Key Takeaways: Milano-Sanremo
Breaking down the key points and what we can take away from the first Monument of the season, as well as what it all means for the big one-day races looming in the weeks to come
Mathieu van der Poel opened up the 2023 Monument season by winning Milano-Sanremo with a balanced ride that was equal parts strategy, patience, and pure power. After counter-attacking off Tadej Pogačar’s nuclear pace near the top of the Poggio climb, the superstar pushed a slight advantage of the summit. He then preceded to pour on the power down the descent and through the streets of Sanremo en route to a 15-second victory over the star-packed chase group of Filippo Ganna, Wout van Aert, and Pogačar. The result, and the fact that we got to see the sport’s best riders going head-to-head at the end of a major race, teased the possibility of an all-time great Spring Classic season over the next few weeks as Monuments like Flanders and Roubaix approach.
1) Mathieu van der Poel +0
2) Filippo Ganna +15
3) Wout van Aert +15
4) Tadej Pogačar +15
5) Søren Kragh Andersen +26
To expand on my initial Milano-Sanremo thoughts from Saturday after the race, I’ve broken down the key takeaways from the early-season Italian Monument below:
21.5km: Mathieu van der Poel goes over the top in front, showing his strength. Also, the fact that he doesn’t attack shows he and his Alpecin team are confident in the plan they have for the Poggio.
9.5km: At the base of the Poggio, Bahrain is setting an extremely high pace in an effort to repeat last year’s result of launching Matej Mohorič off the front. Behind, Filippo Ganna is in a great position, while Pogačar sits closely behind in the wheel of his teammate Tim Wellens. Van Aert sits in a group of Alpecin riders while Van der Poel is right behind his biggest rival.
7.9km: Tim Wellens quickly gets to the front to set an extremely high pace with Pogačar right on his wheel. They are attempting to set up a thermo-nuclear attack for Pogačar to ride clear of the others and not making any attempt to mask their intentions.
7.7km: When the camera zooms out, we can see that Wellens’ pace has blown up the peloton, but that Ganna has no problem staying on the wheel. Meanwhile, Van der Poel has realized that Van Aert isn’t his best today. He makes an effort to bridge since this is the moment to either join Pogačar or miss the move. Van Aert is left out of position here and will have to expend massive energy to simply pull even.
6.6km: Van Aert makes a huge effort to join the lead group just as the gap explodes to those behind. At the front, Wellens pulls off while Pogačar launches his telegraphed attack.
6.4km: Van Aert’s position at the back during the attack means he then again has to expend a massive amount of energy to reel in Ganna and Pogačar. Van der Poel takes a risk by sitting back and following Van Aert, but this allows him to get a somewhat ‘free’ ride up to the lead group, and even more importantly, puts him in the perfect position for a counter-attack.
5.5km: Van der Poel smartly waits until the group is roughly 20 seconds from the top of the climb before he launches a massive attack from behind. His position at the back means that by the time Pogačar sees him, he is already traveling at a much higher speed and opens a solid gap before the others can respond. Van Aert is gapped slightly as Pogačar and Ganna accelerate.
5.3km: Van der Poel crosses the top of the climb with a slight 3-second gap. Pogačar, the lightest of the group, leads them over, while Van Aert, the best descender, is stuck behind Ganna, the worst, due to being dropped slightly during Van der Poel’s attack.
4.5km: Van Aert has moved to the front early on the twisty descent, but, Van der Poel has already increased his lead to 5 seconds due to this delay.
2.7km: By the time he hits the bottom of the descent, Van der Poel has increased his lead by another 2 seconds and is now up to 7 seconds. With the switchbacks behind him and only a sloping downhill left to race, it will be all but impossible for the three chasers to reel him due to how much power he is putting into the pedals and the simple fact that he only has to focus on himself while the three behind have to worry about the other two.
1.1km: The three chasers are able to pull back a second on Van der Poel through the city streets, but the closer they get, the more complicated the situation becomes since they all start looking at one another to set the pace.
Finish: Van der Poel rolls over the line with a massive 15-second gap while Ganna drops the other two in the sprint behind with a powerful seated surge.
The first three takeaways are my initial post-race thoughts that were sent to premium subscribers on Saturday after the race. Click through on each point to see the full breakdown.
1) Mathieu van der Poel is officially back after an uneven 11-month stretch
2) Tadej Pogačar finally showed his power does indeed have limits
3) He lost the race, but Filippo Ganna may have had the ride of the day
4) Mathieu van der Poel won this race with patience as much as pure power
If we go back to the 2021 Milano-Sanremo, Van der Poel was out of position at the base of the Poggio and couldn’t contest the win. Flash forward two seasons and he won the same race with excellent position and amble patience.
Over just a handful of months, he has become an almost unrecognizable rider who eschews running up the score at the smaller races and peaks perfectly for the sport’s biggest events.
This change is likely due to maturity, and the fact that at 28 years old, he has realized he only has a few seasons left to contest the sport’s major Monuments and has a long way to go if he wants to retire with the same level of big-race Palmares as riders like Tom Boonen.
Evolution of the time gap between MvdP & the Chase group (BTP hand-timed):
Top of Poggio climb: +3s
1km into Poggio descent: +5s
End of Poggio descent: +7s
Last km: +9s
When we look at the time splits, Van der Poel won the race by riding fairly conservatively on the most technical section of the Poggio (in complete contrast to Matej Mohiric in 2022) and extending his lead on the more open and power-based sections of the course.
