some high-profile casualties with Britain's Mark Cavendish, the 2009 winner, and Germany's Andre Greipel both suffering injuries in separate crashes.

Cavendish hit a bollard and flew through the air before landing hard on his back, 10km from the finish line.

The stunned 32-year-old lay motionless for some time and was later taken to hospital in San Remo for tests on his right hip.

This season has been crash-prone for rider from the Isle of Man who came a cropper on the Tour of Abu Dhabi in February and again during the team time-trial in last week's Tirreno-Adriatico.

He had been uncertain to compete in the Milan-San Remo until the last minute.

Greipel fell twice, the second time on the Poggio descent, and suffered a broken collarbone among other injuries. His Lotto team manager Marc Sergeant said the German would miss the upcoming northern classics.

Meanwhile, the race marked the debut of a video review system following the row over Sagan's exclusion from last year's Tour de France.

The 28-year-old was controversially kicked off the Tour for elbowing Cavendish and causing a crash.

As a result governing body the UCI is introducing video technology for all major races.