All eyes were on red-hot favorite van der Poel ahead of Saturday’s monument, but instead it was Jasper Stuyven that hit the headlines with a late dash that caught the bunch by surprise and left the Dutchman off the podium at “La Classicissima” for the second year in a row.
“I am not disappointed,” van der Poel said after taking fifth in the sprint for the top slots behind Stuyven. “Milano-Sanremo is one of the most difficult races to win.”
After stirring speculation of a long-range move in his pre-race press conference, the Alpecin-Fenix ace saw a rocketing pace on the climbs of both the Cipressa and the Poggio ending his opportunity for a trademark audacious attack.
“The pace on the Poggio was too high to do anything,” he said. “I was still able to hold on, but it didn’t make much sense to accelerate even more. The most difficult part was already over and the group was too big to make a difference.”
Van der Poel had been one of the first to counter testing accelerations by rivals Julian Alaphilippe and Wout van Aert on the Poggio climb, pulling a bunch of around 20 riders back into contention as they darted off the hill. With a large group still together, “MvdP” said he was caught in two minds about trying his chances with an attack down the 3700 meters of the Via Roma or holding on for a sprint.
“If you come down with such a large group, they will come after you at a fast pace and it will be difficult to control. You have to gamble a bit on what you will and will not respond to,” he said.
Instead, it was Stuyven who rolled the dice, attacking near the base of the Poggio descent just as van der Poel, defending champ van Aert and the rest of the pack hesitated.
“A sprint for the win was no longer possible,” van der Poel said. “I was going from a bit too far, because everyone kept waiting. I thought that with a long sprint I still had a chance to win. Too bad. I can be satisfied with the race. I have ‘X’ number of years and I hope to win here one day.”
“It is certainly not the easiest race to win,” he continued. “I experienced that again today.”