All bets are off as peloton awaits Pogačar attack
Milan-San Remo is generally the most formulaic of the Monuments. Nothing really happens until the Cipressa climb, where a handful of optimistic outside contenders make their moves; then the top puncheurs attack on the Poggio, followed by a mad dash to the line as those to have gained a gap try to maintain it, and the sprinters chase desperately in the hope of catching them in time.
That template seems likely to at last be broken this year, however, and all because of one man: Tadej Pogačar.
The UAE Team Emirates rider has been rewriting the rules of cycling lately, and the question heading into Milan-San Remo isn’t so much if he will attack, but when. Although he could follow convention and wait until the Poggio to make his move, his tendency to not hang about and strike out earlier rather than later — showcased most recently by his stunning 50km attack to win Strade Bianche — suggests an earlier attack is likely.
He has already hinted as much, singling out the Cipressa as a potential launchpad. Crested 20km from the finish, there’s still a long way to ride after the Cipressa, and its gentle gradient averaging 4% generally sees it dismissed as a launchpad by race favourites. But Pogačar is no ordinary rider, and has proven himself capable of both getting a gap on virtually any terrain, and of being able to single-handedly and over long distances hold off even the most committed of chases.
If he does indeed attack here, then all bets are off. This year’s Milan-San Remo could explode into life much earlier than we’re used to seeing, and therefore we could be in for the most exciting and unpredictable editions for many years.
Van Aert returns with fearsome Jumbo-Visma line-up
Rarely has a rider been more perfectly suited to Milan-San Remo than Wout van Aert. His unique skill set of being both one of the best sprinters in the peloton and the fiercest puncheurs means he can win from any scenario, as he did in the 2020 edition, where he used this uphill acceleration to follow a Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl) attack, then his sprint to take victory ahead of the Frenchman at the line.
But the strongest rider so often does not win Milan-San Remo. Last year, despite being brilliantly positioned to use his sprint finish to defend his title, Van Aert missed out as Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) slipped clear a few kilometres from the line to take victory.
To try and prevent something similar happening this year, Jumbo-Visma have assembled an intimidatingly strong squad to assist him. We’ve seen how fearsome a force the team can be recently at Paris-Nice, and one of the architects of that stunning team ride, Christophe Laporte, will be present at La Primavera.
As will Primož Roglič, who will surely be looking to repay the favour he owes Van Aert after the Belgian all but rescued the overall title at Paris-Nice on the final day. Roglič has only ridden Milan-San Remo once before back in 2017, and would probably be a contender himself were he riding for a different team, but in all likelihood will be swapping roles with Van Aert to become his super-domestique.
If either of these riders get over the Poggio near the front of the race, then they might be able to offer Van Aert crucial assistance in chasing down any attacks in the manner of Stuyven’s, unlike last year, where he was left to do the chasing himself.
Such team support might just be the difference between another near-miss, and another Milan-San Remo victory.
Ewan is the pick of the sprinters
It’s now been six years since Milan-San Remo last ended in a bunch finish, but there’s still a whole host of fastmen lining up hoping to win the race known as the 'Sprinters’ Classic’.
The one sprinter to have been most frustrated by the recent trend is Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal), who finished second behind Jasper Stuyven’s last year, and second behind a similar solo attack from Vincenzo Nibali in 2018. Last year he defied expectations by remaining at the very front of the race all the way up the Poggio, and his recent form to win a stage at Tirreno-Adriatico and finish second at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne suggests he could be able to ride similarly well this year.
Compared to Ewan, most of the other sprinters dreaming of Milan-San Remo glory have weaknesses. There’s no doubting the sprinting speed of Fabio Jakobsen (Quick-Step Alpha Viny), nor his form given the six sprint wins he has his name already this season, but surviving he climbs and the excessive distance will be a huge challenge for a 25-year-old debutant.
Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) went into last year’s race on similarly fine form only to get dropped on the Poggio, and so will surely be up against it to survive the climb this time, while local star sprinters Elia Viviani (Ineos Grenadiers) and Giacomo Nizzolo (Israel-Premier Tech) have also only managed one top-10 finish each at La Primavera.
Then there are others who are more likely to remain in contention at the finish, but may lack the sprinting speed to finish things off, such as Michael Matthews (BikeExchange-Jayco), Bryan Coquard (Cofidis), Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Victorious) and Peter Sagan (TotalEnergies).
Alexander Kristoff (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Materiaux) and Arnaud Demare (Groupama-FDJ) have both in the past proven to have the perfect recipe for Milan-San Remo by winning in 2014 and 2016 respectively, but the former now appears past his best and the latte is struggling for form.
But there are two riders along with Ewan who stand out as possessing everything needed to take victory should Saturday end in a sprint: Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix), who backed up his sprint win at the UAE Tour by impressively getting over the climbs at Paris-Nice, and, if he decides to ride, Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo), following his rides in both the hills and the sprints at Paris-Nice.
Pidcock and Ganna lead Ineos Grenadiers challenge
The most notable absentee from this year’s race is Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl), who misses out with bronchitis. The Frenchman has been the protagonist of recent editions, time and time again forcing the selections on the Poggio, and making the podium three times since making his debut in 2017 — during which time the race has never finished in a sprint.
In his absence it’s up to others to take the initiative, and although Pogačar and Van Aert are the obvious candidates, Ineos Grenadiers are bringing a team with enough talent to do so as well.
Although they have Elia Viviani in reserve, his form suggests others will have the beating of him in the event of a sprint, so the team are likely to go on the attack.
Tom Pidcock is sure to fancy his chances having been in the mix last year, although he’s yet to show any form on the road yet this year, while 2017-winner Michał Kwiatkowski has plenty of experience to draw upon.
Their most intriguing contender though is Filippo Ganna. The world time trial champion led for much of the Poggio last year as a domestique, and might this year be let off the leash to launch his own attack — given his climbing form so far this year, and the extra motivation of riding on Italian roads, it could be difficult for anyone to follow his wheel.
Outsider candidates seeking to emulate Stuyven's surprise 2021 victory
Jasper Stuyven’s sneaky attack 3km from the finish might serve as a template for any outside contenders hoping to cause a shock on Saturday.
For any riders who can get over the Poggio still in contention, there may be a chance on the rapid, chaotic descent to the finish on the Via Roma to slip clear, especially if the top favourites are overly concerned with marking each other.
Stuyven himself might be tempted to try a repeat of that, although may find himself more heavily marked as defending champion.
Søren Kragh Andersen (DSM) might have been entering this race as defending champion had Stuyven not managed to stay on his wheel when the Dane came charging past in the final kilometres, and that attack suggested he’s capable of winning too, especially given the form he showed at Paris-Nice last week.
Matteo Trentin has a history of attacking in the final stages and could take everyone by surprise if they’re too occupied by his UAE Team Emirates teammate Tadej Pogacčr, while veteran Greg Van Avermaet (Ag2r Citroën) might relish the freedom that comes with his declining status.
And don’t forget that Philippe Gilbert (Lotto-Soudal) still harbours faint hopes of completing the clean sweep of Monuments by winning Milan-San Remo. It’s unlikely, but the Belgian has managed to win against the odds in the past.
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