By Gilles Le Roc'h
SAN REMO, Italy (Reuters) - Gerald Ciolek outwitted the favorites to win a snowbound Milan-San Remo classic and earn an African team its first success at world level on Sunday.
The German former road race champion, 26, clinched his first major win for South African outfit MTN-Qhubeka in freezing weather.
In the rain and cold, Ciolek beat Slovakia's Peter Sagan, the favorite at the outset, into second while Switzerland's Fabian Cancellara, the 2008 winner, had to be content with a podium finish for the third year in a row.
"I joined the team last year and people saw it as a bit of a surprise. And now I get the chance to score this first World Tour win for my team. It's unbelievable," Ciolek said.
Milan-San Remo has been dubbed the Primavera, or spring race, but it was definitely still winter in the North of Italy, as snow halted the bunch at mid-race and the course had be cut by 50 kilometers.
The dreadful weather first forced the organizers to stop the race in Ovada after 118km and to miss the Turchino pass, which was covered in snow and impossible to ride.
As frozen riders returned to their buses to be taken to the next starting point, another of the course's main ascents, the Manie climb, was also scrapped for security reasons.
At the time of the interruption, six riders, Dane Lars Bak, Russian Maxim Belkov, Spain's Pablo Lastras along with Italians Filipo Fortin, Matteo Montaguti and Diego Rosa were in front, with a lead of more than seven minutes over the main bunch, a gap that was maintained at the restart.
Only 126km were left to be covered when racing resumed after a two-hour halt.
Former world champion Tom Boonen of Belgium decided not to restart to preserve energy for the Belgian classics to come.
Several other Omega Pharma Quickstep riders made the same decision, robbing 2009 Milan-San Remo winner Mark Cavendish of support for the sprint finale.
"There are two reasons for me giving up. First I'm frozen and I don't want to be sick. Second it's a statement to the organizers," Boonen told Belgian channel Sporza.
Australia's Matt Goss, the 2011 winner, also called it quits shortly after the restart.
As the six escapees were caught with 30km to go, shortly before the crucial Cipressa climb, two of the pre-race favorites, Britain's Geraint Thomas and American Tyler Farrar were involved in a crash.
The main battle effectively started when British champion Ian Stannard attacked in the Cipressa descent along with France's Sylvain Chavanel and Russia's Eduard Vorganov.
The three held a 30-second lead as they tackled the final Poggio climb, 10km from the line.
Stannard and Chavanel dropped Vorganov in the descent towards San Remo before being caught by pre-race favorites Cancellera, Sagan, Italy's Luca Paolini and underdog Ciolek.
Sitting safely at the back of the group, the German was fresher when Sagan launched the sprint from afar and he easily disposed of the Slovak on the line to clinch his best win to date.
It has been a difficult month for cycling races in Italy.
Last week, organizers of the Tirreno-Adriatico stage race were forced to apologize after leading riders on an ascent that was impossible to climb on a bike.
(Reporting by Gilles Le Roc'h; editing by Toby Davis)