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Weekend Preview: van der Poel to Sanremo, Trofeo Binda Battle Royale, and Minor Classics Abound

112th Milano-Sanremo 2021 Photo by Fabio Ferrari - Pool/Getty Images

Gonna keep this quick, since the weekend is coming at us fast...

Mathieu van der Poel has decided to make his season debut this weekend, not at the minor Per Sempre Alfredo race on tap for Sunday but at La Primavera, La Classicissima, none other than the season’s opening Monument, Milano Sanremo. Van der Poel himself has confirmed that his training suddenly went beyond where he had thought possible, after a winter in which lingering back soreness and a knee problem had scuttled his cyclocross season and left him assuming he wouldn’t make it to the spring classics in time. What exactly that means... I guess we will find out tomorrow.

Milano Sanremo isn’t a bad place to race yourself into shape, all things considered. While the finale is a wide-open attacking zone, where only the freshest legs have a chance at true glory (or hanging around for a bunch sprint), before that is some six-plus hours of moderate tempo and minimal technicality. Even assuming this “breakthrough” merely means van der Poel is fit to start, that’s a nice hard day in the saddle to get in your legs and progress your fitness. Is it possible this breakthrough means he thinks he can actually contest the finale? That seems far fetched, but with van der Poel I wouldn’t dismiss the notion.

The Dutchman’s return helps shift the conversation to who is actually attending the race, away from a week of discussing who isn’t. World Champion Julian Alaphilippe, defending winner Jasper Stuyven, and newest Monumentarian Sonny Colbrelli are all missing out due to illness. That leaves people generally speculating that the race will come down to whether Tadej Pogačar can get rid of Wout Van Aert on the Poggio and avoid losing the sprint to him. That’s a delicious enough scenario, and there are a handful of other charismatic climbers and classics guys who could further enliven the final 15 minutes — Pedersen, Sagan, Van Avermaet, Kwiatkowski, Bettiol, Pidcock and Ulissi, to name a few.

And if not? If tailwinds make it all too easy for everyone to get up and down the Poggio in range of the front? Then you have a sprinters’ pack of Kristoff, Demare, Jakobsen, Viviani, Philipsen, Bauhaus, Coquard, Bouhanni, and just maybe Biniam Girmay, which would be a huge story. Every team has a sprinter lined up, because sometimes the Sprinters’ Classic that we love to write stories about how it’s not really the sprinters’ classic, sometimes reverts to being a sprinters’ classic.

Ultimately, it’s a beautiful, unique, sometimes boring, but always comforting sight to see — the palm trees, the endless coastal features, the greenhouses of the Poggio, the bright colors of spring in Liguria... it’s a wonderful race about which there is so much to say and not really all that much at all. It could be a million different things. One of those is a shock win by a suddenly recovered Mathieu van der Poel. But the smart money is on Wout.

*****

Sunday is also a Monumental Day for cycling — women’s cycling — where the Trofeo Alfredo Binda happens a bit north of the men’s scene, finishing in Cittiglia near Lake Maggiore. Vaguely similar in terms of the likelihood of any of several outcomes, Trofeo Binda is by decades the oldest women’s race among the World Tour events, dating back (nearly) continuously to 1974, and equally unique and important as a race which has no men’s version to carry any water. By those two factors alone, you could say this is the biggest day on the women’s calendar.

And then there is the name, christened with the name of one of Italy’s all time greatest men’s cyclists, l’Imbattitbile, the unbeatable Binda. His other nickname was il Trompettiere di Cittiglia, because he played a trumpet and lived in Cittiglia, and so it happens that his name got hung on the women’s event. How he saw that, probably someone has written about, and I hope he appreciated having his name atop the leading women’s event. Binda died in 1986, after 12 editions of the Trofeo, so I suspect he was a true supporter.

The event itself delivers at the monumental level. Here are the route details:

Like most races north of Milan, there are plenty of hills to climb in the 141km of the course, including the Castalzuigno-Orino duet that animates each of the four circuit loops leading to the finish. The former is 840 meters at 7% while the latter is 3.9km at 3.9%, or 1.5km at 6.3% if you want to count just the top half. Each climb then offers a similarly modest descent, which means that just about everyone is able to get up and down these features. However, they wear on you after a while, so the race ends up being a true survival of the fittest. Expect a break or a small-bunch sprint to take it, as has mostly been the case, and look for recent winners like Coryn Labecki-Rivera, Elisa Longo Borghini, Cecilie Uttrup-Ludwig or Ashley Moolman-Pasio to be in the mix. Several big names went missing from Binda, including Marianne Vos and Annemiek van Vleuten, with a big bunch of northern classics coming. Remember, the women don’t split in half the Flanders riders from the Ardennes. They need to gear up for a full six more weeks of this madness.

*****

FSA DS players, don’t sleep on the rest of the weekend’s events. Sure, the points available are minor, but this is the perfect time for that kid who’s been running bottles to the older guys to take a stab at a podium. We have:

  • Saturday’s Classic Loire-Atlantique: A circuit starting and ending in La Haye-Fouassiere, just on the outskirts of Nantes in the Loire Valley. It’s rated somewhat hilly and can end in a small- to medium-bunch finish. Only the three French squads are there from the World Tour teams.
  • Sunday’s Cholet Pays de Loire: Similarly rated, slightly hillier version of Saturday’s event, a bit further east up the Loire in Cholet. Same team lineups.
  • Sunday’s Per Sempre Alfredo: Just the second edition of a race starting in Florence and ending just to the northwest of the capital of Tuscany, in Sesto Fiorentino. But not before heading inland to hit a few of Tuscany’s 400-500 meter climbs, starting with the Quattro Strade climb twice before looping around north and west, then dropping south along a flat valley to a potential sprint finish.
Per Sempre Alfredo Profile

Bora, UAE and Astana are all scheduled to take place. Not sure if Alpecin-Fenix have begged off or the startlist is just not there yet. Could be an amusing race.