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It’s the day you’ve been waiting for, bike racing fans.
After a false dawn at Strade Bianche, pro cycling’s three tenors will face off on the Milan-San Remo startline for the first round of a spring royal rumble that stretches through the beer ‘n’ bergs of Flanders and beyond.
Here’s how the three “bigs” stack up ahead of an early start Saturday in Abbiategrasso:
Tadej Pogačar (UAE Emirates): The tyrant
MSR starts: Two – 2022, 2020
MSR best result: 5th – 2022
His season, debriefed: In short, Pogačar won almost everything he wanted.
Nine victories in 13 race days hand the Slovenian a 70 percent win rate for 2023 and a tyrannical grip over the peloton. He added fresh lines to his palmarès at Jaén Paraiso, Ruta del Sol, and Paris-Nice – La Primavera could be next.
Key teammates for Saturday: Tim Wellens, Matteo Trentin, Diego Ulissi.
For him: He’s Tadej Pogačar.
Against him: EVERYONE will be watching his every pedal stroke Saturday. Expect Pogačar to carry a peloton-size shadow down the Italian Riviera.
How could he win? Blows the doors off the peloton on the Cipressa, takes 30 seconds over the summit, clings on to the gap while the chase group kills its chances by not collaborating. If the race does come back together, don’t count out Pogačar for a small sprint, either.
Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma): The returning king
MSR starts: Four – Every edition since 2019
MSR best result: Wout put a “W” in the column with his 2020 victory
His season, debriefed: Started sick, getting better.
After his ‘cross worlds defeat, Van Aert saw his road reboot at Strade Bianche derailed by sickness. The Belgian baller missed weeks of training in the aftermath and started Tirreno-Adriatico on a low simmer – but seven Italian days later, he looked red hot and raring to go.
Key teammates for Saturday: Christophe Laporte, Nathan van Hooydonck, Attila Valter.
For him: Van Aert knows what to do in San Remo. He won it on the second time of trying and finished in the top-8 all three other times. Plus, he’s a swiss-knife for all scenarios. A long-range raid, a Poggio surprise, or a small group sprint? Van Aert’s got them all covered.
Against him: WVA missed out at ‘cross worlds and then had to watch his team wreak havoc at “Opening Weekend.” Van Aert is making it his mission to crush the cobbled monuments but might feel the pressure to deliver ahead of time as he hunts his season-opening win. Any over-eagerness in San Remo’s race of patience might choke out Van Aert.
How could he win? WVA hits into a small group – around 10 – over the crest of the Poggio and bike-throws for victory on the Via Roma.
Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck): The wildcard
MSR starts: Three – Every edition since 2020
MSR best result: 3rd – 2022
His season, debriefed: Quiet.
Van der Poel destroyed archrival Van Aert in the sprint of ‘cross worlds but hasn’t looked his usual self ever since.
MVDP bombed from barnstorming to out the back at Strade Bianche and was quiet through Tirreno’s “Race of the Two Seas.” A couple of big leadouts for teammate Jasper Philipsen suggested the Dutchman’s engine is packing plenty of horsepower – monument season is his time to rev it to the full.
Key teammates for Saturday: Jasper Philipsen, Søren Kragh Andersen, Quinten Hermans.
For him: You don’t need to be in good form to win in the Milan-San Remo lottery.
Against him: He might need good form if the race opens out early.
How could he win? Van der Poel said recently he dreams of going solo off the Poggio, and he might need something similarly surprising to happen Saturday if his form is as unknown as he says. The Dutchman wins with a wily early attack 500m out after he and three others escape on the Poggio descent.