Milan-Sanremo Preview

Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel and Julian Alaphilippe take on each other and the rest of the peloton.

The Route: different but still a 280km fuse leading to the Cipressa and Poggio powder kegs. Last year saw the race held away from the coast, a one-off, now a landslide forces a change and instead of Ovada and the Passo Turchino, the race diverts via Acqui Terme for the Colle del Giovo, a sister to the Turchino and a little easier, more scenic and on rougher roads. The descent is longer and above all, unknown to the peloton but it shouldn’t alter the feel of the race too much. The race drops into Savona to pick up the habitual coastal Via Aurelia with 110km to go, heads towards the three capi, headlands to climb over and where riders begin to get dropped with 50km to go.

Then it’s on to the Cipressa (more detail). This starts with sharp right hander and quickly climbs through olive groves, the 9% gradient bites hard after 270km. This is a proper moment of climbing that ejects sprinters, the average of 4% is a blend of a steep start and a flat balcony road over the top where dropped riders flounder. There’s a toboggan descent, the trickiest part of the day. The race continues along the Via Aurelia where riders jostle for position during 9km before the final climb.

The Poggio (more here) starts with 9.2km to go. A furious pace is inevitable. A right flick off the main coastal road is followed by series of wide bends so fast some riders have to brake before entry despite going uphill. Positioning is everything as the road winds up, every metre matters. Unlike the Cipressa this isn’t steep, there’s one short step at 8% which is often where the attacks fly. After 290km the peloton’s elastic has aged like a old rubber band and the Poggio is just enough snap things.

The descent is fast and marked by a series of curves and five hairpins. The race has been won on the descent before and it is technical, which bend has the sunken inspection cover or a crack on the exit line helps, but this is not for virtuoso descenders to schuss down, it suits powerhouses capable of pumping out big watts on the exit of each corner. The ramp ends with fast junction onto the main road and 2.3km to go.

The Finish: under the 1km banner and it’s left at the fountain, then right onto the via Roma with the faintest slopes to the line.

The Scenario: breakaway or sprint? The stats say it’s all about the Poggio, not since 1996 has a move on the Cipressa stayed away to contest the finish in Sanremo and in recent years we’ve seen the bunch climb the Cipressa with barely an attack as the speed is so high. What chance we see moves on the Cipressa this time as riders try to thwart the three aces, or maybe even Mathieu van der Poel launching early just because he can?

What counts for a bunch sprint is very different, typically fewer than 30 and any sprinters present are lucky to have one tired team mate for a leadout, it’s as much a test of stamina as speed. For all it’s a cagey race where a small mistake mid-race can have a penalty later, as if everyone starts with an invisible quota of pedal strokes, use too many too soon and riders are caught short in the frantic final 15 minutes.

The Contenders

Let’s start where we left off with Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma). He won last time and he has all the attributes to win again including form. He can attack or go with moves on the Poggio, he can win from a sprint finish and has the stamina for the long course. He can track moves on the Poggio without having to launch them which only increases his chances for the finishing sprint.

Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) can do all the same as van Aert and then add something on top, he’s more explosive and dynamic but that’s a big ask with 300km in the legs. He’s only ridden this race once before and you wonder if he can sit tight for seven hours but the loose cannon factor he brings is interesting, he doesn’t race to play percentages.

Julian Alaphilippe has a card to play that van Aert and van der Poel don’t: his Deceuninck-Quickstep team. He’s lighter than the two rivals above and can spring like a jack-in-a-box but less certain in a sprint, especially from a large group. He can try a late move on the Poggio but if others go with him it’s not on him to tow the move clear and with Sam Bennett in form he can sit on the back.

The three aces above stand clear of the rest, draw any of the riders named below and they’re trumped by the trio above. But it’s sport,not arithmetic and Milan-Sanremo is where tiny differences make big changes to the outcome.

