Milan-Sanremo Preview

The longest race of the year that builds to some of the most thrilling moments of the season, Milan-Sanremo is open to all, from sprinters to grand tour winners. Mathieu van der Poel starts his season hoping for a repeat win, Tadej Pogačar wants his first win and many others will hope to seize the day.

The Course

So long Milan, excuses about a calendar clash with the Milan marathon were a polite cover for divorce between the race and the business capital. So we get a start in Pavia, it’s just outside Milan, on the same railway line that follows the route and makes no difference to the sport.

After 115km it’s Ovada and the Passo Turchino. Once a climb that shaped the race, road improvements and the peloton’s ability mean this gradual mountain pass – it is tracked by that railway line – now serves two purposes, to sap energy and to mark the symbolic passage from often foggy plains to the shimmering Mediterranean coast. The top is almost the halfway point and the descent is steeper than the way up.

Next comes the Via Aurelia, the coastal road. Viewers get scenic helicopter shots, inside the peloton it’s increasingly frantic with modern street furniture and antiquated town squares to navigate. The cape trinity: Capo Mele, Capo Cervo and Capo Berta are small climbs, each harder than the last. By now the race has done 250km and riders are being dropped as a the pace rises.

Then it’s on to the Cipressa (more detail). This starts with sharp right hander and quickly climbs through olive groves above San Lorenzo where the 9% gradient bites after 270km. This is a proper moment of climbing that ejects sprinters, the average of 4% is a blend of a steeper start and a flat balcony over the top where dropped riders flounder. There’s a toboggan descent, the most technical part of the entire course. The race continues along the coastal road where teams battle to get their leaders into place for the start of the Poggio climb.

The Poggio (more here) starts with 9.2km to go. A furious pace is inevitable. A right flick off the coastal road and the climb begins with a series of wide bends that, despite being uphill, are so fast some have to brake so here positioning is everything, to chose your line and not be forced to make extra effortss. It’s not as steep as the Cipressa, there’s one short step at 8%, this is often the place to attack and if not then after when everyone is gasping for air. After 280km the peloton’s brittle and the Poggio is just enough to shatter things.

The descent matters. It’s 3km and averages 4.5%, it’s not particularly risky but rewards riders who can sprint out of bends rather than flow but amid the bends and ramps if a rider can take five seconds here then the others behind will ask who can close this gap and that hesitation is enough to settle the race.

The Finish: under the 1km banner and it’s left at the fountain, then right on the wide Via Roma.

The Scenario

Out come the charts. Milan-Sanremo feels open to all but this race has long been a hunting ground reserved for star riders and even a “bunch sprint” scenario is really a very reduced group. Recent years have rewarded the solo winner. The race tends to follow a pattern with the Cipressa to soften up the field. In the last three years the Cipressa’s been ridden so fast that nobody has even attacked. We have to go back to 1996 when the winning move went clear here.

The Contenders

There are two obvious picks. First is Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck), last year’s winer. Nobody has done the double since Erik Zabel (2000,2001) but the world champion has all the tools to do the job. Last year he took off on the Poggio for a solo win and can do the same, exploiting his power over the the top of the climb and his skills on the descent. If he can’t get away then he can win a sprint from a group as well. His team can often look top heavy but he’s got solid support, including Jasper Philipsen as a real contender as well, the Belgian is one of the most versatile sprinters and if conditions are right he can get over the Poggio and sprint for the win. For Van der Poel form is the only doubt, it’s his first race of the season.

Winning your first race of year? Meet Tadej Pogačar (UAE Emirates) the other big contender who rode off with the Strade Bianche. He can win Milan-Sanremo but how? An attack on the Poggio is obvious and, easier said than done, if someone can get on his wheel then the brevity of the climb and the relatively gentle slope means they get a huge advantage in his shelter. He has won small bunch sprints but if Van der Poel and others accompany him into Sanremo the win’s far from certain. A Cipressa attack? No winning move has been launched this far out since 1996 and the challenge is such that just to take ten seconds over the top would be huge but then to keep this on the descent, maintain it on the Via Aurelia and defend it over the Poggio is a monster challenge. Still he’s been posting about the Cipressa on social media and his team have traded bodyguards for the coastal roads for punchy types but they could just use the Cipressa to weaken the field as much as possible, then use the Poggio as the springboard.

