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Is Milano Sanremo Still the Sprinters’ Classic?

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The ebbing power of the fastmen on their “home turf”

ITALY CYCLING MILAN SANREMO RACE Photo by DIRK WAEM/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images

The dark truth about being a cycling writer is that as every year rolls around, you face the prospect of writing a race preview that you’ve written many times before. And if I were to fall into that trap when discussing Milano Sanremo, I would proceed to tell you that this is the lone Monument where every type of rider has a chance to win. And that would almost be true: the race’s honor roll runs the gamut from Tour de France champions to Classics warhorses to the bunch sprinters, everyone but the random breakaway guys who get overcome every year, without fail, along the Italian Riviera by the ambitions of someone more famous and powerful than they.

The race’s inclusive nature also, curiously enough, gives it an elusiveness that the other monuments lack. Ask Philippe Gilbert, who is politely waiting for some of the traffic to clear so he can complete his quintuplet of glory, if only the cobbles guys (Sagan, Kristoff), sprinters (Goss, Degenkolb) and Vincenzo Nibali (Vincenzo Nibali) would allow the Belgian a clean shot at the line. Everyone gets ideas on the way to Sanremo, even if there are close to 300km for those ideas to go up in smoke.

But the basic framing of the race, I don’t want to just leave it at that. I don’t want to just go on and start speculating on who’s on hot form — Mathieu and Wout... talk about repetitive. Rather, I want to rethink La Classicissima’s place right now just a bit, as it seems to be evolving in interesting ways. Like, the default has been that it’s the sprinters’ race until someone takes it from them. But is that still true? The sprinters’ hold on MSR is growing ever more tenuous with each passing year where an elite group gets and stays away to the end, thwarting their hopes of a bunch sprint. The Classicians have a firm grip on the race of late, and there is no sign that they plan to let go.

This is hardly rocket science; just peruse the results. Throughout history, prior to the 90s, the race was routinely won by the Giants of Cycling, sometimes in a large sprint, sometimes in a reduced one, and when Fausto Coppi was involved, in a solo break. But in 1997, with the sport awash in PEDs, Erik Zabel kicked off his run of wins or near misses, and the race saw nine bunch gallops decide the race over 11 years. Only Pozzato and Bettini interrupted the sprint trains, until Cancellara escaped in 2008, amidst his rise to machine-like status. Then a couple more sprints (er, that doesn’t quite describe Cavendish’s win, but still)... and then... chaos.

2021 Milano Sanremo parcours

Since 2010 we saw a brief run of three sprint finishes, the last in 2016. Otherwise, it’s classics riders, or even climber types, repeatedly animating the race on the Poggio if not sooner. The preeminent skill required to win is the ability to punch it over the top and hang on to a gap on the descent. The key moment is when the Poggio starts to get a bit long, starts to bite the legs of the sprint train guys, dragging their fastman over the summit to get him in position. The classics guys can be counted on to attack and open gaps, and if you can’t close them, well, there are too many guys with the ability to finish the job these days.

That’s the subtle change in the peloton, I think? The overall rise in classics talent has been significant, to say the least, and rears its head at MSR in ways that have altered the balance of power. At the same time, the peloton is a bit thin on pure sprinting stars, compared to 20 years ago, when Zabel and Cipo and Freire, then Petacchi, ruled the Via Roma. Who are the great sprinters of today? Demare, the former winner? Maybe. Viviani? His health has quieted any such talk. Caleb Ewan, second behind Nibali in 2018? Matthews? Bouhanni? Kristoff?

There are always sprinters, but they simply aren’t the power center of the sport the way they had been. Now that power rests more with a diverse set of classics guys. This is a Monument, and by definition it exists in the minds of fans and teams and riders as such, whether you prefer gravel racing these days or not. The big classics guys are here to win, and to demand every ounce of support their team can muster. There is no presumption of powerful sprint teams who will shut down every late attack, however well executed. Resistance is no longer futile.

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So who are we here to watch? That’s easy. Three names jump off the page.

Wout Van Aert is the defending winner. He along with Mathieu van der Poel are redefining the sport in their image, both long term and in the last week or three. Van der Poel has a few dominant wins to his name, as recently as a stage of Tirreno Adriatico on Sunday when he soloed for the last hour of the race. Van Aert, meanwhile, took the opening sprint and went into GC mode, ending up second behind the last Tour de France winner, in a stage race with major climbs and major climbers. In his first race of the year. None of this makes any sense.

The third name of great interest is Gilbert. As I mentioned above, he is running out of chances to become the fourth Belgian (and human) to win all five Monuments. These races are all more than a century old, and only three riders (Van Looy, De Vlaeminck and Merckx) have mastered them all. It’s really, really hard to do, apparently. And Gilbert’s chances this year are very slim.

Monument dominance is kind of a thing of the past. Gilbert is the only rider since Sean Kelly to have a shot at the whole lot of them. Of recent vintage, Cancellara got to three but never even attempted Liege or Lombardia. Gilbert’s versatility is a remarkable achievement, along with his longevity, and you’d think a guy like that would be a decent fit for MSR. He even used to sprint pretty well. He was ninth last year... not too shabby? Maybe, but his previous top ten was in 2011, when he took third, and since then, apart from last year’s odd edition, he never came anywhere close. Can he launch away from the top favorites on the Poggio? Not to my eye. Can he sit on Mathieu and Wout? Doubtful, but if so, what then? The sprint won’t be kind to him. As much as this is a race for many different types of riders, they have to have a dominant trait, and Gilbert’s explosive climbing isn’t what it once was. His real gift has been for solo attacks from some distance, the one plan that never seems to work at MSR.

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Having crapped on the sprinters, it’s probable that we will see one of them take the honors this year. I have strange gifts. But if not, is there a chance that we could see a winning move get away (gasp) before the Poggio? The last such impudence was in 1996, when Gabriele Colombo won in a four-rider escape. Media were asking van der Poel about such a possibility this week, and he seemed to be saying no while maybe planting a seed in his head to try it. The conventional wisdom, articulated by the young Dutch champion, is that the descent off the Cipressa and the gallop to the Poggio is all at such a high speed as to favor the charging pack over a small group. It can’t be done, they say. Which means he has to think about trying, right? He would need help — maybe some ex-crossers to join him. It could get very, very interesting.

PICK TO WIN

Julian Alaphilippe. Don’t ever bring a caribou to a wolf fight. DQS are one of the only teams who can hurt you every which way. Lampaert and Asgaard are the B-listers you can’t sleep on. Ballerini is a sentimental pick and a sprinter, even if he isn’t related to the late Franco. Sam Bennett is a guy you legitimately fear being brought to the line in a big bunch. So when Ala inevitably punches it on the Poggio, do you drag him back and escort all those other guys, especially Bennett, to the last KM? Decisions like this is why it sucks to be a DS, outside of DQS.