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Mathieu van der Poel hints at possible Cipressa raid at Milano-Sanremo

Mathieu van der Poel has been rewriting the script all season long — will he dare to try to attack on the Cipressa?

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Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) has been rewriting the script in just about every race he starts.

Could he be thinking of a plot twist for Saturday’s Milano-Sanremo?

The Poggio-Via Roma finale has been following the same plot lines for nearly three decades. It’s either a small group of two or three riders fending off the pack coming over the Poggio, or a reduced bunch sprint down the Via Roma. The last rider to win on a move that went clear on the Cipressa was Gabriele Colombo in 1996.

Does van der Poel, who’s already been dropping some long-distance bombs in his early outings so far in 2021, have a trick up a sleeve? Maybe.

“It would be extremely nice to get over Cipressa with a small group, and then go to the Poggio, but I don’t know if you attack there you would get many guys to go with you,” van der Poel said Thursday in a media call. “Also, the part between the Cipressa and the Poggio is really fast, and you’re at a disadvantage against a whole bunch there. It’s really difficult to anticipate at that race.”

Also read: Deep dive into van der Poel’s winning power at Strade Bianche

It sounds like van der Poel the realist knows that a move on the Cipressa, which tops out at 22km to go to the Via Roma, is a ridge too far. Yet van der Poel the racer might not be able to hold back.

“The Cipressa is just too far, and it’s too fast between the Cipressa and Poggio,” he said, as if he was trying to talk himself out of it. “It’s a difficult one to win because the Poggio is not that steep. It’s a hard climb, but it’s not easy to make a gap. And we’ve seen often already, there is often a slightly bigger group going to the line as well. In a sprint after 300km, it’s the strongest rider who wins more than the fastest one.”

Van der Poel roars into the season’s first monument as one of the red-hot favorites. Does he let himself listen to the hype?

“Not really. As I said, it would be really good to win Milano-Sanremo one day,” van der Poel said Thursday. “Sanremo is special because there are not a lot of places where you can force the race. Most of the time, you have to wait until the Poggio. I don’t let the pressure get to me. I’m also realistic enough to know that there are some races I will never win.”

Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) are the other top favorites. Could the race see a repeat of last fall’s Tour of Flanders, when all three pulled clear in the Belgian monument before Alaphilippe crashed out?

“Those two are the big names. I also see Michael Matthews, and he has a fast sprint. I think he will be a guy to watch,” he said. “I think Wout has a little bit of an advantage because he has already won the race. For him, it’s a bit easier, for sure, it will be a new race. Normally Sanremo is an honest race, and normally the strongest wins there as well.”

Also read: How many classics can ‘MVDP’ win this spring?

Van der Poel spoke to the media just days after cooling his jets following a dramatic week of racing at Tirreno-Adriatico. Two stage wins at the Italian WorldTour race brings his season haul to four wins on 11 days of racing so far in 2021.

Committed to racing through the Belgian monuments, van der Poel says he’s not worried about burning the fuse too soon with big, early-season efforts ahead of the more prestigious dates in April.

“If we see my calendar, there are only five races left, and my road season is almost over already,” he said referring to his first block of racing. “It’s not the longest season, and it’s perfectly possible to keep the shape for one or two months. The hard efforts at Tirreno, I think I got better from it. I’ve recovered well, and now I am ready for Sanremo.”

Last year in his Sanremo debut, van der Poel was coming out of the COVID shutdown at a lower level than van Aert and Alaphilippe and crossed the line on the Via Roma in 13th in the front chase group. In fact, in the five monuments he’s started, that’s been the only time he’s been outside the top-10.

Also read: Five great editions of ‘La Primavera’

In comments to the media this week, van Aert said he was hopeful Alpecin-Fenix would do some of the work to control the pace of the race. The squad brings a roster built around van der Poel, and with sprinter Tim Merlier left at home to prepare for next week’s Belgian races, it’s all in to protect “MVDP” on Saturday.

“We don’t have the biggest team, so it isn’t always up to us,” van der Poel said. “It’s not my favorite race, with 150km or 200km just falling asleep in the bunch. It depends on how your legs are on the Poggio. After the long distance, it will be the legs that will determine the winner.”

Let’s just hope his legs tell him to attack on the Cipressa. Why not? Van Aert and Alaphilippe just might tag along for a ride.