Caleb Ewan first in line ahead of Philippe Gilbert at Milano-Sanremo

Lotto-Soudal's stars both dream of winning the Italian monument, but will the Belgian follow the team script in his last chance over the Poggio? Ewan is hoping so.

Photo: BENOIT TESSIER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

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This spring’s Milano-Sanremo has all the makings of one of those two-wheeled soap operas that makes professional racing so interesting.

Lotto-Soudal will take both Caleb Ewan and Philippe Gilbert to the Italian monument, setting the stage for a dramatic and potentially explosive scenario if individual ambitions and egos take over in the decisive final moments over the Poggio.

Why? Ewan will be the five-star favorite for victory, yet the soon-to-be-retired Gilbert will be racing for history to become the first rider in the 21st century to complete the “monument sweep.”

Will the wheels come off inside the Lotto-Soudal bus?

Ewan expressed confidence Gilbert would back him if he’s in the position to win a bunch sprint down the Via Roma, should he clear the Cipressa and Poggio are the sharp end of the race.

“With Phil, if we’re both there over the top of Poggio, I think Phil is realistic enough to know that in a sprint situation I’m going be faster than him, so I think he will help me,” Ewan said in a media call. “I think he’d want to keep it together to make sure it’s a sprint.”

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Is that wishful thinking, or official team policy?

Race day will reveal what will happen. So far, the team is backing Ewan, who’s twice finished second in Sanremo.

Gilbert, who retires at the end of 2022 and who’s also been on the podium twice at the Italian monument, didn’t discount his hopes, but admitted that he’s unlikely to win the lone race that’s missing from his monument harvest that includes the four other legendary one-day races.

Philippe Gilbert on Milano-Sanremo: ‘I see it difficult to win this year’

Phillipe Gilbert
Philippe Gilbert signs off on a legendary career in 2022. (Photo: James Startt/VeloNews)

Speaking to VeloNews, Gilbert confirmed he will race Milano-Sanremo, but downplayed his chances for victory.

“Bjaaah, it’s really hard to say,” Gilbert said. “I know this race could change a lot the history of my career, but I see it difficult to win this year.”

Now 39, Gilbert admits the obvious and says he’s not as fast as he once was, so his only real chance at victory would be attacking up and over the Poggio. Riders have won with late-race attacks, most recently with Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) in 2021, who jumped late and had just enough to hold off the fast-charging bunch led by Ewan.

Another late-chancer? Vincenzo Nibali in 2018, another year Ewan was second.

So to win Sanremo, Gilbert will have to beat his teammate, and everyone else.

In last year’s edition, where Gilbert and Ewan raced together at Lotto-Soudal, Gilbert was gapped out in the splits over the Poggio and finished 72nd in a group at 1:45 back. In 2020, Gilbert crossed the line in the front group in ninth in his first season with Lotto-Soudal, taking seventh in the bunch sprint behind the leading two podium finishers. Ewan was caught out and finished well off the pace in the year Sanremo was rescheduled until August due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gilbert didn’t hide his dream of joining the likes of Eddy Merckx, Rik Van Looy, and Roger De Vlaeminck as the only riders to win all five monuments.

“I know if this happened it would give another dimension to my career and make it unique to be the only rider from this century to win the five monuments,” Gilbert told VeloNews. “Winning four is already exceptional, but winning five would be incredible.”

Instead of betting everything on Sanremo, however, Gilbert confirmed that he is putting all of his energy and focus on one final hurrah across the Ardennes.

The hilly and explosive races across the hills near his hometown are where Gilbert earned his first major victories, and he will put Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Amstel Gold Race as his central targets.

That means no Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix in his final season.

“I am looking forward to the last week in the Ardennes,” Gilbert said. “No Flanders, or Roubaix? No, I had to make the choice, and I really want to prepare myself for the Ardennes. Even if I showed in the past it was still possible to come close to winning Flanders and Liège — because I almost did it a few times — but I think now if you want to be successful in the Ardennes, you need to prepare for them. In the past, I was able to mix the two kinds of racing, and I was able to be successful.”

Caleb Ewan: ‘The easiest race to finish, the hardest to win’

SANREMO, ITALY - MARCH 20: Arrival / Jasper Stuyven of Belgium and Team Trek - Segafredo Celebration, Michael Matthews of Australia and Team BikeExchange, Alex Aranburu Deba of Spain and Team Astana – Premier Tech, Peter Sagan of Slovakia and Team Bora - Hansgrohe, Wout Van Aert of Belgium and Team Jumbo - Visma, Mathieu Van Der Poel of Netherlands and Team Alpecin-Fenix & Caleb Ewan of Australia and Team Lotto Soudal during the 112th Milano-Sanremo 2021 a 299km race from Milano to Sanremo / #MilanoSanremo / La Classicissima / #UCIWT / on March 20, 2021 in Sanremo, Italy. (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)
Caleb Ewan was second to Jasper Stuyven in 2021. (Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

So does that guarantee Gilbert and Ewan will race in perfect unison over the steep hills along Italy’s Riviera?

The team will certainly bring both riders to the race, doubling its chances of victory.

On paper, Gilbert can try his luck with a late-race attack and perhaps draw out someone like Vincenzo Nibali or Tom Pidcock. Ewan will save his legs for the final sprint, though he did mention he’d like to have a teammate to be able to help him tow back any stragglers off the front.

Ewan is confident he will win Sanremo some day, but admits the race is a tricky one to negotiate.

“I definitely want to win it during my career,” Ewan said in a media call. “They say it’s the easiest to finish, but the hardest to win. I definitely feel that’s the case. You really need luck on your side. The two times I was second, I was unlucky. Hopefully, luck is on my side this year.”

Will Gilbert be tempted to race for history if he’s on a great day, or will he follow the team script to help Ewan?

The importance of victory for either rider might create some real-time, race-day drama in those final, tension-filled moments up and over the Poggio and down the Via Roma.

March 19 is only a few weeks away.

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