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Three Quick Thoughts: Milano-Sanremo
My initial post-race takeaways on the opening Monument of the season, Milano-Sanremo
Near the end of today’s Milano-Sanremo, Mathieu van der Poel wedged open a slight gap on an elite front group containing Tadej Pogačar, Filippo Ganna, and Wout van Aert after a scorching-fast ascent of the Poggio, and then used his elite bike handling skills to extend it into a comfortable race-winning margin on the ensuing technical descent to take his third career Monument victory in the fan-packed streets of Sanremo.
Below are my quick thoughts about the ride before the full race breakdown on Monday:
1) Mathieu van der Poel +0
2) Filippo Ganna +15
3) Wout van Aert +15
4) Tadej Pogačar +15
5) Søren Kragh Andersen +26
6) Mads Pedersen +26
7) Neilson Powless +26
8) Matej Mohorič +26
9) Anthony Turgis +26
10) Jasper Stuyven +26
Mathieu van der Poel is officially back after an uneven 11-month stretch
In contrast with his impressive career win rate, the 28-year-old had been in a relative slump since last year’s Spring Classics, with only two wins in an 11-month span. And, after an extremely plodding start at last weekend’s Strade-Bianche, and a forgettable week at Tirreno-Adriatico (outside of two great leadouts for his teammates Jasper Philipsen), Van der Poel entered this race as a major underdog in the betting markets relative to Pogacar and Van Aert.
But, after he rode clear to set a record ascent of the final Poggio climb, it was suddenly made clear that Van der Poel’s recent sluggishness wasn’t due to missing form or an injured back, but was instead the product of an uncharacteristically measured training approach that has seem him enter lesser races without his usual sharpness, but has set him up for incredible rides at two major victories in the past few months (CX World Champs & MSR).
This slow-build strategy clashes heavily with Van der Poel’s 2021 spring campaign, where he dropped draws with herculean performances at Strade-Bianche and Tirreno-Adriatico, only to sputter through the major one-day classics (by his standards) and finish the season with only four wins after the month of March.
This new-look Van der Poel might win less, but he is quickly becoming one of the premier big-time one-day riders in the sport along with Tadej Pogačar. This is evidenced by the fact that his three Monument titles mean he and Pogacar are currently tied for the most Monument wins in the active peloton.
Tadej Pogačar finally showed his power does indeed have limits
After a four-week run that saw him seven wins and prompted some to wonder if the 2023 Tour de France was already won, Tadej Pogačar finally missed a podium by coming in 4th, the last rider in the elite front group. This ‘disappointment’ might surprise those who just watched Pogačar easily ride away from some of the sport’s best climbers on the final stage at Paris-Nice just a few days ago, but it is important to remember that this loss wasn’t a result of poor form, but simple physics.
Pogačar might be the king of watts per kilo (which allows him to dominate on longer, steeper climbs like Col d’Eze at Paris-Nice and the long Cols of the Tour de France), but on a short, shallow climb like the Poggio, raw power output, instead of power output divided by a rider’s weight, will almost always win out. And with Van der Poel weighing at least 10 kilograms more than him (and Van Aert and Ganna pushing between 10-15 more kilos), it would be nearly impossible for Pogačar to push enough watts to distance his competition on a climb like this.
This is important to keep in mind when digesting analysis from this performance that suggests Pogačar has somehow over-cooked his form at this early point in the season. At the end of the day, he was three seconds off the fastest time ever up a climb that doesn’t even particularly suit his abilities (Poggio).
This means his grand tour rivals like Jonas Vingegaard certainly won’t be able to take the least bit of solace in this loss.
He lost the race, but Filippo Ganna may have had the ride of the day
It might be absurd to suggest, but while Van der Poel’s win was incredible, the ride of the day might go to the hulking Italian, who, over a 15-minute period, suggested that he may be in the midst of a mid-career transformation from a time trial specialist to a top-tier all-around racer capable of contesting a wide variety of stages and one-day races.
Ganna’s ride, where he was the only rider capable of responding to Pogačar’s initial attack on the Poggio, nearly claimed the all-time climbing record of the Poggio and rode Wout van Aert straight off his wheel to claim second place, suggests the sky is the limit for the powerful Italian rider, whether he wants to chase one-day classics in the mold of Fabian Cancellara, or grand tours like Bradley Wiggins and Geraint Thomas.
With sustained power as high as Ganna, the only true limiters are if he wants to live the monkish life required of larger-framed grand tour contenders and/or undertake the race-long physical and mental battles during the major Spring Classics.