Sanremo’s beauty is that it can be an elusive race, just ask Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) who might never win this despite being the archetype, he can launch on the Poggio, he’s made for the descent and he packs a sprint. He’s been on the slide in the last couple of years but has been totally eclipsed by the emergence of van Aert and van der Poel this year at least in terms of media impact plus he admits he’s still short of form. Still experience can go a long way and Max Schachmann is one to watch too.

Michael Matthews (Bike Exchange) is another rider chasing that elusive win, two podium finishes so far for the Aussie big game hunter who crashed and shredded his hand last year but still made third.

Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) and Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-Quickstep) are the obvious sprint picks in a race than can end in a sprint of sorts but it’s not the usual dragster race, more a test of stamina which is why Matthews and Sagan can score. Christophe Laporte (Cofidis) had a good Paris-Nice but says he struggles with distances beyond 200km, Sonny Colbrelli can handle long distances but seems to thrive in bad conditions, idem Alexander Kristoff (UAE Emirates) although there are reports the Norwegian has been ill of late. Previous winner Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) had a rougher time in Paris-Nice but this lifts a bit of pressure and he’s handy for a long sprint. Nacer Bouhanni (Arkéa-Samsic) was getting close in Paris-Nice and came close to winning here too but there’s a chasm between close and victory. Giacomo Nizzolo (Qhubka-Assos) has made this his early season target but how to beat all the names above?

Among the others, and there are many for this is a race where most of the field can harbour private dreams of winning so without listing the chances of every rider, just a few more. Home hopes rest on Filippo Ganna (Ineos) but RCS can’t make this race a time trial. Ganna’s shown he can win road races too but by brute force rather than explosive attacks but if he can get over the Poggio with the leaders and they hesitate on the outskirts of Sanremo then he could attack as everyone looks around for someone else to pick up the chase and team mate Tom Pidcock gets a chainring below because of the delivery on his debut already. Similarly Søren Kragh Andersen (DSM) is a poacher capable of a late move in the streets of Sanremo. EF Education-Nippo bring a solid team with Sergio Higuita, Alberto Bettiol and Magnus Cort bringing options for the climbs and sprints but how to beat the names above? Quinn Simmons is very strong and but an unknown quantity over the distance. Lastly Movistar and Astana are two of the three World Tour teams still without a win and Ivan Garcia Cortina and Alex Aranburu are wildcards.

Wout van Aert
Mathieu van der Poel, Julian Alaphilippe
Michael Matthews, Sam Bennett
Filippo Ganna, Caleb Ewan, SKA, Schachmann
Pidcock, Cort, Bouhanni, Mohorič, Démare, Bettiol, Simmons, Colbrelli, Ballerini, Vendrame, Aranburu


Weather: cold, there could be some sleet on the Giovo and with a tailwind that seems to follow the race, west out of Milan, south across the Piedmont and then west along the Ligurian coast again. It’ll warm up to 12°C in the coast.

TV: it’s on RAI for locals and VPN users and Eurosport/GCN elsewhere. Knowledge is knowing it is on live from start to finish, a first for this race. Wisdom is knowing you don’t need to watch it all.

The start is at 9.40 CET and the Colle di Giovo should be around 2.00pm CET. The Capi start at 3.45pm and the finish is forecast for around 5.00pm but with the tailwind things could be earlier, unless the race start is delayed to adjust.

88 thoughts on “Milan-Sanremo Preview”

    • Difficult, does he go with the Poggio attacks or hold back for the sprint? Obsession is too strong a word but like many in the peloton he’s almost a local, knows the roads very well and having coming so close already has this as more than just target.

  1. Larry, wake up, the season’s started.

    Thanks for the preview. I’m tipping van der Poel – yeah, big call, I know – he just seems to have a bit more on WVA (and more than that on everyone else).

    • WIDE AWAKE! RAI TV has a preview show on this afternoon and the whole raviolo on tomorrow from start to finish!! Eurosport too I guess from what they said the other day.
      I’ll make my morning fresh bread run before the start and plan on pranzo and stuzzichini in front of the TV all day as the pro cycling season finally gets underway for real.
      I’d love to see Gilbert somehow complete his 5 monument challenge but it’s hard to see past the big faves MVdP (whom I’m warming up to as his results surpass his histrionics) WVA and Lulu.

