Milan-San Remo race preview: Tadej Pogačar versus Wout van Aert and the rest

Tadej Pogačar has been hyped as the overwhelming pre-race favorite, can Wout van Aert or someone else put a stop to his astonishing 2022 run?

Photo: Nico Vereecken/Getty Images

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Monuments season is here!

While there might be debate about whether to include Strade Bianche on the list of monuments, Milan-San Remo is still the official curtain-raiser for cycling’s biggest one-day races. By late April, four of the five monuments will have been decided with Il Lombardia the autumn outlier.

Milan-San Remo’s moniker as the so-called “sprinters’ classic” has some truth in it with the likes of Arnaud Démare, Mark Cavendish, and Óscar Freire among the past winners. However, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

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The twisting, hilly finale lends itself to attacks and opportunities to drop the faster men in the pack. Meanwhile, the fast run off the Poggio and the just over two-kilometer run from the bottom to the finish on the Via Roma provides the chance for them to get back.

That push and pull between the pack’s opposing forces makes for one of the most thrilling closing kilometers of any race on the men’s calendar. Added to all of that, it is the longest single day of road racing in a season at more than 300 kilometers when you factor in the neutral zone.

Get your popcorn ready, because it’s going to be a brilliant day of racing.

Milan-San Remo contenders: Could Tadej Pogačar tip history on its head?

The talk of the town ahead of this year’s Milan-San Remo is Tadej Pogačar’s second appearance at the race after finishing 12th in 2020. The double Tour de France champion has been in marauding form so far this season with victory in every race he’s entered so far.

Next on his list of targets is Milan-San Remo and he’s definitely not just going for the fun of it. He’s already hinted at going on a long-range attack as he did at Strade Bianche earlier this month, though he discounted a Fausto Coppi-esque move from the Passo del Turchino with some 150 kilometers to go.

There are few spots along the route that will be difficult enough for Pogačar to break his rivals and the most likely place seems to be the Cipressa, with just over 30 kilometers to go. It’s been about 30 years since a rider succeeded with an attack on the Cipressa, but Pogačar could definitely be the rider to change that stat.

Of course, Pogačar is far from the only potential winner in the peloton this Saturday and the other teams will be doing everything in their might to stop his winning streak.

Chief among the potential party poopers is Wout van Aert, who will have Primož Roglič attempting to return the favor for last week’s Paris-Nice-saving antics on the race’s final day. Roglič called van Aert “half man, half motor” after that stage and the Belgian will need all of that energy this weekend.

Van Aert is capable of playing different cards depending on how the race plays out. He has the speed to take it from a sprint, but he could well go with an attack on the Poggio, as he did en-route to his win in 2020.

In addition to van Aert, there are several other former champions set to be on the start line, including John Degenkolb, Alexander Kristoff, Arnaud Démare, and Michal Kwiatkowski. Last year’s surprise champion Jasper Stuyven will also be lining up in Milan on Saturday morning, hoping to become the first back-to-back winner since Erik Zabel in 2001.

While Ineos Grenadiers lines up with a former winner in Kwiatkowski, the Polish rider seems unlikely to be the tipped rider among the team’s starting seven. Instead, it is Tom Pidcock — who is returning from a stomach virus — and Filippo Ganna that will spearhead the team’s ambitions. Elia Viviani is also there to have a go if it comes to a sprint.

Among the other riders hoping to see the race come down to a bunch gallop is Caleb Ewan. The Australian sprinter has been bigging up his tilt at Milan-San Remo and has had a strong start to the season with three wins under his belt. He dropped out of Tirreno-Adriatico early to give himself plenty of rest time ahead of this weekend.

Lotto Soudal also has Philippe Gilbert, who would love to have a go if he gets the opportunity. This is his last season and Milan-San Remo is the only monument not on his palmarès.

Démare, Kristoff, and Degenkolb will all fancy their chances in a sprint finish, as will Nacer Bouhanni, Giacomo Nizzolo, and Biniam Girmay.

Milan-San Remo race route: The Turchino returns

After a couple of years of change due to weather and the rescheduling of the race back in 2020 because of COVID-19, the 2022 Milan-San Remo returns to a more traditional route.

The 2020 race had to take a different route when local mayors in several towns refused to let the race through during its peak summer season after the race was moved from March to August. Thunderstorms meant even more route changes, forcing the race to go more than 300 kilometers — before the neutral section was considered.

A landslide last year meant the Passo del Turchino had to be avoided but the iconic climb, which has featured in all but three editions of Milan-San Remo, is back. It sits shortly before the halfway point of the race and marks the point where the race reaches the Italian coast.

The route winds its way along the coast with plenty of time for viewers to admire the spectacular scenery before the race begins to ramp up with the Tre Capi. The Capo Mele, Capo Cervo, and Capo Berta are three small climbs that come in quick succession and begin the whittling down process within the bunch.

From the top of the Capo Berta, it’s just over 20 kilometers to the foot of the Cipressa, where we can expect the fireworks to begin. Many riders in the peloton aren’t old enough to remember the last successful break from the punchy climb, and many will want to keep it that way, but it will be tough to keep a lid on a Pogačar in flying form.

Should everything be held together, the Poggio just under 10km later is the more favored launching pad for a race-winning move. If Pogačar, or another plucky rider, has gone clear on the Cipressa, the Poggio will also provide a stern test for tired legs.

The nearly six-kilometer run from the top of the Poggio to the finish line on the Via Roma is the last big test. For a rider on the attack, it can feel like an eternity as they try to hold off the baying pack, while it can fly by for those chasing behind.

Milan-San Remo is a slow burn of a race, but the finale rarely disappoints.

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