The Elusive Milan-Sanremo

The easiest race to finish, the hardest to win. Milan-Sanremo is also the most elusive race, where victory can often feel within reach, a tempting mirage.

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Cast yourself back to 2010 and in the sprint for Milan-Sanremo Sacha Modolo finished fourth riding for the Colnago-CSF team, Bardiani today. “More than a hope” wrote La Gazzetta the next day about this future prospect. Only it was Modolo’s best result in La Primavera and the closest he got was eighth in 2014.

Modolo might just have got lucky in 2010 when the wheels of fortune spun his way but many other riders have come close in Sanremo and looked to have the race within reach only to never make it. Take Peter Sagan who seemed made for the race, able to win bunch sprints, a daredevil descender or just powerful enough to barge clear on the Poggio, it feels like he should have won it many times over. Only he’s had two second places, five fourth places and a sixth place yet never won.

In recent years Ben Swift has been on the podium twice. Michael Matthews has been in the top-10 five times, Sonny Colbrelli four times, Nacer Bouhanni, Greg Van Avermaet three times. Caleb Ewan has twice finished second. Now by definition many riders have to be the runners-up. A top-10 in Flanders, Roubaix or Liège, or a grand tour, and every rider will be wondering what to do to improve. It’s just that in Sanremo things are so close.

The winning margin is so fine and the race is open to all that it all leads to feeling that if things had turned out a just little differently then the big win would arrive. A sprinter can think this, a grand tour contender too, and everyone in between gets to dream and plan. It’s this that seems to tempt so many into this race.

If it’s back to the drawing board for someone close to the win, they’ll feel it only takes the tiniest of pen strokes to get them that win when it comes to Sanremo. That’s the devilish part. It’s almost as if there’s an optical illusion at work. Losing out by a few millimetres or a bike length after 300km looks like nothing, so a tiny bit more work over winter and in the build-up and basta, the top step of the podium awaits. Only it’s not so simple, the race could be very different next time, maybe the weather is worse or the dreaming rider just gets out of bed on the wrong side. But that disappointment comes on the day itself, perhaps in the final minutes. Until then it’s the hope.

If you have a rider in mind when it comes to finishing close, imagine how that particular rider must feel? It’s no secret to say that over the years riders like Michael Matthews, Matej Mohorič and Caleb Ewan have tackled the Poggio in training. To the point that local residents might look out the window, or workers in the hothouses producing flowers look up,  and think “oh, him again” as the same rider comes past again. And again.

The lesson from all this is that a rider might get to start Milan-Sanremo many times over but maybe they’ll only ever get one real shot at winning. Who’ll seize it this Saturday?

31 thoughts on “The Elusive Milan-Sanremo”

    • Sagan’s biggest chance was 2017, where he was clearly the fastest, but, perhaps over-confident, he not only led-out but started his sprint with well over 200m to go. And yet Kwiatkowski, even with a massive ‘run-up’ in Sagan’s slipstream, only just beat him. His tactics in 2013 – his other 2nd place – weren’t brilliant either.

      • Totally agree.

        The only thing I never understood is why Sagan didn’t repeat the tactics of 2017 in 2018/2019 in the times before WVA, Alaphillippe, MVDP and others…

        9 times out of 10 with that attack on the Poggio, against the riders of that era, Sagan would have won in the sprint – he didn’t in 2017 but why not try again, as it was the execution not the tactics!

        Now it’s too late. He’ll never win unless there’s a real freak result.

        I would like him to win though.

        (Even if I won’t be watching!! Yes this is oldDAVE!! Too scared to go by my usual moniker on an MSR post now my hatred of MSR is out in the open! Although I am still laughing at Richard’s ‘heaping shame upon yourself’ line… not sure the language of honour crime goes well with a niche cycling blog!)

        • I still say simply watch the last hour. Or the last half hour, if you’re short of time. Even if nothing happens beforehand, once they’re on the Poggio, it’s always worth watching. It’s more of a lottery than other Monuments, but that’s its individual charm (I certainly wouldn’t watch more than one race a season like this).

        • I spoke in jest OldDave. Though if you have watched so many of Sagans near misses and analysed their reasons I would argue that you do like the race. As Larry helpfully pointed out the idea is not to sit glued to your screen from the moment they sign on in Milan. Its to have it on in the background, dip in and out and then ideally start to watch in earnest from the Capo’s (or should it be Capi?). From then on its a highlight of the year as far as I am concerned.

  1. Nice piece, thanks. This is why the win by Allaphillipe still impresses me so much. It was so well orchestrated – Stybar and Gilbert burned it up on the Poggio and Allaphllipe managed to actually finish it off.

  2. For me, Caleb Ewan needs a result – and I suspect he’s had the best chances that he’s going to have in this race.
    I wonder when his contract is up? Lotto must be paying him a fair whack, and it would seem to me that they’d be better off investing that money into keeping De Lie – especially if Ewan keeps riding into people in grand tour sprints.

    • Again totally agree.

      De Lie is the future so this may well be getting sadly to last chance saloon for Ewan.