Paris-Nice was supposed to be an Evenepoel-Roglič duel and was all the better because it wasn’t. The window of opportunity in Sanremo is often so small it’s a catflap. Matej Mohorič has won here precisely by finding the right opportunity, his move atop the Poggio have him one or two seconds but he parlayed this into bigger gains on the descent to win.

Mads Pedersen (Lidl-Trek) is made for this race, he can handle sharp climbs and packs a beefy sprint. As good as he is though, surely Van der Poel and Pogačar are that bit better. So instead of all force he too might have to find an opening, an angle and exploit it. The team are strong with Jonathan Milan as a second sprinter but can he handle the climbs, if he can it’ll delight headline writers. Riders like previous winner Jasper Stuyven and in-form Latvian locomotive Toms Skujiņš.

Absent Wout van Aert Visma-LAB come with two fastmen, Christophe Laporte says all that’s left for him to win is a Monument and Milan-Sanremo suits him well, he’s a very fast finisher after a long day. Debutee Olav Kooij is another card to play and he’s another versatile sprinter who can hope to stay in range over the climbs.

Filippo Ganna (Ineos) was in the moves here last year and during the rest of the season he was sharpening his sprint, both underpinned by his improved ability to fight for position. He’d have Italian cycling in rapture but he’d how to win? A la Cancellara perhaps, to accompany the best into Sanremo and then ride clear and hope the others neutralise each other. Past winner Michał Kwiatkowski brings experience and Tom Pidcock is always a threat, especially for the Poggio and the descent.

Now comes the long “could win if” list. Soudal-Quickstep have a strong team but Julian Alaphilippe is not the galactico he once was but still has the skills, Gianni Moscon seems to be back and Luke Lamperti sprints well. Biniam Girmay (Intermarché-Wanty) can cope with the Poggio and sprints well. Benoît Cosnefroy (Decathlon Ag2r La Mondiale) can win big on the right days but if he’s excellent on sharp climbs, it’s hard to see him solo atop the Poggio. Caleb Ewan is a late withdrawal to illness, he and Michael Matthews (Jayco) are both exhibits in the argument that Sanremo is the most elusive race, that one close result can result in years of returning hoping for the same conditions again, and rightly so because if they were close before they can work towards a repeat or more. Laurence Pithie (Groupama-FDJ) is making a name for himself this spring and if there’s a bunch sprint he could find a route to the podium. Uno-X return with Alexander Kristoff but he’d surely want it to be 15 degrees colder while Søren Wærenskjold is fast but over 90 kilos so holding on over the Cipressa is a big ask. Maxim Van Gils (Lotto-Dstny) is punchy and is worst result this year is fifth but surely the Poggio isn’t steep enough.

Van der Poel, Pogačar
Laporte, Pedersen
Mohorič, Philipsen, Ganna, Pidcock, Kooij
Girmay, Strong, Van Gils, Lamperti, Zingle, Milan, van den Berg, Hirschi

Weather: a cool 8°C and the start and reaching 17°C by the finish and sunny most of the way. Almost no wind, just a slight 7-8km/h onshore breeze along the coast which means a slight tailwind for the Cipressa and Poggio.

TV: Rai Play and Rai 2 for locals and VPN users. Otherwise Eurosport and beyond. Here are the timings:

  • The race starts at 10.00am CET
  • The Turchino comes at 1.40pm CET
  • The Capi start around 3.45pm CET
  • The Cipressa stars at 4.25pm CET
  • The finish is forecast for 5.05pm CET

If you’re pressed for time, tune late. But just as you don’t don’t watch the last 10 minutes of an action movie, the build-up is part of the enjoyment. Look to see who is out of position on the capi, watch the teams jostle for position and then let the tension reach unbearable levels because unlike the inevitable outcome of an action move, we can’t be sure who will triumph until the very end.

59 thoughts on “Milan-Sanremo Preview”

  1. Viewing options:

    Only got 10-15 min – just watch from the bottom of the Poggio. It’s almost certain that nothing very meaningful will happen before this.

    Got half an hour or so – watch from the bottom of the Cipressa. You never know, Pogacar might try to attack there if he thinks he’s got a better chance than waiting for the Poggio. At the very least, somebody usually flies down the perilous descent off it.

    Got an hour – watch from the Capi – this is my choice. You get the build-up of excitement without…

    Got all day – watch the whole thing, lolling in and out of a gentle coma while nothing happens.

    Pogacar to win – attacking on the Poggio. MVDP not quite strong enough to go with him due to a lack of racing. But my predictions are always rubbish.

