An unfamiliar route with extra climbing
This year’s Milan-San Remo will be an edition of the race link no other. Rather than herald the beginning of spring, it will instead take place in the middle of summer; Covid safety protocols will give the race the same uncanny strangeness that has characterised all the events held since the return of racing this past fortnight; and concern from local towns regarding the viability of hosting the race during the area’s busy tourism season means that the vast majority of the route is completely different.
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Instead of heading directly to the familiar scenic Ligurian coastline, the race will remain further inland, moving into the region of Piedmont via Alessandria. Not until the final 36km, upon arriving at Imperia, does the race reach the coast and return to the usual route, leading to the familiar finale of the Cipressa and Poggio climbs followed by the finishing line on the Via Roma.
The consequence of all this upheaval looks set to be a tougher race in which life will be more difficult for the sprinters hoping to defend against attacks. In place of the Passo Turchino and three Capo climbs are the Niella Belbo and Colle di Navia. Neither climb has any steep gradients to write home about, but are the kind of long, gruelling efforts that will sap energy from the riders, and in total amount to more elevation gain than the previous route.
The positioning of the Colle di Navia could also be significant. Crested 69km from the finish, and followed by a steep and difficult descent, it looks like an inviting launchpad for long-range attacks, and has the potential to decisively break the race up even before the traditional endgame at the Cipressa and Poggio. It’s difficult to predict exactly how such a heavily revised race will play out, but the signs are that this could be a more action-packed, climber-friendly Milan-San Remo than we’re used to.
The world’s fastest sprinters
Despite the extra climbing this year, and the likelihood of many attacks and exciting racing, there’s still a good chance the race will be decided by a bunch finish on the Via Roma.
Known as the ‘Sprinter’s Classic’, Milan-San Remo presents the best opportunity for the sprinters to add a Monument to their palmarès, and they’ll be determined to control the race and not let that chance slip by.
Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) understands the danger posed by attackers, having won the bunch sprint at the end of the 2018 edition only to have to settle for second place after Vincenzo Nibali had managed to escape on the Poggio. Having finished second at Milano-Torino this week, Ewan has the form to go one better this year.
Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates) has also endured his share of frustration at Milan-San Remo, crashing out in the finale of the 2016 edition when seemingly perfectly positioned to take victory. He’s also on form, having won a stage at the Vuelta a Burgos, and could become the first ever South American winner of the race.
Deceuninck-Quick-Step are renowned for being the masters of leading out sprints, and this year have new signing Sam Bennett to potentially unleash on the finishing straight. The Irishman has a career best finish of just 28th at Milan-San Remo, but will nevertheless be a serious contender with the backing of such a strong team.
Their former employee, Elia Viviani, might have lined-up as a favourite were he still riding for them, but his winless streak since joining Cofidis this season reduces him to an outside punt this year.
The sprinters with something extra
It might be known as the Sprinter’s Classic, but being the quickest finisher is not in itself enough to win Milan-San Remo.
This is a race full of obstacles for pure sprinters to overcome, many of which have been exacerbated for this year’s edition. As well as all the climbing mentioned above, the riders also have to contend with the race’s notoriously punishing length, which in its redesigned format has extended even further to 299km. And this year’s summer slot introduces the new difficulty of excessive heat, with temperatures forecasted to exceed 30 degrees on Saturday.
All this means that even if the race does finish in a sprint, it could be that the more durable type of sprinters will triumph ahead of those purer sprinters who would usually beat them in a straightforward sprint. For instance, although UAE Team Emirates have top sprinter Fernando Gaviria lining up, it might be that Alexander Kristoff represents their best chance for success — the Norwegian can’t claim to possess the same raw speed as his team-mate, but boasts an exceptional record at Milan-San Remo (including one victory and a further three top four finishes) thanks to his endurance and versatility.
