Mathieu van der Poel leads by three seconds as he starts the descent down the Poggio. He’s counter-attacked Tadej Pogačar and left Filippo Ganna and Wout van Aert to chase. This was the moment the race was won.
The start in Abbiategrasso lacked the grandezza of Milan’s Castello Sforzesco or the Piazza del Duomo but the sporting aspect was the same. The neutral start was paused at chilometro zero to allow some riders back to the peloton, including Tadej Pogačar who was getting dirt wiped off his shoulder, it looked like he’d crashed but not even pride was wounded as he posed for selfies.
The early break was never allowed to get more than three minutes. Orphaned by Michael Matthew’s Covid withdrawal, Jayco-Al Ula sent Alexandre Balmer and Jan Maas up road with Aleksandr Riabushenko (Astana) and wildcard invitees Alessandro Tonelli and Samuele Zoccarato (Green Project-Bardiani-CSF-Faizané), Mirco Maestri and Samuele Rivi (Eolo-Kometa), Alois Charrin (Tudor Pro Cycling) and Negasi Haylu (Q36.5). This must be crushing for the riders as they couldn’t even spend the next few hours daydreaming about a win and were reduced to rolling billboards for their sponsors at best thanks to the relentless work of the likes of Jos van Emden and Jacopo Mosca for Jumbo-Visma and Trek-Segafredo.
One of the themes of this year’s race was just how uneventful if was, calm skies and the best part of 300km with relatively few incidents along the way. Come the Passo Turchino and Julian Alaphilippe crashed towards the top but got back on, it probably cost him a bit of mental energy but not much more. Down to the coast and the three capi came and went without any major incidents; sure some sprinters were dropped and Alex Aranburu crashed but little else. Soon after Sam Bennett was among those felled by some unmarked street furniture. The crash of Michał Kwiatkowski and Jan Tratnik seemed the most significant in the moment as they’re lynchpins for their leaders but with hindsight it’s claim to say this altered the result.
This year’s vintage was a Derny race, all the team leaders and lieutenants sat tight in the slipstream for as long as possible. Sure the Cipressa saw more sprinters dropped especially when UAE took up the pace and once again nobody could or would attack here. The descent was without incident although Mathieu van der Poel and Søren Kragh Andersen surged towards the front so they could follow UAE’s Matteo Trentin down and the trio opened up a small gap on the way down.
It all came down to the Poggio, the crucible where the race reaches boiling point. Bahrain barged into the lead to start the climb. Try as they might they couldn’t keep the pace up, or rather UAE came around with Tim Wellens hitting the front and winding up the pace as best as he could, his head shaking from side to side as if he was having an argument with his legs. This was more than a lead-out, Wellens’ wanton pace dragged a group clear while several wheels behind Matteo Trentin sat up to leave a gap which had the effect of a drawbridge being lifted and leaving those behind stranded. For the first time since Abbiategrasso the peloton was split. We knew what was coming next but if Pogačar’s attack was telegraphed that didn’t make it any easier to follow. It was like a storm warning, rivals could plan and prepare but when it came they were on their own.
The Poggio just isn’t steep enough for Pogačar, as much as he can attack, a handful of rivals can get on his wheel as long as they’re close enough to react. This was arguably where the only tactical finesse occurred as Søren Kragh Andersen gave chase with Filippo Ganna, then Wout van Aert. Mads Pedersen and Matej Mohorič were just metres away but could only watch as the race slipped away. This was the moment Mathieu van der Poel came past them and latched onto the winning move, just as “SKA” cracked, his job done. This left us with a golden quartet of Pogačar, Ganna, Van der Poel and Van Aert.
The Poggio is never steep but it flattens out over the top and with Pogačar’s gravity advantage over now, like some Zwift rider with a feather power-up expiring, Mathieu van der Poel surged just as they came to the Poggio town sign. Pogačar, Ganna and Van Aert were chasing but there was a gap, clean air.
Passing the legendary phone box that marks the start of the descent, Van der Poel led by three seconds, a gap no bigger than the time it took you to read this sentence. Yet it was a gap, a break and Van der Poel was away. His descent was workman-like, and each of hairpin exit saw him sprinting for the win and this time the RAI camera motos were far away, most of the descent was filmed by helicopter and it wasn’t until after the final bend that the moto shots resumed. Wout van Aert led the chase, how many times in his life has he done this? Onto the flat and Ganna was wincing, possibly bluffing but it looked like he couldn’t do much. By now Van der Poel had 11 seconds and that was it, there was time to sit up and celebrate.
An exciting finale that brings a satisfying result. Some riders have taken the win in Sanremo like cat burglars creeping into a bank and unpicking the safe with skeleton keys to take the trophy before rivals could react. Today Mathieu van der Poel walked in the front door, blew the doors off the race on the Poggio and took an emphatic solo win. This was more than a one-shot attack, bridging across to Pogačar’s move when others were floundering was one giant effort. Then another as he countered Tadej Pogačar and no less than Filippo Ganna and Wout van Aert couldn’t help Pogačar bring back the Dutchman. The result feels incontestable – even genetic given his grandfather won here in 1961 – so unless the script was ripped up and some wildly different scenarios were played out, who else could have won. As the sun sets over the Ligurian coast this evening nobody is talking about a seatpost or a chainring but a champion’s triumph instead.
And yet if there’s no doubting the outcome, the final 15 minutes of Sanremo supplied tension but not the head-spinning delirium of recent years where the result was uncertain until the last metres. Pogačar launched where everyone expected, the surprise was Van der Poel countering but once he took three seconds, the more settled things began to look.
Indeed for post-race analysis there’s much less to decrypt and decode with the benefit of hindsight. None of the top four could have any regrets, indeed Filippo Ganna’s forceful sprint showed a new side, an extra weapon in his armoury. Pogačar might feel short-changed for missing out on the podium after making the decisive move but because he made the decisive move he got countered. For all their struggles to get a win until recently, Alpecin-Deceuninck played their cards perfectly with Van der Poel as the star but Søren Kragh Andersen as a catalyst. This was a close, tight edition with 44 riders within one minute, the last of these being Peter Sagan.