    • Ah ha ha…”gentle coma”! I wish I had time for those these days, but don’t because I have two young boys. I’m either in a coma, chasing them around or in some sort of mid-sleep state where I wish I was in a coma!

  2. Grazie Mille! My favorite time of the year: I’ve enjoyed the aperitivi and the antipasti, now I’m ready for a real plate!!! Post-breakfast we’ll have the race going, probably switching back-and-forth from RAI to Eurosport (just because we can) and I’ll head off for some take-out fried “critters of the sea” midday to bring back home to enjoy as they hit the coast. From there it’s ON…no looking away from the screen for long! Hoping against hope that maybe Pogacar can win…if not him Ganna or Milan though I wouldn’t be sad to see MVdP cross the line in Sanremo first again.
    As they say here: “Buon Divertimento!” 🙂

  3. No idea who is going to make the right guesses in this one but the rider that I will be watching (to see how he holds up) is Del Toro.
    Not sure if this is the right time to bring it up but the word Monumemt really bothers me. It is the wrong word and ignores the already existing hierarchy of races … UWT, Pro, 1, 2 … which is also a dog’s breakfast. Tennis and golf have managed for 100 plus years by simply calling their major tournaments “Majors”. Why not simply call these 800 pointers World Tour Majors or Top Tier races. Cycling is already arcane enough for a lot of people without adorning it with the very odd Monuments tag.

    • Because ‘the already existing hierarchy of races … UWT, Pro, 1, 2 …’ is meaningless to most cycling fans, who pay no attention to it at all? We know what the big races are, we don’t need the UCI’s arbitrary (and sometimes biased?) points system to tell us.
      I don’t put much stock in the term ‘Monument’: it is relatively recent, but is the UCI’s hierarchy of races any older than this decade? And will it still be the same by the end of this decade?

    • Majors/Monuments. I’d argue there is very little difference. Majors has an Americanised ring to it that Monument avoids. It is a term that appears to have grown organically to cover the longest and oldest 1 day classics, and significantly predates UCI labels. It sounds cool. As J Evans points adding a UCI label to it that might change is pointless. And, crucially, significantly less cool.

      • My problem is that it ignores the meaning of the word monument. They have wasted the word “classics” by applying very liberally to a bunch of races.
        Five Classics would be fine but Monuments just sounds dopey.

          • I should have researched first:

            ‘On 17 April 1949, at the day of 47th Paris–Roubaix race edition, the term monument appeared for the first time in road cycling sport. French sports journalist Albert Baker d’Isy, specialised in cycling, published an article titled Paris–Rubaix: “monument” du cyclisme in the French newspaper Ce soir.’

            So, does it make sense in French?

          • It makes sense in French, I think a monument in English means a statue or some kind of memorial, in French it does as well but can also mean a masterpiece or something that is the very best, a painting that was not just the best by the artist but set new standards for their peers could be called a monument, etc. For cycling Baker d’Isy may not have even written it, it could be the editor who slid it in on top but it was often reprised in L’Equipe by Philippe Bouvet.

          • The better English translation is probably “Monumental Classics”, to distinguish these 5 from Paris-Tours, Gent-Wevelgem and the other classics.

            Then Monuments sounds better than Monumentals, even if it does involve adding a new meaning. And it’s been in existence rather longer than the UCI hierarchy.

            Even if it’s a little clumsy in English, it’s better than English-speakers describing things as “mythical” when they mean “legendary”.

          • No problems at all with the use of Monuments in cycling.

            I’m currently far more disturbed with the new usage of “disappear.”

            “The dinosaurs disappeared after a major Earthly event.”
            “Mike disappeared from the party without saying goodbye.”

            But now I’m seeing “Billy disappeared his enemy.” Doesn’t seem right in my pedantry handbook!

        • Since Slovenians are now a force to be reckoned with in cycling … a bit of Slovenian history:

          The oldest text in archaic Slovene language, which is also the oldest Slavic text in the Latin alphabet, is known in Slovenia as the “Freising monuments”. When I was a kid, I thought they were written on gravestones or something like that. The grainy BW image in the textbook didn’t help. Of course, the text is written on parchment.
          So, another case where the use of word monument is confusing.

