Five things we learned from the 2020 Milan - San Remo

It was a scintillating finish to the first Monument of the season

Wout van Aert becomes a Monument winner

(Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Eight days ago, Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) was still a budding young rider with bags of potential, a former cyclocross star seemingly on the verge of taking the road by storm, but who was yet to add a Classics victory to his palmarès.

Now, following his maiden Classics win at Strade Bianche last week, he’s the winner of one of cycling’s five Monuments, Milan-San Remo, and already feels like he belongs among the sport’s very elite.

The Belgian was among the top favourites heading into the race, although it was unclear whether he should prioritise using his attacking prowess or handy sprint finish when seeking victory.

As it happened, he ended up using both. The Belgian needed to call upon all his reserves of strength to keep Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) within sight when the Frenchman unleashed his trademark uphill accelerations on the Poggio, and his technical descending helped his bridge the gap on the subsequent downhill. Then, come the finale, his smoother, more accomplished sprint saw him edge Alaphilippe at the line, despite being forced into the less desirable position of leading out the sprint.

It was a brilliant demonstration of Van Aert’s multifaceted talents and an indication that he could be a contender in all sorts of different Classics. With his heart set on the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in October, this might not be the only Monument Van Aert wins this season.

Julian Alaphpilippe once again dictates the race's outcome

(Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Has Julian Alaphilippe single-handedly changed the way that Milan-San Remo is won? Since his debut in 2017, the Frenchman has attacked up the Poggio on three separate occasions — and each time, it has instigated the race-winning move. Including Vincenzo Nibali’s victorious move in 2018, that makes it four successive editions that the sprinters have been denied by the attackers.

Historically, Milan-San Remo is finely balanced between both types of rider, and four in a row is an unusually long streak for the sprinters to lose out — not since the 1990s have they endured such a barren streak. Given that Alaphilippe has been so prominently involved during this run, his sheer explosiveness and the pace he sets up the climb must surely be a significant factor.

His performance this year was especially impressive given how he punctured 36km from the finish, just as the Cipressa and the endgame of the race approached. He might have been looked after and calmly paced back up to the peloton by his Deceuninck-QuickStep, but in a race often decided by the finest of margins any stress or extra energy usage is considered potentially decisive.

As it happened, despite being the first to crest the Poggio, Alaphilippe didn’t quite have enough to overcome Van Aert in the finishing two-man sprint and will be devastated to have been pipped to the line and lose by such a fine margin. But given how many doubted he had the form to win prior to the race, it was a sensational performance nonetheless.

The more things change, the more they stay the same

(Luca Bettini/BettiniPhoto 2020 via Getty)
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Given the many changes to this year’s Milan-San Remo compared to previous editions, it was surprising to watch the race play out in such a familiar way.

A combination of a new route with different times, a new slot in the calendar with much hotter temperatures, and smaller team sizes were all expected to influence the race in ways it was easy to predict.

Yet the race we got was a largely familiar affair. The majority of the race constituted tense build-up as riders focussed on preserving as much energy as possible, followed by a frantic contest between a handful of the strongest riders breaking clear over the Poggio versus the sprinters desperately trying to catch them in time.

Trek-Segafredo were the only team invested in breaking the race’s usual narrative. Their riders were visible throughout the final 60km, with Nicola Conci, Jacopo Mosca and Giulio Ciccone all alternately going on the attack before the Poggio. But all their efforts came to nothing, and the peloton was all back together at the bottom of that final climb.

However, what the race lacked in surprise, it made up for in excitement. Its perfectly balanced finale always produces one of the most thrilling finishes of the season, and that was once more the case today, with Van Aert a worthy winner.

The sprinters are left disappointed once more

(Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Milan-San Remo is one of the most converted prizes among the best sprinters in the sport, but for yet another year all of them leave empty-handed.

For some, hopes were dashed long before the Via Roma finishing straight. Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) and Fernando Gaviria (UAE Emirates) have both been prolific winners in bunch sprints over the past few years, but couldn’t handle the challenges of this year’s edition and were dropped on the Cipressa.

Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-QuickStep) managed to survive that climb, but the Poggio proved to be a bridge too far. The Irishman was seen grasping to the back of the group for dear life, showing just how hard it is for the heavier sprint specialists to conquer that iconic climb after nearly 300km of racing.

That left hardly any specialist sprinters left in contention, with Michael Matthews (Sunweb), Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Giacomo Nizzolo (NTT) leading in the reduced peloton of around 23 riders in third, fourth and fifth respectively. But, despite their fine efforts to survive this long, all were denied by Van Aert and Alaphilippe’s attack. Once again this was not a year for the sprinters.

Bora-Hansgrohe can’t quite deliver Peter Sagan victory

(Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)
(Image credit: Getty Images)

In the finale of the race, Bora-Hansgrohe took it upon themselves to take control of the race, and did everything they could to deliver Peter Sagan victory.

Milan-San Remo is conspicuous by its absence on the Slovak’s palmarès. He has come very close (twice finishing second), and is always there-or-thereabouts (with five top-four finishes in total), but has yet to take the top step of the podium.

The team had faith that this would be the year he, at last, ended that drought. Daniel Oss paced the peloton for the team on the Cipressa, setting such a quick tempo that as well as reeling in all of the attacks, he even inadvertently gained a gap over the rest of the peloton on the descent.

Then on the Poggio (once Oss had fallen back again), Marcus Burghardt took to the front of the peloton and was successful in managing early attacks on the climb from the likes of Gianni Moscon (Ineos) and Zdenek Stybar (Deceuninck-QuickStep). But the team were out of firepower by the time Alalphilippe and Van Aert attacked, leaving Sagan to fend for himself.

Given the smaller team sizes this year (six riders rather than seven), it was a sterling effort by Bora-Hansgrohe, but they really missed a rider like Max Schachmann (currently riding the Tour of Poland) to assist Sagan during the final frantic chase. One extra domestique might have been all Sagan needed to at last win Milan-San Remo, but once again the 30-year-old has to settle for another fourth-place finish.

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