By David Hunter
Milan > Sanremo 299.4km
The first monument of the year.
I could bore the pants off you about the route and all the things that other preview writers will feel like they have to tell you, but that’s not my style. It might be the longest race of the year, but it is underserving of a long preview.
The race starts in nice conditions, there will be cloudy sunshine and temperatures around 10 degrees. As the race goes on, the wind starts to strengthen. By the time we reach the climbs we’re talking a wind of around 20km/h coming from the north-east, which could be significant. Not all the forecasts agree on the wind direction, which doesn’t make my life easy.
The Cipressa. Will anyone dare launch a long-range attack? The last time feels like a lifetime ago. With lots of domestiques still left to chase it really is suicide.
The Poggio, the main event of the day. A climb that doesn’t look much, but feels like Everest after around 290km of racing. The big news is that the majority of the climb will be either headwind or cross/headwind, which is terrible news for the attackers. Different forecasts are saying different things, I don’t think you can rely on it being a headwind, but it might be!
The descent is well known to us, it’s super technical.
Nice and easy.
It’s all about the Poggio. The last couple of years have been great for the attackers, they’ve managed to get a big enough of gap to stay away for the win, but will the wind will make it hard this year? Positioning at the foot of the climb is incredibly important, it is very difficult to move up the bunch once onto the climb itself. Once there, the main attacks don’t usually come until close to the end, this is when the domestiques are tired and unable to follow. I know what you’re all wondering, when will van der Poel attack? I’m actually wondering if he’ll attack.
He might be a little rash at times, but he’s no fool, will he really attack into a 20km/h headwind? That would be suicide, even for him. He might be better advised to be patient and wait for the sprint. If he does attack, will Van Aert attempt to follow? What about Alaphilippe? The Frenchman is one who cannot win from a sprint, will that force him into his usual move, or will DQT be all in for Sam Bennett? The headwind means there are lots of questions, the race will give us the answers. If the wind isn’t blowing then we’ll see the usual moves in the last kilometre of the Poggio. Last year the gap at the top was only 5 seconds, but it was enough for the front two to stay away. The big issue is the difficulty in organising the chase, this can’t be done until the bottom of the descent, and even then there usually isn’t many domestiques left in the main group.
Wout Van Aert – arrives here with some serious form. After performing well in Strade Bianche, but not winning, he went to Tirreno Adriatico and won a bunch sprint, beat Ganna in a TT, and outperformed most of the climbers in the tough stages. He won this race last year, beating Alaphilippe in a two-up sprint, but I wonder how he’ll approach the race this year. Will he follow the attacks on the Poggio, or risk waiting for the sprint? This is the same decision most have to wrestle with, I suspect decisions will be made in the heat of the moment. Given he can win both ways, he starts as my favourite for the title.
Mathieu van der Poel – form is amazing. His win in Strade Bianche was jaw dropping, he backed that up with two more in Tirreno, he’s flying. With all eyes on him, I wonder what he will do. Positioning at the bottom of the Poggio could be a slight problem, I’m not so sure that Alpecin-Fenix will have many riders with the energy left for the drag race. Once on the climb will he attack? I think it will depend on the wind, he isn’t stupid, attacking into a strong headwind would be suicide.
Julian Alaphilippe – anchor the moves on the Poggio to set up a sprint? A lot will depend on how Bennett’s going. The Frenchman strikes me as the type who wouldn’t mind riding for another, but it is a gamble as Bennett doesn’t have a great record on the Poggio. Maybe he can sit in the front group, refuse to work, then jump away in the closing kilometres. Don’t let his performance in Tirreno fool you, he’ll be at his best here.
Sam Bennett – this is a huge moment in his career. The way he’s started this season has been hugely impressive, I’d say he was in the form of his life. Now, Bennett is a big guy, that’s why he doesn’t cope very well with the Poggio, but he’s been climbing very well in recent races. Given the way he’s riding, and the favourable weather conditions, I don’t think he’ll have a better chance of winning a monument. Can he deliver the big one?
Caleb Ewan – once we get over 250km, he seems to grow a third leg! The Aussie really does move into a different league when sprinting after a long race. His preparation for this has been pretty poor, he had to abandon Tirreno during stage 3 due to stomach problems. That means he starts a little underdone which isn’t ideal considering the length of this race. The potential headwind on the Poggio is great news for him, especially as he has coped with this hill in previous editions. Just like Bennett, winning a monument would be a massive moment in his career.
Michael Matthews – the Aussie will want a hard race, but not too hard. This is the age-old problem for him, he needs it to be selective enough to remove Ewan and Bennett, but not that hard that riders get off the front. He is a brilliant rider, one who can easily deal with the Poggio, but winning will always be quite hard. Saying that, I do think this race suits him well.
Philippe Gilbert – the quest for five. Make no mistake, if Gilbert wins all five monuments it will be one of the biggest ever achievements in pro cycling. I think we’d all be happy to see him do it.
Filippo Ganna – there’s been a lot of noise about his chances in recent days, which I had initially put down to people not knowing what they’re talking about. However, the more I think about it, the more I like it. The Italian was climbing well in Tirreno, and the headwind on the Poggio plays into his hands. His plan must be to attack once we get off the descent, especially as we usually get a lull in the action as everyone tries to catch their breath. It’s still unlikely to be successful, but you just never know.
A win for Wout Van Aert.
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