Milan-San Remo debrief: How Mathieu van der Poel defanged Wout van Aert and Tadej Pogačar
Unpacking the tactics: One perfectly timed, fully committed attack deflated the peloton's most lethal engines.
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Perfect execution of an all-or-nothing acceleration over the Poggio fended off the most powerful engines in the peloton and delivered Mathieu van der Poel a scintillating victory at Milan-San Remo.
Van der Poel’s win was even more impressive when you look at who finished behind him.
Tadej Pogačar, Wout van Aert, and Filippo Ganna pack enough watts to keep a Tesla fully charged for a week, yet he set them on their heels with his blinding acceleration.
Van der Poel’s race cunning was on full display Saturday as the high-octane finale played out in the closing 10km of the season’s longest race.
In what’s hyped as the “easiest monument to finish, but the hardest to win,” Van der Poel gave a masterclass in tactics and the fine art of the all-in attack.
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Van der Poel also learned something from his three previous attempts at La Primavera, and applied those lessons with merciless efficiency up and over the Poggio.
San Remo is definitely a race that favors the brave. Just ask the likes of Vincenzo Nibali, Matej Mohorič, and a string of riders who took their chance and made the race theirs rather than waiting.
With a more aggressive mindset in 2023, the Dutch flier played his cards, bet the full pot, and was fully committed to the line.
In a race that’s contested across more than six hours, the winning difference at San Remo often comes down to deciding the precise moment to attack or having those few extra watts to close a gap.
Van der Poel hit all of his marks Saturday.
How did he do it?
Let’s unpack the key moments of the race:
Over the Cipressa: -25km to go
Van der Poel admitted he was unsure how he would race in the 294km course from the outskirts of Milan to the posh seaside resort town of San Remo. After an uneven spring, his first real sense of confidence came on the Cipressa.
UAE Team Emirates massed to the front to send the heart monitors off the charts. Van der Poel saw his first confirmation he was on winning form.
“It was easier than I expected up the Cipressa because of the wind. So I told the team the positioning at the start of the Poggio would be crucial,” Van der Poel said. “I already told the team on the Cipressa it was a headwind, but I already felt my legs were really fresh. I knew I wanted to attack at the end of the Poggio.”
How can you not love this magnificent bike race?
— Brian Nygaard (@nygaardbn) March 18, 2023
Alpecin-Deceuninck sheltered Van der Poel so much so he was largely unseen until the pack of about 50 to 60 riders swarmed off the Cipressa and hit the high-speed transition toward the Poggio and final roll of the dice.
Van der Poel could feel he had something special in his legs. That’s half the battle that deep into San Remo.
Up the Poggio: -10km to go
There was no subtlety in what UAE Team Emirates was trying to do.
The team steamrolled it to the base of the Poggio to bring Pogačar into the leading wheels. Matteo Trentin and then Tim Wellens, a late-hour addition to replace Davide Formolo, turned the screws to put the peloton into single-file misery.
Welles led out Pogačar with just under 7km to go. Van der Poel was almost caught out of position. Pogačar’s acceleration forged the winning move, but the Poggio is no Alpe d’Huez.
Pogačar’s surge broke the back of the peloton, but he found the wrong kind of company as he pushed the needle into the red heading up the steepest ramp of the Poggio.
Pogačar later said he only had enough matches to make one win-or-lose attack, and he admitted it didn’t catch fire Saturday.
“I had one goal today and that was to attack after Tim’s pull. The team did a perfect job today,” Pogačar said. “I was not strong enough to go solo, and then Van der Poel attacked. I could not follow, he was too strong. I was dead to the finish.”
Raymond Poulidor – @mathieuvdpoel
Both, monument winners!
🏆 @Milano_Sanremo pic.twitter.com/lWhbJVXDHO
— Alpecin-Deceuninck Cycling Team (@AlpecinDCK) March 18, 2023
The Slovenian found company from three of the biggest thugs in the bunch.
The first to latch onto Pogačar’s wheel was Ganna, who is riding into the 2023 classics season on the best form of his career.
Next to react was Van Aert, who surged with trademark acceleration. Catching his wheel was none other than Van der Poel, who used his longtime rival and nemesis to bridge across to Pogačar before he was gone.
Van der Poel barely closed the gap. San Remo is that close.
Down the Poggio: -4km to go
Van der Poel had done his homework. He rode the Poggio climb and descent three times in pre-race training, and he sensed that his best chance at victory was to try to go alone over the top of the Poggio.
Sprinting off the fourth wheel, Van der Poel pounced near the rounded top of the Poggio hill.
Energized by the moment and fully committed to the attack, Van der Poel out in all of his chips knowing full well that one hesitation could spell doom in the razor-thin line between victory and desolation.
He disappeared over the top of the Poggio and quickly carved out a seven-second gap coming out of the upper switchbacks.
Unlike Mohorič’s wild attacking descent last year, Van der Poel forged the gap on his attack over the top of the Poggio and carried that momentum into the upper switchbacks to solidify his lead as he methodically and steadily picked his way through the corners.
“My plan was to attack a bit earlier on the Poggio but after I got a gap I decided to not take risks in the downhill,” Van der Poel said. “I descended at 80 percent of my possibilities. Had I crashed, I wouldn’t have forgiven myself, whereas had I been caught I’d still be able to sprint for the win.”
— Cycling out of context (@OutOfCycling) March 18, 2023
Three chasing one is often at a disadvantage on the steep, sweeping corners of the Poggio, and Van der Poel could sense that.
Though he never looked back to see, behind him Ganna was having a hard time staying on the wheel, and Van Aert seemed caught out. Neither he nor Pogačar could put a dent of a few seconds into Van der Poel’s gap.
“It was fast on the Poggio, and I could mark Pogačar’s attacks, but when Van der Poel still had something left it was too much for me,” Van Aert said. “You could see him accelerating out of the corners. I am looking forward, the legs are there, and I am hungry to win more.”
‘A special win in a special race’
In the end, it was that perfect mix of elements that delivered Van der Poel the win. His racing instinct and expert descending skills kicked in at the right time on the course that’s ideal for surgical, precise attacking.
A fast race helped Van der Poel as well, and the 2023 edition at 45.773kph was the second fastest in race history. Only Gianni Bugno in 1990 won faster at 45.806kph. Van der Poel set a new climbing record up the Poggio.
⏱️ It happened. Mathieu van der Poel set today a new climbing record on Poggio: 5 MIN 40 SEC, breaking the 28-year old benchmark of Fondriest and Jalabert by 6 seconds! 🚀 Pogacar, Ganna & WVA did 5:43. Historic day in pro cycling.#MilanoSanremo https://t.co/w8ZVbW3pBS pic.twitter.com/MNatp5bSla
— Mihai Simion (@faustocoppi60) March 18, 2023
Van der Poel matched his grandfather Raymond Poulidor, who won his only monument in his storied career on the very same date in 1961.
“It’s so difficult to win here,” Van der Poel said. “I cannot imagine a better scenario than this one. This is one the races I really wanted to win. The way I won it today is beyond expectation. I am really happy with this one.”
There’s no longer a winning script at San Remo.
It was a race that used to produce repeat winners, like Eddy Merckx, Erik Zabel, and Oscar Freire. Not anymore. The Classicissima delivered its 16th consecutive different winner Saturday.
In fact, if there is a blueprint for the modern version of Milan-San Remo, it’s that fortune favors the bold.