          • That fits well with the original meaning of Monument being “something that reminds” (source Statues serve this function and so do manuscripts. The meaning usage of something massive, profound, significant, derived from the visual impact of large statues and came later, C. mid-19th

        • To answer your last post about Grand Prix : except nobody in France call them Grand Prix… It’s of very little use in cycling, and less and less. Before, there was a “Grand Prix des Grimpeurs”, even Plouay was Grand Prix de Plouay. Except for the canadian races, and surely because Quebec french is always more traditional than France’s french, the word Grand Prix is disappearing (I remember there is a GP de la Tomate in the amateurs ranks, but not much more). Instead we have more and more of “Classic” written in the english way, not the French… “Bretagne Classic”, “Faun Drôme Classic” and not “Circuit (or Classique) de la Drôme”. Even for Tour it seems that some of the organisers take this french word in an english way : “Alpes Isère Tour” (which makes no sense in french) and not “Tour des Alpes et de l’Isère”.

      • Dunno WTF’s wrong with MONUMENTS. Tennis has Grand Slam, horse racing the Triple Crown and I’m sure other sports have their top events combined in some fashion. In pro cycling there are five. Everyone knows them. What I don’t like is “Monument Classic”. There are the 5 MONUMENTS along with other races in the “Spring Classics” category – Milan-San Remo, Ghent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, the Amstel Gold Race, La Flèche Wallone, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
        The other MONUMENT is of course Lombardia…far from a “spring” anything.

    • I need to do a piece about “the Monuments” and where the term came from. The short version is that the sport reformed the calendar at the end of the 1980s with 12 races on a World Cup series, including the five “course monumentales” which kept with privileges such as being 250km or more, so the label comes from the French language.

      • Yes please. One of the things I like about following road racing is the ‘lore’. Start off by watching riders-as-heroes then gradually, over years, unpicking all the layers of the sport’s history.

        Our near year-round landscape-scale sport really does inspire romance. La Doyenne, Primavera, Hell of the North, Race of the Falling Leaves, terms like Grand Tour, Classic, and, yes, Monument, all speak to the sports grandeur and history.

        I’d include rider nicknames within that as well. A different topic, for another day perhaps.

      • I would love to read an Inner Ring exploration about the Monuments label. I’m a longtime follower of the sport, and the first time I recall hearing the term was around 2000. I have a stash of Miroir du Cyclisme issues spanning 1960s – 1980s, and don’t recall ever seeing “monument” — even if my French is weak. Perhaps others know differently.

        It’s fine if bundling the five races together and declaring them monuments is a recent construct. But it seems like there’s a notion that those five races — and no others — have stood apart for a century as the most prestigious races, which isn’t the case.

        Related, it’s of course an arbitrary designation, with some trying to correlate “monument” to race length. EG Strade Bianche being 20k longer brought it closer to monument status. If so, the decades-gone Bordeaux-Paris was the king of the classics!

        • Or maybe just the fact they’ve survived for over a century without dropping back down to a minor status. Which is probably the sort of idea that brought along the word “monument”. However, in Italy they were already being identified as “Grandi Classiche” and there already was a feeling that they had survived to be seen as different from the rest. The race length aspect depends on the UCI decisions which inrng pointed at above. Then things changed again, but the correlation had become strong.

        • It is probably self-fulfilling by designating them as such but the monuments (along with the grand tours) all feel like races that are at the pinnacle of the sport. During and after the race there is no thought about what the implications of the results are. Win Omloop or the Dauphine and there are considerations that you might have peaked too soon, or don’t win and the interpretation might be that you held back to preserve something for later on or that you weren’t in form yet. Win a monument and it is a success and isn’t taken in the context of something else. Everyone starting a monument is doing so with the aim of their team winning and not getting miles in or testing the form.

  4. Incisive writeup as always. Thank you Inner Ring!
    Looking forward to another Saturday in mid March of building suspense.

    My tip: Bettiol will make the first major move on the Poggio, be countered by the eventual winner and finish well down in the second group.

      • I liked the old site. It had a classical elegance in terms of font and layout which suited the erudite nature of the posts. This version is utilitarian, it looks easy to hose off if it gets muddy, but a little of the charm’s been lost.

        • Mentioned this earlier in the week in another post but in case anyone drops by today… the old “theme” code had to be changed as the “lifetime licence” turned into a “pay an annual fee to renew your licence” surprise so this and some of the other code behind the website needed to be changed and had been putting it off for a while but the longer I left it, the increased risk of different parts of the code clashed causing bugs or collapse.