      I think it’s a shame as he’s got so much talent but recently it’s become clear with multiple crashes in the finale and questionable tactics/lack of organisation in his lead out that maybe the fact he hasn’t won more is as much down to his deficiencies as bad luck.

  3. Excellent, beautifully written analysis of what makes (our) sport (our) sport. MSR really is one of the oddest events in any sport- the nearest equivalent I can suggest is a hard fought Super Bowl (aka the Superb Owl) where after literally hours of build up the last couple of minutes decide the result. Only, there it slows down, becomes more obsessively controlled while this race becomes more and more anarchic until we all finally breathe out. Well, some years at least…

  4. I have sometimes warmed up before race by watching the last 15 miles of a few previous editions on Youtube. Even if one remembers who won, watching the mechanics of how it actually happened is a joy, as possibilities turn to actualities.

      • I’d like Sagan to win more than anyone as he really should have it in his Palmares.
        Maybe then Alaphillipe or Ewan as it feels like both slightly need it.

        But deep down I kinda want Pogacar to take MSR and Flanders and just rule 2023.

        I find the way he races so aggressively almost endlessly exciting so a clean sweep would never be boring (for me at least) and seeing him crown his outrageous talent with a miracle year before we get the inevitable three way Remco, Jonas face-offs would be fantastic.

        I think Remco is a bludgeon, a tank of a rider, efficient, powerful and dull.
        Pogacar is the magician.

        Walter Benjamin made a nice comparison between an painter as a magician and a photographer as a surgeon, seems to fit vaguely here also – Remco slices his way through arteries while Pog waltz’ through dreams.

  5. When your attention grabbing first point of evidence for how wonderful and fascinating and elusive and mesmerising and wonderful a race is Milan – Sanremo is that the world-famous and justly renowned Sacha Modolo came 4th in his first ride and never came that close again, is it really so strange that so many stand on the sidelines and point out that the emperor really doesn’t have any clothes on.

    • Obviously not worth a reply, but just in order to avoid ending up writing about gender and cycling…
      …that same 2010, who came 4th at Ronde and Roubaix? Leukemans and Hammond.

      So what? Not only the Emperor Sanremo has no clothes on, but the Queens of the Classics don’t have any either? (albeit admittedly the latter two races are anyway a better watch). Just an example among thousands.

      Leukemans and Hammond could only dream a career like Modolo’s with nearly 50 pro victories, a handful of them WT but – even more relevant to me – a decent number of solid races which despite not making the WT are better than several races included by the latter (Agostoni, Bernocchi, De Panne, the Mallorca trophies). No doubt he was a minor figure, a top-tenner rather than a winner, the by-product of a then-already-disfunctional Italian juvenile system which selected heaps of resistant fast men, technically very consistent, who could massively achieve WT level, but rarely absolute excellence once in the pro ranks (Modolo, Colbrelli, Nizzolo, Felline, Bonifazio, Battaglin, Belletti, Pasqualon… Trentin and Viviani being the main success stories within the above paradigm, both in fact following a different pattern) .

      Besides, Modolo decided to spend the greater part of his career in lower-level teams despite having WT offers: after turning pro, some four whole seasons with the Reverberi (!) essentially out of gratitude and the desire to support the project he had grown in. But – as a reader suggested here (mainly incorrectly) about Cadel Evans’ career – team support is key for winning, even more so if you aren’t the very best around, but even so!, not to speak if you’re a “sprinter” of sort. Personal decisions which eventually build up your career profile, and rightly so, yet you can’t ignore that factor when trying to assess the “intrinsic” sporting value of an athlete.

      At the same time, looking upon him, roughly among that hundred of athletes who were the most successful top male pro cyclists during a whole decade, means failing to understand a basic elements of cycling: in every race, only *one* wins over two hundreds (ask precisely Ewan and his photofinish!), and generally speaking very few athletes win more than a dozen of race. Many don’t win anything at all. Yet cycling needs them all to work as a sport.

      Modolo’s career results aren’t that different from athletes like Tony Gallopin or Ben Hermans, probably better than another once great hope like Jens Keukeleire. But for some reasons these name do resonate “better” and nobody would disrespect their career only because the expectations were greater than what was finally achieved.

      • The above made me think about a famous Bolaño interview when he was speaking of very very minor poets, wannabe poets, rather; and the interviewer referred to the minor poets’ anthology loved by Borges – then Bolaño replied, “no, no, *those* were great poets, we call them minor, and indeed they are in relative terms, but still their work resisted the passing of centuries and they stand so much above the huge majority of people who pretend to be a writer…”.

  6. Is last year’s runner up taking part (Turgis)? Watching Mohoric descend last year was almost unwatchable – part genius, part madness. I would expect UAE, Jumbo & QS to crank up the speed even earlier then normal to try to drop the geniune sprinters, so I hope the road furniture is well marked!

  7. For me the race epitomises why pro bike racing is so much more than a watts per kg test.

    It’s the perfect combination of all the tangible and intangible elements that make cycling endlessly fascinating.

    And I used to hate it! (the race that is)

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