    • Long, long day in cooler weather.
      Does van der Poel tie up again, that’s the obvious question?
      Especially if he needlessly uses up energy, which seems to be his wont from time to time.

  2. It’s a shame that Kwiato doesn’t even merit a mention despite being a former winner. His season hasn’t really gotten going at all.

    • The hard part with the preview is leaving so many names out. But he hasn’t looked as sharp as before, when he won in 2017 he’d taken the Strade Bianche before, this year he crashed and has been nursing injuries.

      • Oh suffice to say, I kind of agree with you that he doesn’t look a realistic option this year. Just think it’s sad that his season has been so lacklustre. He’s probably one like Sagan who has been swept away somewhat by VdP and vA in the past year.

        • In addition, since he became a super domestique he seems to loose the kick required to make a gap. See last world championship: he hold the power to be among the best, but not response when Allaphilippe attacked.
          Having said that I would give a chainring (maybe cause I am polish).

          • Same here. After all, he started the season well, lost to Wellens in Etoile de Besseges mostly due to some oil spilt on the road while they both were in the breakaway. Then came the crash in Laigueglia. I agree that he wasn’t as dynamic in the last couple of seasons, but in the spring it could be down to the fact that he was targeting the one-week races as well. That performance in the WC last year could also be hindered because he was right after TdF. His training was probably more threshold-oriented and he lacked that anaerobic edge. The way I see it is that this year his start to the season is eased off a bit, so he can be in peak form during classics. The calendar is not as packed as last year, which again enables him to focus on shorter efforts on the first part of the season.

      • Kwiato 2017, Alaphilippe 2019 and WVA last year. Surely the Strade / Sanremo double is the guide to follow. MVdP has to be the man this year doesnt he?

          • Then he’ll have to deliver 1300 watts while seated!

            In all seriousness – all the talk of WvA/MVDP/ Alaphilippe (and maybe Pogacar, but he’s a diff sort of rider) makes it easy to forget that Remco will be in the mix soon. I wonder how his star will shine in that company. When can we expect to see him turning some pedals competitively?

  3. If Gilbert wants to have any chance of winning maybe he should risk it all and try on the Cipressa.
    I can’t see him producing an attack on the Poggio that can drop the likes of Alaphillippe and many others, who will almost certainly beat him in a sprint.
    Although not likely to be successful – mind you, you never know, if he has some strong companions – it seems like a long range attack may be his only chance. And what a way to win…

    • Gilbert used to be the king of the uphill attack but that was a decade ago now, he’s more a diesel now, which has helped him win Roubaix and Flanders of late. I know he wants the set of all the Monuments but for Sanremo he’d probably need a storm to make the Via Aurelia look like De Panne for a day. A Cipressa attack could still be worth trying and he can always make others chase on behalf of Ewan.

      • Gilbert and Wellens (if he’s riding?) could go together. That would be a strong partnership, although it might well mean that other teams would be more likely to chase that much harder.
        Gilbert should go for it, though – it’s not going to happen for him on the Poggio.

    • I’ve said it before but it bears repeating. Gilbert needs to do what Tchmil did (when even older I think) – get down the Poggio with the lead group. Then every year there is that bit before they get on to the finishing straight when nobody wants to go. That’s when he has to go. And then hold off everybody else to the line. Simple really…

    • Long shot in a race which is open to many but most years still reserved for the very big names. But as mentioned above it’s the way the race is open to many that is part of the interest and clever riders like Clarke can try to construct their wins.

    • This genuinely made me laugh out loud.
      (I hope that was the intention.)
      I honestly still have no idea why Carlton Kirby maintains this – and brings it up so often.

      • J Evans, it was! My first thought after hearing that the whole race would be shown was for the poor livers of anyone playing a Carlton Kirby Bingo drinking game. Sorry dear inner ring for leaving a cheeky comment!