          Have tried to keep a similar layout but website design, layout, PHP script, CSS pages… it’s more than a foreign language. A minor miracle that things are still working after making the switch this week (so far, fingers crossed).

          Now the big change is happen, can work on the tweaks, we’ll see for the font, spacing, padding etc.

  5. Here is my prediction/guess.
    Pogacar will attack real hard on Cipressa, but not too hard, he wants a small group (perhaps just MVdP) with him. Someone who thinks they can match him on the Poggio and beat him in the sprint.
    Pogacar is cunning and will lure them to go all in with him in the breakaway, but it will sap their energy and Pogacar will leave them on Poggio and take a solo win.

    • I just can’t see a successful attack from the Cipressa. Every genuine contender other than Pogacar reduces their own chances by going with him. Their objective, as demonstrated by MvdP, Ganna and van Aert last year, remains to be as fresh as possible on the Poggio that they can neutralise Pogacar’s attacks and be within range at the top. Laporte, Pedersen and a number of others had the same goal but were defeated by Trentin who as ninth wheel let the front group go with weaker riders close behind him unable to close.

      Pogacar will have learned from last year, but so too will those who were stuck behind Trentin.

      On that basis…

      Head – MvdP
      Heart – Pedersen
      Outsider – Pogacar
      Rank Outsider – Philipsen

      Even in writing the above I think MSR will be a race Pogacar struggles to win. Unlikely to be supported in a Cipressa breakaway, unable to stay away alone from that far out chased on fast roads by the teams of many contenders dependent upon the Poggio and/or a sprint, unable to get sufficient separation on a climb as fast as the Poggio, and caught on the descent by faster finishers, including MvdP, Mohoric, Ganna, possibly Pidcock and others.

      MvdP fresh and with nothing to prove having won last year is the rider with the clearest path to victory – save energy, mark early Poggio attacks, make one decisive attack no one else can match and stay clear on the descent. He has the skill set to repeat with not a lot others can do about it.

      Nonetheless it’d be entertaining to be proved wrong. Again.

      Finally, interested and grateful to hear from any other Kiwis as to how they plan to watch the last few hours live in the post GCN+ and failed SkySport era…

      • I think a successful Cipressa attack would require whoever the chasers were to completely refuse to help each other and almost grind to a halt on the run to the Poggio. That or the move over the Cipressa already contained everyones leader. I suppose you could get lucky and a crash behind cause a bottleneck.

      • I was starting to think a Cipressa move could work for Pogačar, after Strade Bianche, but hearing GCN say the last 27km are raced around 46km/h, I am not so sure anymore. It would be one heck of a move, and I hope to be wrong.

  6. VDP for me, got all the bases covered.

    No long break has made it since Chiapucci. Want to see what happens because teams will look to UAE to take on the chase but they seem to have only one workhorse with Novak. Alpecin will work but only if they are joined by others.

    Anything on landslide/blocked roads, heard there could be problems on the course?

    • The road is open for locals and the race alike, no word though if it is one-way, a pinchpoint etc but it’s far from the finish so if is narrowed it should not be too hectic.

      Interesting point on the chase. Novak better have a big breakfast but if he’s chasing on the plains to the Turchino, who does the next part of the work? It’d be funny if there was a stand-off but Lidl-Trek, Ineos, Visma and others have an interest in chasing… but they also have an interest in seeing Alpecin and UAE getting stressed.

    • “No long break has made it since Chiapucci. (Chiappucci)”
      Thanks for bringing that up – Pogacar could pull that off, though an attack on the Cipresse IMHO would likely only work from a small, tired group ala Strade Bianche.
      Note to those who blame RAI TV coverage for loss of on-the-road images that switch to static shots….there’s already been plenty of this on EMG’s broadcast..on what looks like a weather-perfect day. RAI TV must somehow still be f__king things up since the race is in Italy? Never happens in France…until it does, like P-N 2024 final stage.

  7. Always surprises me that there’s no crashes on the Poggio descent.

    Pogacar has got his team to attack up Cipressa before and I’m sure he’ll ask for that again. But it’s not quite a tough enough one to really split the bunch. But it does shell the sprinters.

      • Me too but even with an overall victory performances like this continue to prove how elite he is. It’s important that we see him doing things like this because he can have longer stretches of scuffling. It teaches all of us to never quit.

        Second by the tiniest of margins ahead of some massive names earned his salary in one seven hour race.

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