As a sprinter who can climb and tends to take most of his victories in sprints where the peloton has been substantially reduced, Michael Matthews (Sunweb) also epitomises this type of rider, and will likely be in the mix for victory. And the last Milan-San Remo to end in a bunch finish (in 2016) was won by Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ), who has returned to racing on flying form with victory at Milano-Torino and two runner-up finishes at the Vuelta a Burgos.
Make-or-break attacks on the Poggio
The recent trend in Milan-San Remo is for the sprinters to be denied by race-winning moves made on the Poggio. Last year, Julian Alaphilippe was the quickest of the dozen-or-so riders who broke clear on the climb; Vincenzo Nibali soloed to victory on it in 2018; and in 2017 Michał Kwiatkowski edged a photo finish between himself, Alaphilippe and Peter Sagan after the trio had broken clear together.
Crested 5.4km from the finish, and followed by a steep descent and fast-run in to the finish, the Poggio always provides the stage for thrilling racing, as non-sprinters give it their all in an attempt to gain enough of a lead to hold out for victory.
All three of the most recent winners listed above are likely to have another go on the climb again this year (provided, of course, that they have the legs to do so), with Alaphilippe and his punchy acceleration in particular striking fear into his rivals.
The most dangerous rider, though, might be Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), who is set to make his Milan-San Remo debut. The Dutchman has been quiet since the season restart, with a puncture scuppering his hopes at Strade Bianche last weekend, but we know from his performances in the Classics last year just what he’s capable of.
To attack or not to attack?
For most contenders, the tactics for Milan-San Remo are simple — sprinters will hold back and hope everything comes back together for a bunch finish, while non-sprinters invest everything into attacking on the Poggio (or, if they’re feeling ambitious, the Cipressa climb that precedes it).
But there are other riders who possess both quick sprints and punchy uphill accelerations, who face a dilemma or choosing whether or not to commit to an attack, or preserve their energy in anticipation of a bunch finish.
This is the dilemma that has faced Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) for years, and one of the reasons why he has still not won the race, despite it seeming to be ideally catered for his abilities. On certain occasions he has attacked on the Poggio, only to overcommit and be beaten to the line; other times he has waited for the sprint, only to be defeated by the quicker finishers.
This year, Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) is also faced with this tricky strategic decision. The Belgian proved to be the toughest rider at a very difficult and competitive Strade Bianche last weekend, but he’s also proven to be a quality sprinter, finishing third at Milano-Torino on Wednesday, and defeating some of the world’s best sprinters in a bunch finish at the Tour de France last year.
One determining factor that may sway their decision could be the organisers’ decision to limit teams to just six-rider rosters. Smaller teams sizes will make the race more difficult to control, and therefore benefit riders hoping to break clear. Given how the previous three Milan-San Remos have played out, we can perhaps expect Sagan and Van Aert to join the main riders hoping to wreak havoc on the Poggio.
Philippe Gilbert attempts to make history
Only three riders have ever won all five of cycling’s cherished Monuments. On Saturday, Philippe Gilbert (Lotto-Soudal) will attempt to become the fourth, and the first to do so in over 40 years.
Having won both of Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Il Lombardia back when he specialised in hilly Classics, Gilbert turned his attention towards the cobblestones upon transferring to Quick-Step, to extraordinary success — in 2017 he won the Tour of Flanders with a jaw-dropping long-range attack, and last year he triumphed at Paris-Roubaix on what was just his third appearance.
Now, the 38-year-old has prioritised winning Milan-San Remo above every other race, with the aim of completing the full set of Monument victories.
Of all five Monuments, this is the one that suits the Belgian the least. He does not possess a quick sprint in his armoury, and will therefore have to make a successful attack in order to win. And he won’t command the unified support of his Lotto-Soudal team, either, who also have the card of Caleb Ewan to play in a sprint finish.
Victory will therefore be a tall order, but Gilbert has a remarkable track record of achieving everything he puts his mind to throughout his career. He might just make history on Saturday.