  4. The beauty of the three main contenders, as laid out above, is their willingness to race their own race and go for it.
    None of that Poggio poker play that we saw Sagan and Kwiatkowski become embroiled in back in 2018 – The Day That Sprinting Died as I shall ever remember it.
    I will go for WvA too, as long as he doesn’t get spooked by van der Poel.
    That’s his only weakness, for me, he has a slight van der Poel complex I think.

  5. I’m thinking a bunch sprint this year – If MVDP, WVA & JA go clear on the Poggio which seems likely, Alaphilippe won’t work because he’ll have Ballerini and Bennett behind, then neither MVDP or WVA will want to lead the other out (and might even rather lose than give the win to the other) so…. a sprint finish.

    *…. with Haussler for the win 😜

  6. Pidcock gave up on two Belgian races he was lined up for this week (Bredene-Koksijde and Danilith Nokere Koerse). I can’t quite see him having either the distance or the sprint, but he surely hasn’t come just for the scenery.

    Why not Nacer: he’s got the sprint, can cope with the climbs, and seems a little calmer at Arkea.

    • He almost won in 2016 but a chain or gears problem cost him… but there are so many riders who almost win in Sanremo. Many other races see a rider knowing if they return with 10W more or a kilo less or something else then they work out how to win it, but Sanremo seems much more subtle.

  7. Quinn Simmons has nearly won Leadville in 2019, and has held the FKT around White Rim, which are both in the 6 hour range, so it seems he can bee good at the end of a long day. With that said, he isn’t explosive enough to beat the others.

    I like Cort as an outside pick, he’s shown pretty good form at P-N.

    • 161km/2000ft solo ride on an MTB is not the same as 300km/6000ft road race.
      I don’t think he had the legs in him to do anything beyond getting to the finish.

      • I’d say riding the Leadville 100 is probably harder than this. Riding off road is far more tiring than racing nice smooth tarmac in the bunch.

        • maybe, but how would someone like van der Poel, van Avermaet, or alaphilippe ride that course?

          it’s not a straight comparison or benchmark in any way.

          • It most certainly is not a 1 to 1 comparison, but it does give some indications of durability at distance. Leadville is certainly more difficult than this race, it starts at something like 9000 ft elevation, requires much more power to move the bike even in the flats, and has some brutal climbs. I have no doubt that WVA and MvDP would crush the record time at that race. The only statement I was trying to make was that he can likely do well at distance, not that he’s faster than the big favorites, because it’s obvious he is not.

    • Cort is a very serious a pick… climbs better than Mathews & sprints better than Mathews – and he is on fire. And he can beat VWA in a flat-out sprint from a reduced group.

      Positioning is his weakness, but in-race interview with DS Mattii Breschel 14:55 CET reveals that the team incl. Bettiol, Higuita, Bissegger are 100% committed to deliver Cort in position on Poggio.

  8. Let’s hope VdP gets bored very soon and make the bunch explode in the Cipressa. Then we will all be into the unknown : what can happen next, if the big favorites are in the front from there ? Last victory with an attack from the Cipressa is 1996, if I remember well, isn’t it ? I wasn’t even following cycling back then, except TdF…

  9. I agree that Van der Poel is more explosive than Van Aert, and probably Alaphilippe too, but I don’t see that being too much of an advantage here. The pace will be much higher on the Poggio and it’s much less steep than where he attacked in Strade Bianche. I don’t think he’ll get the same bang for his buck. And that’s if he can wait that long, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he goes on the Cipressa, or if he holds it all the way. He’ll probably win however it plays out, but I’d love Van Aert to get it. It’ll be interesting to see if, faced with the 3 supermen, everyone else tries to be more creative. I’m guessing Jumbo Visma will endeavour to keep the pace restrictively high. An old timers reunion of Gilbert and Nibali on the Cipressa would be pretty cool!

