SAN REMO, Italy, March 24 (AFP) World Cup holder Erik Zabel of Germany, riding for the Deutsche Telekom team, won the 92nd edition of the Milan-San Remo Classic Saturday, his fourth victory in the race.
Zabel beat off Mario Cipollini of Italy and reigning world champion Romans Vainsteins of Latvia in a sprint finish marred by a pile-up of more than 1O cyclists, many of whom needed treatment.
World champion Vainsteins, although not involved in the collision, might equally consider himself an injured party as his final sprint was checked when he was impeded by Belgian Jo Planckaert who was later relegated from eighth to 19th position by the race jury.
"Planckaert pulled my jersey 300 meters out," said the man from Riga. "Coming back against Zabel in conditions like that is impossible."
Zabel praised his Kazakhstani team-mate Alexander Vinokourov for providing the platform for his victory.
"We decided this morning that Vinokourov would be the workhorse," explained the German, whose victory in the race known in Italy as 'la Primavera' (spring) also puts him to the top of the World Cup standings after one race.
Zabel, a classic specialist, won the race for the first time in 1997, then again in 1998 and 2000 but this year the 30-year-old Berlin-born rider won on a course that had undergone some modest changes from its traditional layout.
His fourth victory puts him alongside Italian Gino Bartali, also a four-time winner. Only legendary Belgian Eddy Merckx, with seven triumphs, and Italian Costante Girardengo, with six, have done better.
The race really came alive when four riders Ukrainian Serhiy Matveyev, Sweden's Martin Rittsel, Spain's David Latasa Lasa and Czech Milan Kadlec made a break at Novi Ligure after 95K. By Finale Ligure (84.5K from the finish) they had posted a lead of 9:15 over the rest of the peloton.
The Mapei team was the first to take up the challenge of reeling in the leaders with Lampre riders also prominent as the gap began to dwindle.
As the chasing pack closed the gap Matveyev then made one last dash for glory, breaking away from his three colleagues who were then passed by the chasing group.
At 30K from home and going into the Cipressa climb at San Lorenzo al Mare the Ukrainian was finally swallowed up by his rivals.
A series of mini-breaks then ensued, with Dane Bo Hamburger, Italy's world number one Francesco Casagrande and Belgian Nico Mattan all making brief but unsuccessful escape bids. Even the final Poggio climb - on which many tactical finishing manoeuvres have been made in the past - failed to produce the opportunity that would allow any riders to make a decisive break.
Eventually it came down to a sprint finish, with Zabel being forced to hold off fast-finishing veteran Cipollini, who had come from a long way back to overhaul the obstructed Vainsteins for the runners-up spot.
The pile-up involved many leading riders including Russian Dmitri Konichev and Italian Stefano Zanini.
Konichev and French cyclist Philippe Gaumont received stitches while Italians Stefano Zanini and Davide Rebellin, Spaniard Mikel Zarrabeitia and Belgian Geert Van Bondt all needed treatment.