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Saturday’s high-octane finale at Milan-San Remo looks to be the final nail in the coffin of the notion that sprinters can win the Italian monument.
A quartet of watt-machines swarmed over the top of the Poggio to leave every pure sprinter choking in their wake.
Mathieu van der Poel — a classics powerhouse who can sprint but isn’t a pure sprinter — won in a dazzling display of pure power, tactical genius, and stunning bike-handling skills.
The nearest old-school sprinter in the classic definition of the discipline was Davide Ballerini (Soudal Quick-Step), who led home the second chase group in 12th at 32 seconds back.
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Ewan said it a few years ago: the pure sprinters simply cannot stay on the wheel of the Pogačars and the Van Aerts when they accelerate over the Poggio.
It’s ironic that the monument that was once billed as “the sprinter’s classic” hasn’t seen a pure sprinter win since Arnaud Démare in 2016.
San Remo’s winner’s list is chock full of some of the most famous sprinters in the game. From Mario Cipollini and Alessandro Petacchi, to Mark Cavendish and Alexander Kristoff.
An explosive, more attacking way of unraveling Milan-San Remo
During the past two decades however, a new style of racing has emerged to rescript the race.
Even more extraordinary about this trend away from sprinters toward pure watt-monsters is that the San Remo course hasn’t changed at all.
It’s not as if the race organizers made the route harder by adding an additional climb between the Cipressa-Poggio finale. There was talk for years of adding the climb at Pompeiana, which would take the course up a short but steep climb after the Cipressa before dropping down to the Poggio.
It was actually included in the snowbound 2014 route, but it was never raced. Since that dance with change, organizers decided to stick with the classic Cipressa-Poggio course for the foreseeable future.
The San Remo course is largely unchanged — though this year it started outside Milan for the time in race history — yet what has changed is the peloton.
A new profile of San Remo winner is emerging. Lean, mean, watt-churners have dethroned the fast-twitch sprinters in their race.
The tug-of-war between sprinters and attackers at San Remo is one that dates back decades.
Fabian Cancellara was the first to rattle the cage on the tried-and-true playbook when he figured out that he could use his raw power and innate time trial skills to try and catch out the sprinters. He uncorked numerous raids and won in 2008, and finished second three more times.
Fabian Cancellara’s raid in 2008 opened a new era in Milan-San Remo when the race started to shift away from being largely a sprinter’s race to a more wide open affair.https://t.co/A5MCKq2CQt
— VeloNews (@velonews) March 18, 2023
The sprinters haven’t lost all hope. Ewan recently lost two shots at San Remo in heartbreaks by finishing second, first to Vincenzo Nibali in 2018 and against to Jasper Stuyven in 2021, after their desperate bids to fend off the sprinters held on by a hair.
Yet it’s more likely a sprinter won’t win than if they will.
The rules of the race have changed. A few riders who fall in between classic brutes and sprinters, such as Mads Pedersen or Anthony Turgis, are straddling that line very well.
Though it’s a race that has seen a lot of multiple winners, including Eddy Merckx with a record seven win, and Erik Zabel with four, and Óscar Freire with three, there hasn’t been a repeat winner in 13 years since Freire won his last.
Sprinters used to count on a teammate or two to make it over the Poggio to help close down and control any would-be late attackers. Pure speed riders like Cipollini and Petacchi would sometimes even see a teammate lead them out on the Via Roma.
Putting the sprinters on the back foot
Those days are long gone. Every rider agrees it’s every man for themselves on the upper reaches of the Poggio.
On Saturday, UAE Team Emirates tried to blow up the race, with Matteo Trentin and then Tim Wellens taking huge pulls on the Poggio before Pogačar took over.
That pressure put the peloton into single-file and deep into the red. No sprinter had a chance.
Sprinters know they must up their game, but they’re often loathe to try to improve their climbing too much for fear it will cost them that race-deciding speed at the finish line.
Most of today’s new-breed sprinters have already upped their climbing game, in large part in reaction to race organizers tossing up an endless string of third- and second-category speed bumps even in what are supposed to be “traditional” sprinter stages in grand tours.
The power that serves the pure sprinters so well in the final 300m of a race isn’t sufficient to let them hang with the turbo engines of the Van Aerts when they light up with 7000m to go.
Making life even more difficult for the sprinters, at least for the next few editions, is the fact that Pogačar is convinced that he can win San Remo.
That only guarantees more high-speed hijinks and suffering on the Poggio for any pure sprinters with dreams of San Remo still dancing through their minds.
It might be a while before another sprinter can manage to win the sprinter’s classic again.