Milano-Sanremo Is No Longer The Sprinter's Classic
Increasing speeds on the Poggio and the rise of young hybrid riders are burning off the pure sprinters before the finish
The first Monument of the cycling season, Milano-Sanremo, or la Classicissima di Primavera, is a 300-kilometer race from the heart of the industrial plains surrounding Milan to the glamorous Mediterranean locale of Sanremo and runs tomorrow, Saturday, March 20th. The entire seven-hour race is being broadcast from start to finish to discourage roadside spectators, but please, don’t subject yourself to this and just tune in with 40km-to-go as the peloton begins their fight for position as they approach the penultimate climb, the Cipressa.
Despite being the longest race on the calendar and featuring a mid-race mountain pass along with two climbs inside the final 30km (Cipressa with 28kmish-to-go and Poggio with roughly 10km-to-go), it is by far the most predictable monument in the sport and has consistently been the lone chance for pure sprinters to win a monument.
However, the last four years have seen a stark shift away from the pure sprinter demographic to more traditional allrounders and even GC contenders. Michał Kwiatkowski won from a breakaway group in 2017, Vincenzo Nibali took a spectacular (kind of) solo victory in 2018, Julian Alaphilippe won from a 12-person peloton in 2019 and Wout van Aert won a two-up sprint against Alaphilippe in 2020.
The only one in this group who would even fit the loose definition of a “sprinter” is Van Aert, but since he is a potential contender for the Tour de France and won out of a two-rider group that rode clear on the final climb last year, I wouldn’t call him a “pure” sprinter.
In fact, if we look at the size of the final group from the past twenty editions, there is a clear trend line down.
And if we look at the list of winners over this time, we can clearly see a shift away from pure sprinters.
2020: Wout van Aert
2019: Julian Alaphilippe
2018: Vincenzo Nibali
2017: Michał Kwiatkowski
2016: Arnaud Démare [Sprinter]
2015: John Degenkolb [Sprinter]
2014: Alexander Kristoff [Sprinter]
2013: Gerald Ciolek [Sprinter]
2012: Simon Gerrans
2011: Matthew Goss [Sprinter]
2010: Óscar Freire [Sprinter]
2009: Mark Cavendish [Sprinter]
2008: Fabian Cancellara
2007: Óscar Freire [Sprinter]
2006: Filippo Pozzato
2005: Alessandro Petacchi [Sprinter]
2004: Óscar Freire [Sprinter]
2003: Paolo Bettini
2002: Mario Cipollini [Sprinter]
2001: Erik Zabel [Sprinter]
2000: Erik Zabel [Sprinter]
If we look at climbing speeds up the final climb, the Poggio, the reason for this shift becomes clear. It has increased significantly since the mid-2010s and the higher pace is burning off the bigger sprinters before they get to the flat finishing straight.
The Poggio tops out 6km before the finish line, and if we look at where the winning move has gone most consistently in the last 10 editions, it is either just before or right at the peak of this final climb.
What Does This Mean?
All of this should combine to tell us that we shouldn’t necessarily pick a pure sprinter like Sam Bennett, Pascal Ackerman, or Caleb Ewan to win just because it is the “sprinter’s classic” and we remember years of bunch sprints on the finishing straight. Instead, we should expect a rider who can withstand the nuclear-fast pace of the Poggio. They should probably just re-name the race to “the pretty fast rider who can climb” classic.
With the rise of a fleet of young riders who can both climb and sprint at such a high level, it is hard to imagine reverting to the days of the peloton riding up the Cipressa and Poggio at a civil pace and then duking it out on the Via Roma from large group anytime soon.
So, Who Will Win?
Milano-Sanremo is known as the easiest race to ride but the hardest race to win, which makes it incredibly difficult to predict. But looking at the betting odds, we quickly see there is a three-rider top-tier of Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel, and Julian Alaphilippe.
Current Betting Odds:
Mathieu van der Poel +250
Wout van Aert +300
Julian Alaphilippe +600
Sam Bennett: +1400
Davide Ballerini: +1400
Michael Matthews: +1800
Caleb Ewan: +2000
Arnaud Démare: +2500
Filippo Ganna: +3300
Philippe Gilbert: +5000
You will see lists of countless riders who could Milano-Sanremo, but these previews can be silly since at some point they just become a list of riders in the race.
In my opinion, there are only three true favorites, the last two winners of the race, Wout van Aert and Julian Alaphilippe plus Mathieu van der Poel, the hottest one-day rider in the world at the moment.
It seems safe to assume that a move with one, two, or all of the three will go clear over the Poggio and a sprint between them will occur in the final few hundred meters.
Can Mathieu van der Poel Be Beaten?
Milano-Sanremo race previews might as well just be re-titled to “Can Anyone Beat Mathieu van der Poel?”
He fits the profile of an MSR winner perfectly. He can sprint incredibly fast but also has the ability to fly up short climbs and it is difficult to imagine anyway spotting Mathieu van der Poel on Saturday. He proved at Strade-Bianche and Tirreno that he is currently the best one-day/hard-stage rider in the world and if he can hold his current form, he will be difficult to beat not only on Saturday but also the one-day classics to come.
However, something to consider when picking your Milano-Sanremo favorites is that the race is famously a tough nut to crack. The final climb, the Poggio, only 3.6% at 4km-long, isn’t hard enough to provide a launchpad for a single rider and favors a rider with patience and great positioning skills, two things that Van der Poel lacks. Also, the seven-hour runtime requires an immense amount of concentration, and I’ve recently heard that Van der Poel has complained about being bored during long road races. This isn’t a great sign prior to the most boring race on the professional calendar.
Since the Poggio isn’t conducive to a solo move, the most likely scenario is that Wout van Aert follows Van der Poel over the climb and they have to sprint-it-out for the win. If this plays out, a Van der Poel victory certainly isn’t guaranteed since Van Aert has proven that he is one of the elite sprinters in the world.
Side note: We are veeringly dangerously close to my “Cyclocross will ruin Van Aert and Van der Poel’s road seasons” take being proven wrong.
Peter Sagan and Michael Matthews would normally be great picks for the win here, but with Sagan looking sluggish after coming back from COVID earlier this year and Matthews has looked unimpressive and was even dropped on the final stage at Paris-Nice, which suited him perfectly. I wouldn’t hold my breath for them to win tomorrow.
The biggest wrinkle that could come into play here is that if a strong fast-finisher like Davide Ballerini gets over the Poggio with them and uses a stalemate to “steal” the win (a la Mads Pedersen at 2020 Gent–Wevelgem). Another darkhorse to keep your eye on is Philippe Gilbert. The 38-year-old needs to win Sanremo to finish the near-impossible Monument Sweep and has been slowly building form over the past six weeks. Since he is no longer fast enough to win in a sprint against the favorites, he will either have to attack from way out on the Cipressa (and become the first rider since 1996 to win with a long-range attack) or at the base of the Poggio descent with roughly 3km remaining and slip away on the winding streets through town. It would make a great story, but both are absurdly difficult ways to win, so I wouldn’t advise betting too much on it.
Where/When to Watch:
Time: 2:30 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. EST (estimate)