This is partly due to the mismatched incentives of the three chasers behind, but also a testament to just how strong Van der Poel was riding on Saturday.
5) Van der Poel’s Alpecin team executed on the Poggio better than any other team
They might not have had a show of force like Bahrain or UAE. Still, by having three riders at the front of the race, they could cover their bases for every potential outcome (Søren Kragh Andersen had breakaways covered, Mathieu van der Poel had Van Aert marked and Jasper Philipsen was sitting back for a sprint).
This numerical advantage also allowed Van der Poel to be more patient and stay in the draft of Van Aert while his teammate Kragh Andersen spent his energy marking Pogačar at the front.
6) Tadej Pogačar needed to cloak his Poggio intentions in order to have a chance to win this race
Since the winner of Sanremo is almost always the rider who attacks after the favorite attacks, the two-time Tour de France champion was never going to win this race by attempting from the front or telegraphing his move from the base of the Poggio.
We don’t have the power numbers from the front group, but the Italian paper La Gazzetta reported Van der Poel averaging a stunning 564 watts up the Poggio. This means we can assume Pogačar, who weighs far less, was averaging around 500 watts, and that Ganna, nearly 20kgs heavier than Pogačar, was likely averaging over 600 watts for the full 5.5-minute climb.
The short and shallow nature of the Poggio demands pure power, not the mathematical watts per kilos kind needed in the high mountains. Pogačar was never going to be able to ride a group capable of this type of raw power off his wheel. Instead, he needed to attack off a high pace (just like Van der Poel) to get the slight separation needed to stay away at the end of this climb.
Even though these late attacks don’t create massive gaps, the recent winning riders at Sanremo have trusted that once any sort of daylight is opened up between themselves and the chasers behind, the lack of teammates, and a large concentration of favorites, mean the chase group will be unable to successfully find the consensus needed to reel them in.
Regarding Pogačar’s form: It clearly isn’t slipping after a strong start to the season or telling us that he has peaked at the wrong time. I think that from a physical perspective, his ride on Saturday was about as good as he could have hoped for and that he is still on track for a winning ride at the Tour of Flanders.
However, in regards to the question of if any of this is ideal for Tour de France preparation, while Pogačar certainly has time to rest, recover and re-peak before July at this run of spring races, you certainly wouldn’t draw it up this way if you were only attempting to win the sport’s biggest race and his desire to chase glory in those Classics will benefit Jonas Vingegaard.
7) The pressure is building, and showing, on Wout van Aert
Van Aert was repeatedly caught out of position going into and on the slopes of the Poggio, and we could almost see him feeling the pressure of the Belgian media when he took it upon himself to reel in Ganna and Pogačar while Van der Poel got a free ride on his wheel.
However, if we look closer, almost all of these tactical mistakes can be explained by a slight lack of fitness. This would make sense considering Van Aert was recently forced to take a period off training due to an illness.
While he should be back to usual strength by Flanders and Roubaix in April, it does seem that the presence of Van der Poel towards the end of races has influenced some bad decisions from Van Aert (i.e. 2023 CX Worlds, 2023 Sanremo). It will be interesting to watch to see if he continues to rattle him when we get to Flanders and Roubaix, or if Van Aert can flip the script by rattling off a few career-defining wins.
8) Jumbo-Visma’s early-season shine has come off
It might seem like the distant past at this point, but we if look back to the opening Omloop/Kuurne weekend, Jumbo-Visma appeared to be an unstoppable force that would sweep through the Classics.
But, going back to the present, the team has been roughed up at Strade Bianche, Paris-Nice, and Milano-Sanremo, and now appears unable to find both the cohesion and strength needed to win the biggest races.
However dire this looks, we should remember that in the fickle world of professional cycling, a slight regrouping and a fully fit Van Aert could solve all of these problems.
9) Ganna’s strong result means Ineos continues to build a strong 2023 Spring resume
I’ve already touched on what this incredible performance could mean for the future of Filippo Ganna, but this result also has implications for his Ineos team. So far in 2023, they have won a major one-day race with Tom Pidcock at Strade and finished 2nd at the opening Monument with Ganna.
While these performances are undeniably good, and the team has a very real chance to defend its Paris-Roubaix title with Ganna, it seems to stem more from the fact that the organization does a great job of signing talented riders and fostering a productive training environment for these individuals, instead of creating a cohesive system where each performance is built off and related to another, which is more important when chasing Tour de France overall success.
Brilliant ride by MDVP. Thanks for the analysis. I’m interested in your thoughts on two details of the Poggio climb. 1) Wellans was amazing and a great last minute choice. But did he err in jumping just before that bend? Looked to me as if he could’ve sustained the gap with Pog had he not been forced to hit the brakes. 2) When Trentin intentionally sat up, he took out several would be contenders. I don’t view it as entirely sporting, but it was effective and it’s legal.
I’m also curious about Allaphillippe. He came 11th after having to drag himself back solo following a crash, in addition to the fact that he popped out of his pedal at the base of the climb. Why isn’t Sudal supporting him and his form perhaps better than folks are giving him credit for?
Great article. I like the data even if it is defended and then correlated to the other riders. I gain perspective on their crazy level of fitness.