I know we all know that Milano-Sanremo is unique from the other monuments, and most of cycling itself, for being impossible to put in a box. It’s the Sprinters’ Classic, except it mostly isn’t, but then it’s kind of all over the map, and if you look at the top ten, with sprinters and classics guys and a Tour de France winner to boot, you just want to throw up your hands.
But what if Matej Mohorič just turned this into the Descenders’ Classic?
Let’s face it, that may be about as close as we can come to defining this race. Almost an identity by default. The sprinters win sometimes, but take one km out of the approach to the line and now those guys aren’t getting together in time, which they weren’t doing reliably before either. Yesterday proved that it’s not really destined to be the Grand Tour Winners’ Classic either. History clears its throat here — do the names Coppi, Bartali, Merckx, Gimondi and Fignon mean anything to you? — but Tadej Pogačar, this generation’s biggest star, just got batted away yesterday, not only by his countryman’s flying descent but by the scores of faster sprinters like Wout Van Aert, Matheiu van der Poel, Soren Kragh Andersen, and a bunch of true sprinters who either held his wheel over the top or ended up just behind.
So it’s the classics’ racers’ race then? That’s an even less meaningful definition, now that everyone who’s anyone tries hard in the classics. That designation does tend to suggest a mix of skills, and if we can say anything for sure, MSR likes a good mix of skills. But it doesn’t make for much of a talking point.
What does make for a serious talking point, however, is what we saw yesterday. Yesterday various news outlets spied Mohorič’s bike having a dropper post, which to you non-MTBers is a seatpost that you can raise or drop as the situation demands. Mine uses a cable connection to a button on my bars. Not sure what Mohorič had on his cockpit to activate it. But droppers are beloved in the dirt world for allowing you to get lower more comfortably on the descents. And it seems to have worked out OK:
I don't usually time descents but I can make an exception this time because I was too curious. Matej Mohoric descended yesterday the Poggio in 3 min 35 sec, average speed of 53.58 km/h! For reference, Sean Kelly did 3:47 in 1992 and Nibali 3:49 in 2018. #MilanoSanremo— Mihai Simion (@faustocoppi60) March 20, 2022
Mohorič showed everyone what is possible at Milano-Sanremo. He talked afterward about focusing on the race over the winter, plotting and planning his wild descent that nobody could to anything about. And that there is the story. For all of the ways to win, the best one is the one that nobody can do anything about. Cancellara up the Oude Kwaremont. Pogačar climbing at the Tour. Cavendish in the final 50 meters. Stuff like that.
Nobody has a foolproof way to win at MSR in the conventional sense. The Poggio isn’t steep enough for the climbers to put away the field. This race was once won by Mario Cipollini. If he can get up and down that thing, so can a lot of guys. The sprinters, however, have been put on their back foot for a while by aggressive attacking, something that got even more aggressive yesterday when UAE winnowed down the field on the Cipressa, of all places, and like I said, with the shorter run to the line, the regrouping chances have gone down even further.
So Mohorič thought of the one thing you maybe can get away with. Going up the Poggio might be no biggie but going down it is. Here’s a map of the Poggio, the wider road named Via Duca d’Aosta on the way up and Via Vai d’Olivi on the way down. The descent stands out for two reasons, the (maybe) ten notable twists and turns, and the long straight sections, which combine with a low gradient to create a wild ride. A steeper descent would put even the best descenders on alert, but coming down the Poggio you can throw caution to the wind. Mohorič did, and he’s got a nice new trophy on his shelf.
So why isn’t this the new way to win MSR? With the incredible aerodynamic advances of the last 30 years, bikes and their drivers can do much more than they used to. [Mohorič was sporting some nice Vision Metrons from our friends at FSA.) There is some serious speed available on the downslope of the Poggio, but the skill to marshal that speed around the ten turns is where the real separation happens.
Will we see more downhill attacks from the Poggio? I did a quick search and the last 20 years have seen arguably nobody else win this way. A more nuanced version might be that riders attack on the descent fairly often, but it’s been a couple decades since such an attack led to a clean escape for victory. More like gaps open up on the descent, but get reeled back in in time for a bunch sprint. In other words, it’s not like people haven’t tried; it’s that it isn’t easy to do.
Who besides Mohorič is even a candidate to win this way? I don’t have a list of great descenders in my head, and anyway they aren’t all alike. Vincenzo Nibali has always had the rep of a great descender, which isn’t how he won his MSR — he attacked uphill, and made it stick on the descent, but didn’t gain any time overall, and only maybe added a couple seconds to his lead thru the hairpins before giving them back on the straightaways.
My hunch is that the bigger guys like Van Aert and van der Poel would not be the choices here. Mohorič is probably 15-20 pounds lighter than those guys, and controlling their speed in the tight turns would be harder to do than for a lighter rider. Alaphilippe seems like a prime candidate, a skilled descender (I think?) who is a bit of a pocket rocket, capable of accelerating uphill and finishing a sprint. This race is made for guys like him... but they have to want to risk it all on the descent for that particular approach to work. Otherwise, you take your chances on the Via Roma.
They also have to consider droppers. Maybe this won’t end up being more than a fad, and I definitely wouldn’t expect riders to want the extra weight in any other race I can think of. But MSR isn’t a race where you need to shave every ounce off. Aero advantages are huge, not just on the Poggio but on the previous 290km where a few watts kept in reserve throughout the day can come in very handy later. Not sure how aero droppers are, but riders gain way more time back from their wheels and cockpit anyway. And the descending advantage of a dropper, like I said above, if it’s a real benefit on the trails, it probably is on the road too. [Donostia maybe...?]
Anyway, just some food for thought. If we have to wait another 36 years to get a hair-raising descent to glory, then this won’t be one of my more memorable suggestions. But...stay tuned.