    • I do think that with the triumvirate being so strong, it makes it more plausible that a group of good riders (rather than the usual chancers of recent years) might go on the Cipressa, particularly as in recent years it’s always been the attack on the Poggio or the bunch sprint that wins. There are a lot of good riders who have almost no chance in that scenario – because they don’t have much of a sprint, or because those three will follow any move on the Poggio.
      I’m still not convinced that any prospective winner will try that, though – MvdP is probably the most likely.

  10. I think one chainring for Ballerini is a bit harsh. He’s DQS, probably more likely to hang with a fast pace up the Poggio and has the form

    • Chainrings are totally subjective but always for the chance of winning the race and in order, so if riders tied on the same rating above, the ones named first are rated better. It’s all guessing but very hard to see Sagan win, surely he’d sign now just to place?

    • He seems to have lost the edge since his divorce in 2018.
      Maybe that and a bit €5MM a year deal has made him a little lazy?
      It always seem in interviews in 18/19+ he seemed to be very nonchalant and really not that bothered about the sport anymore. Part of me thinks he would be happy to take *any* Olympic Medal (road/mtb) and call it quits then – even more so now with the current crop of younger all rounders.

  11. Great preview, thanks! Can I pick Alaphillipe sitting up to early to celebrate and getting pipped at the line? I’m not quite sure that he’s learned his lesson yet, somehow.

    What a treat for fans to have so many strong racers these days!

  12. Thanks for your reply. Your chainrings are usually very accurate and therefore, as a big Peter’s fan, I was hoping for at least one ring for him:). Let’s hope he’ll make a miracle tomorrow…

  13. What wonderful pictures you’ve chosen – very evocative – and what a great write-up, thanks. I am SO excited (especially as we are locked down here in Nice currently). I arrived on the page imagining an MvdP flair special, but I must admit that I, too, have fallen hook, line and sinker for JEvans’ romantic ideal of a PhilGil attack on the Cipressa. Oh, please!! C’mon Phil!

  14. Thanks for the great preview. A possibility of the youngest avg. age top 10 finishers.
    WVA, VdP, Pidcock, Simmons and J Alaphilippe.
    QS is a dark horse for a podium spot.

  15. Given recent races a long range attack from MvdP seems almost inevitable, but not sure it is going to work here. Partly because everyone else will be expecting it but also I find it hard to believe that his recent exertions will not have taken, at least something, from the tank. If it is a small group then WvA must be favourite but not sure he is in quite the condition he was last time perhaps too much emphasis on being able to win on all terrains. Very happy that Sam Bennett gets 3 rings, the last Irish victory in this race was the stuff of legends, not sure Sam can match Sean Kelly’s descending that day (not many riders ever will be able to) but he is a better sprinter.

  16. I wonder if poor positioning might be MVDP’s undoing here. In a number of race finales he’s shown that his positioning is lacking, though he’s been able to make up for it with raw power to get him back to the front and in contention. But that’s gonna be a lot harder with 280km and the furious pace as they hit the Poggio…

    • Maybe, but I’m not entirely convinced by this idea.

      The commentators were talking about it at the Tirreno-Adriatico stage which Alaphillipe won, but I’m not sure they were paying attention because at about 5kms out MVdP is positioned very well on the left, then his team come up to join him, the next thing we see is the aftermath of a crash and those team mates picking themselves up from the side of the road. Their leader has lost his position and the commentators start noticing his absence from the front and saying he’s out of position again. I think he was delayed by the crash and did well to come back for a podium.

      Will be interesting to see how it plays out today.

    • Davesta – you had a point here, MVDP was poorly positioned on the Poggio. Maybe cos him the chance of an attack and race win. Although even his energy looked shot coming into the finish.

  17. I suspect that if Philippe Gilbert were to win this then I’ll simply burn into tears. He can’t have many chances left for MSR. Mind you I thought his best chances for Flanders and Roubaix were long gone too and he proved me wrong there.

    I know its incredibly unlikely, but hopefully not impossible. Anyone else getting a bit too sentimental?

