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Mathieu van der Poel downplays chances ahead of Milano-Sanremo

Mathieu van der Poel sees himself as "maybe amongst the second-row favorites" for Saturday's Milano-Sanremo.

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Mathieu van der Poel has downplayed his chances to win Saturday’s Milano-Sanremo, even if he is among the top favorites by online betting sites.

The online betting site has van der Poel as the third most likely winner for Saturday, slotting in behind Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal).

Van der Poel, meanwhile, sees himself among the second-tier favorites for La Primavera.

“Not as a top favorite but maybe amongst the second-row favorites,” van der Poel said on Friday. “The last races were not as good as I hoped they would be, but maybe with those races in the legs tomorrow will be different.”

Indeed van der Poel was off the pace at Saturday’s Strade Bianche, where punctures and heat kept him from making the front group of winner Wout van Aert. He rolled across the line in Siena more than 10 minutes behind van Aert in 15th place.

On Tuesday van der Poel finished with the bunch at Milano-Torino, however, a messy sprint saw him miss the top 10 and cross the line in 13th place behind winner Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ).

“The most important thing about that day was not crashing,” van der Poel said. “Normally we were going to do the sprint for [teammate] Sacha [Modolo] but he lost a wheel because he was behind a crash. I tried to do my sprint but got bumped in a little bit and I wasn’t able to deliver. But I felt OK in the final.”

This Saturday marks van der Poel’s debut at Milano-Sanremo, which at 299 kilometers is the longest of the five monuments. This year organizers have planned a new route for the race due to the height of the travel and tourism season in the region. Rather than skirt the Ligurian coast, the race heads mostly inland before hitting the coast for its traditional finale over the Cipressa and Poggio climbs.

Despite the change in course van der Poel predicts the race will again be contested inside the wild and tense finale over the two climbs and the final push to the line.

“I think I know the most common thing about this race, like everyone does, it is disputed in the last two climbs,” van der Poel said. “It is a very long race, of course.”

In recent years Milano-Sanremo has catered more toward classics rider than pure sprinters, with Frenchman Arnaud Démare the only pure sprinter to have won in the last five editions. Van der Poel said classics riders may have an advantage now, given the hilly finale, but that versatile sprinters such as Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) and Démare are also ones to watch.

“Wout van Aert is the first name that comes to mind because he showed his strength at Strade Bianche and Milano-Torino,” Van der Poel told Italian newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport. “I’d also pick out [Peter] Sagan and [Arnaud] Démare.”

Milano-Sanremo marks the first monument of the season for van der Poel and the rest of the peloton. The Dutch ace is riding all five monuments for the first time in his career this season, with the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and Il Lombardia on his tentative racing calendar.

The focus on the biggest one-day races marks a major chapter in van der Poel’s evolution as a road racer.