Jasper Stuyven goes all in to write name in history books
Given the form of Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck - Quick-Step), you might have forgiven the other contenders riding Milan-San Remo for settling for a podium finish at best. That trio had looked unbeatable in recent weeks, and getting the better of all three must have felt like wishful thinking.
But one man who was not content to take second best was Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo). Rather than wait for the finish line to use his handy sprint, which ought to have been enough to gain him a high finish, the Belgian opted to risk it all with one bold attack 3km from the finish.
He was rewarded for his boldness in the richest way possible — victory in a Monument. For a rider who has always been strong in the classics, with victories at both Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, but never in the very biggest of races, it was a career-defining result.
Acknowledging the supremacy of that trio in his post-race interview, Stuyven nevertheless said that it “didn’t mean we were not going to race for the win.
“I know that I had to try all or nothing. If I go the line [and wait for a sprint], I know I’d maybe finish around fifth to tenth place. I preferred to go all in.”
Although he was caught by the lone pursuer Søren Kragh Andersen (DSM) under the one kilometre to go banner, Stuyven also showed his resilience and calmness under pressure to not fold. He stuck to Andersen’s wheel for a short while, then unleashed his sprint at just the right time to reach the line just before the chasing group didn’t swallow him up.
Exhausted, he staggered to the fall upon crossing the finish line, his legs appearing to be totally spent. But those few minutes of intense effort ensured his name will forever be included in cycling’s history books as a Monument winner.
The Big Three don’t go clear over the Poggio
For all the hype about when, rather than if, the Big Three would attack and break clear from the rest of the riders, none of them managed to land a killer blow on any of the race’s climbs.
Despite expectations of early attacks, both the three Capi climbs and the Cipressa came and went without anyone making a move.
At last, on the Poggio, Alaphilippe launched an acceleration, as he so often does on that climb in this race. Van Aert was quick to latch onto his wheel, and Van der Poel made his way up to join them, at which point it looked like the expected outcome was taking shape.
However, Alaphilippe lacked the usual power he has on the Poggio, and sat up. Neither Van Aert nor Van der Poel used this opportunity to counter-attack, and other riders were allowed into contention, so that eleven riders remained in the front group over the summit of the Poggio.
With none of the three riders having any team-mates with them, controlling the race was going to be very difficult, and indeed Stuyven managed to catch them out with his solo attack.
Van Aert and Van der Poel still had the plan B of using their fast finishes, but had to settle for third and fifth at the line, while Alaphilippe finished a distant sixteenth having burned his matches before the sprint.
All three were still clearly very strong, but their failure to win goes to show how strength alone isn’t always enough to win a race as nuanced as Milan-San Remo.
Caleb Ewan produces the ride of his life
The big question mark hovering over Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) going into Milan-San Remo was whether he could survive the climbs in the peloton.
We all know he’s one of the quickest sprinters in the peloton, but the excessive length of the race and the punchy climbs in its finale have in the past been the Waterloo of many a top sprinter.
Despite the doubts, Ewan passed that test with flying colours. Not only did he manage to remain while the other pure sprinters were dropped, he rode most of the Poggio second in line, and, astonishingly, was still in second at the climb’s summit.
He even seemed like he might be gearing up for an attack himself on the climb, but if that did cross his mind, he thought better of it and waited for the sprint.
As expected, the Australian was quickest in the sprint, and only Stuyven’s attack prevented him from winning.
The result has echoes of the 2018 Milan-San Remo, when Ewan won the bunch sprint for second behind Vincenzo Nibali, who was the victorious solo attacker that day. But the way he rode the Poggio this year made this an even more impressive performance from Ewan, who it seems has climbing ability we never before knew about.
He’ll be a hot favourite for next year’s edition — and perhaps other races we might not have previously thought him capable of winning.
Sam Bennett toils on a bad day for Deceuninck - Quick-Step
For a sprinter like Sam Bennett (Deceuninck - Quick-Step) to win Milan-San Remo, everything has to go his way on the day. On such a long, attritional race, with so many potential pitfalls, even the slightest mishap can derail perfect preparation.
So when the Irishman punctured just as the peloton was about to reach the third and final Capo climb, his chances already seemed to have evaporated. Although he did manage to eventually rejoin the peloton just before the Cipressa, and finish that climb still safely in the front group, he was promptly dropped when the action kicked off on the Poggio.
We’ll never know if he’d have fared better without that puncture, but one thing for sure is that Deceuninck - Quick-Step dearly missed him in the finale. Although Alaphilippe made the final selection, their back-up sprinter Davide Ballerini was also dropped, and without both sprinters in the group, Alaphilippe seemed to be unsure of what to do. He led the chase of Stuyven and Andersen in the final kilometre, but seemed to be leading-out a sprint for no-one, while sacrificing his own chances.
He ultimately finished sixteenth, while Bennett and Ballerini rolled home together side by side in 41st and 42nd half a minute later. They will be very disappointed given all that was expected of such a strong roster.
Ineos Grenadiers riders among those left disappointed
There can only be one winner of a bike race, meaning that for that one person’s elation, there are many more left disappointed.
Ineos Grenadiers might be the most disappointed of all, having done so much good work to lead the race on both the Cipressa and the Poggio, only to have nothing to show for it. Tom Pidcock seemed to be the man that Filippo Ganna and Dylan van Baarles’s long turns were geared towards helping, but although the young Brit did well to crest the Poggio in seventh, he couldn’t convert that to a high finish, and had to settle for fifteenth.
Michael Matthews (BikeExchange) and Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) might have hoped for better finishes than sixth and fourteenth respectively after they crested the Poggio in the lead group, while the likes of Alexander Kristoff and Ferando Gaviria (both UAE Team Emirates) will have expected to have done much better than be dropped as early as the Cipressa.
Still, winning isn’t everything, and other riders will be pleased with their high placings. Alex Aranburu (Astana-Premier Tech) and Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Victorious) will count seventh and eighth-place as great finishes, especially considering that they had to catch back up to the leaders on the descent having been dropped on the Poggio.
And, although in other seasons fourth-place might have been cause for frustration for Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), this year it was sign that he’s back to his best following his Covid positive, and ready to challenge the biggest names.
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