    • Same for me. I can’t name another potential winner who would leave me happier than Gilbert.
      His victory in Roubaix was already fantastic, but completing the 5 monuments now, in the dawn of his carreer, it’d be be wow!

    • If he’s still in the front group towards the end, one thing’s for sure – we’ll be able to believe for a short while (seconds? minutes?) because Gilbert isn’t going to die wondering. I’m rooting for him but sadly with little to no expectation of seeing him pull it off (but we can live in hope).

    • Add me up. The Monument he started more often, 17th time this season, six times a top-ten not being a sprinter at all, a couple of which were podia. Attacking on the Poggio nearly every year between 2007 and 2015. What an elusive race, yet he’d deserve it so much.

    • I like Gilbert but quite surprised this got three replies, there was absolutely no chance he was going to win this race today unless it snowed again of something crazy.

      There are better climbers, better sprinters, better climbers/sprinters and there are enough of them now to mean there was simply no chance he was going to get to the line without at least one rider who could beat him. Also any crazy tactics his team might try to help were out the window as Ewan was a better bet. I think Gilbert was about 50th favourite, maybe even lower. No chance.

      • Of course, this is absolutely black swan territory, but, frankly, so it was his Roubaix (2019!).

        And – although not as much – probably already his Flanders was, too, given that it happened the year of his 35th birthday and after a pretty mediocre 2016 season. He was looking good on the cobbles in 2017, having benefitted from the QS move, but – hey, that race!

        However, I felt that the commentary above was more about how we’d have liked that sort of result.

        PS Nibali, Ciolek, Gerrans, Goss… and Stuyven. Sanremo is open to curious results if you only focus on “the best of”. That said, I now suspect that Phil’s last word has been definitely said, since I’d assume that this time he should have prepared for this race the better he could.

  18. Today’s tailwind will make the riders a lot less cagey. Whether that means teams will stay together for the sprint, or lots will try to attack is anyone’s guess. Maybe this will be the time that Trentin’s usual attempt could work out.

  19. as a cycling super fan I thought that was rubbish.

    I know cycling won’t change.
    And I know the argument will be ‘but Tirreno was good last week, you can’t have everything’.

    But MSR is just a terrible race year in year out, ten minutes of okay drama after hours of nothing.

    I think it’s lost me for good this year – the greatest attacking riders of the last ten generations and still it ends exactly the same. Cycling has moved on, this race just isn’t hard/good enough and doesn’t deserve our attention. I love cycling in so many ways but I think it’s there to entertain or a least have the possibility of entertaining and this is a race that is the double whammy of predictable+boring.

    Give me Strade Bianchi any day of the week.

    • Only ever worth tuning in for the last 40 kms! I thought it was a great last hour’s racing.

      My tip was MVdP, who, as others said was out of position. Boxed in on the Cipressa which seemed to me his natural launchpad.

      Absolutely impossible to pick a winner off the top of the Poggio, except to rule out Alaphillipe, who seemed to realise he didn’t quite have the legs.

      Class ride from Stuyven who managed to stay away. I’ve always admired his late breaks, and a deserved victory to bag his first monument (is it me, or does Carlton Kirby change how he pronounces his name with every kilometre?).

      Pidcock did well to finish amongst a world class field at only 21 (and ahead of the world champ): a sign of even greater things to come?

      Upcoming Belgian classics look tasty.

    • What!? That was awesome!

      Totally unpredictable: No attacks from the big three cause Ineos (for some mysterious reason) shut it down on the Poggio; Ewan climbing as well as WVA basically tore up the races script; Sagan back to good form and taking it to the new kids; then a winner predicted by absolutely nobody but totally deserved for his perfectly timed attack and then his ice cold sit on SKA’s wheel until opening his sprint again with perfect timing… such a cool and experienced win! Chapeau!

      And now the prospect that Sagan is back to his best and we could see him toe to toe with MVDP and WVA in the classics, that’d be amazing.

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