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.
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.