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Can Caleb Ewan win Milano-Sanremo? Unpicking the spring’s most complex question

Second-place in Kuurne shows Ewan has the legs – but can he make them count in the calendar's most unpredictable race?

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Can Caleb Ewan win Milano-Sanremo in 2022? It’s the most complex question of the spring.

A sizzling sprint kick and some credible climbing chops put monument victory well within the Aussie’s reach. And second-place at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne this weekend shows Lotto-Soudal’s pocket-rocket has all his afterburners engaged and firing strong after a recent bout with COVID.

Yet team dynamics and the melee of the most unpredictable race in the calendar means there’s as much in Ewan’s favor as there is against him as the days tick down to La Primavera mid-March.

Also read: Ewan puts San Remo, Giro, Tour in the diary for 2022

One thing that’s for sure is that Ewan is on a mission to take the prosecco in MSR’s iconic Via Roma finale.

“I definitely want to win San Remo during my career,” Ewan said earlier this year. “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.”

Considerations from Kuurne

Ewan can now add a second-place at Kuurne to his two near-misses in San Remo.

The Aussie speedster was bettered in the final of a nail-biter in Kuurne on Sunday in a race that points many ways ahead of his Milano-Sanremo mission.

Blasting past bunch sprinters Alexander Kristoff and Giacomo Nizzolo proves what we already know – not many can top Ewan and his low-slung acceleration … Except for Fabio Jakobsen that is.

A Via Roma gallop against the tough-guy classics sprinters that pack the peloton in San Remo would be stacked in his favor.

But can Ewan make it over the Poggio to be in that position?

The seemingly innocuous Italian climb is the kingmaker of the spring’s first monument and sees the most savage selection of the pro calendar.

Ewan’s quest to capture the first monument of his career saw him double-down on his climbing last year. He was so good on the Poggio that he almost torpedoed his own chances by showing his form too much.

Ewan hasn’t lost his climbing legs this winter either. The 27-year-old was like a limpet when Ineos Grenadiers and Jumbo-Visma lit things up in Kuurne and could be seen bobbing and weaving at the front over the bergs and bumps of Flanders this weekend.

A brush with COVID at the turn of this month already seems in Ewan’s rear-view, and a week in the hills of central Italy next week will add sparkle to his early season shimmer.

Also read: Ewan going good ahead of San Remo showdown

“I am really happy with where my form is at. Although I suffered as well and the pace was high on the climbs, I always felt pretty comfortable. So I can’t be disappointed with this second place,” Ewan said after Kuurne on Sunday. “Now I’m heading to Tirreno-Adriatico to do the ultimate preparations for my first big goal of the season, Milano-Sanremo.”

Top contenders like Wout van Aert and Sonny Colbrelli are likely to be flanked by friendly jerseys in that do-or-die corner into MSR’s decisive climb next month. Will Lotto-Soudal be there to lend Ewan a wheel when it matters most in MSR?

Lotto was far from the most active team in Kuurne, and its desperate late pulling to set up the sprint shelled some of Ewan’s own leadout crew.

“For sure, we were under-guyed, because we had two guys riding to get the breakaway back,” Ewan explained Sunday. “They did a great job, but we were missing a few guys at the end.”

A lack of support similarly cost Ewan when a 17-rider group emerged on the Via Roma last year. Jasper Stuyven galloped into the horizon and the Aussie needed artillery to keep things under control. He will need it again this year too.

The Philippe Gilbert factor

DOKKUM, NETHERLANDS - AUGUST 30: (L-R) Caleb Ewan of Australia and Philippe Gilbert of Belgium and Team Lotto Soudal during the team presentation prior to the 17th Benelux Tour 2021, Stage 1 a 169,6km stage from Surhuisterveen to Dokkum / @BeneluxTour / on August 30, 2021 in Dokkum, Netherlands. (Photo by Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images)
What happens when these two both arrive at the Via Roma? (Photo: Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images)

Ewan will lead Lotto-Soudal’s array of puncheurs and leadout men with classics king Philippe Gilbert at Milano-Sanremo next month. If even one of the Lotto crew make it with Ewan through the Poggio punch-up, the chips would be piled into Ewan’s corner.

But if it’s Gilbert?

Gilbert and his hopes for a monument sweep are still alive and kicking, but it seems even the illustrious Belgian baller knows his best days are done. Gilbert will need the roughest of races and a small selection to win on the Via Roma.

Also read: Ewan tipped over Gilbert for Milano-Sanremo final

And if both he and Ewan emerge over the 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 last month. “I think he’d want to keep it together to make sure it’s a sprint.”

It’s an unlikely situation, but should it precipitate it will be a popcorn-munching few minutes of the trickiest – and most crucial – inter-team tensions of the year.

Throw in the pressure to score UCI points ahead of a crucial relegation-promotion season and it becomes even more intriguing.

Predicting the unpredictable

However, no matter what Ewan’s climbing form, the support of his team, or any other factor, San Remo is the race with more possible conclusions than any other. One missed gel, a second’s hesitation, or an untightened shoe can make the difference between glory and anonymity.

As Ewan himself acknowledged, Milano-Sanremo is the easiest race to finish, but the hardest to win.

Whether Caleb can make it count in 2022 is a question that will twist and turn all the way through until March 17. And we may not know the answer until the final hundred meters of the Via Roma.