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Milan-San Remo: The ‘sprinter’s classic’ is no longer wired for sprinters

Tour de Hoody: The last bunch sprint came in 2016, and everyone is bracing for more attacks on the Poggio.

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Maybe it’s time to change the promotional material around Milan-San Remo.

Long called the “sprinter’s classic,” the WorldTour’s longest race is no longer reserved for the fast finishers. Watt-monsters like Wout van Aert and Jasper Stuyven, the last two winners, pack the turbos to drop the peloton and rip up the script.

In fact, the last true bunch sprint at San Remo came in 2016. Since then, the last five winners have managed to drop the fast-chasing bunch and win alone or in small groups.

So what’s happening? VeloNews queried riders at last week’s Tirreno-Adriatico to ply that question, and we heard some interesting replies.

“The race is completely different now,” said Heinrich Haussler, second to Mark Cavendish in 2009. “It’s so fast now. The last 50km is like a sprint. Positioning is so crucial going into the Poggio.

“If you’re on the 20th position, you’re too far back,” Haussler told VeloNews. “They go so fast up the Poggio now the real sprinters hardly have a chance to get to the finish.”

Also read: Could Pogačar win? His rivals think so

Without a doubt, Milan-San Remo is one of the most unique races on the calendar. The route isn’t that hard, the finish isn’t that technical, yet it’s wildly and wonderfully unpredictable.

Its tagline of “the easiest race to finish, the hardest to win” rings true.

‘Easiest to finish, hardest to win’

Arnaud Demare won the last big bunch sprint at Milan-San Remo in 2016. (Photo: MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s been a few tough years for the pure sprinters.

A bunch sprinter like Caleb Ewan, twice second behind two power moves, was determined to see a bunch sprint Saturday. To try to be first on the Via Roma, Ewan’s worked on improving his climbing so he could get up and over the Poggio near the front of the group.

Otherwise, he knows it’s almost impossible to regain contact because almost no team has the numbers to organize a determined chase on the short run from the top of the Poggio to the finish line on the Via Roma.

“Milan-San Remo is one of my big goals of the season,” Ewan told VeloNews a few days before he was forced to skip the race with illness. “I’ve been twice second and I know if I can do my sprint I have good chances to win. The confidence is there and I am climbing quite well. If I can stay close over the Poggio, I can manage on my own in the final.”

Everyone talks about how the entire level continues to rise across the peloton.

For a few years, the traditional finish line on the Via Roma was moved to the seafront after local shop owners complained that the race barriers and road closures hit their bottom line. Organizers have since moved it back to Via Roma.

Wind can also be a major factor going up and over the Poggio. Some headwind or a mistake is the only way to stop determined attackers in today’s era.

“It was a bit more of a sprinter’s race before, but now the stronger guys have figured out how to drop us on the Poggio,” said Alexander Kristoff, a winner in 2014. “It also depends on the wind conditions. Also when I won it we had the Via Roma, it was longer into the finish line, maybe it suited the sprinters a little bit with a little bit longer run-in. It’s always a very open race.”

There’s also no denying there is simply more horsepower in the bunch.

Haussler said although the overall level continues to climb across the entire peloton, there are still a few freaks who tower above the rest.

And that means if they have the watts to storm away, it’s going to take a very concerted chase from behind to bring it back.

“You can only hope for a headwind or if they start to look at each other on the top or make a mistake on the downhill,” Haussler said. “Everyone knows that on the steeper part of the Poggio, that guy like Wout or Pogačar, they’re going to light it up and try to get away … It’s not like when Cav and I were sprinting for it.”

Monument distance always makes a difference

The pack rides along Cape Noli during the one-day classic cycling race Milan - San Remo on March 23, 2019. (Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP) (Photo credit should read )
The route isn’t overly challenging, but the distance adds an extra dimension. (Photo: MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP via Getty Images)

The freakishly long distance of San Remo also makes a difference. If the Poggio came during a 180km race, a bunch sprint would be almost assured, but after nearly 300km, the distance becomes a deciding factor.

That’s part of the magic of racing monuments. It’s that mythical “sixth hour” where all the good stuff happens in the monuments, and San Remo is no exception to that rule.

The pure sprinters know they’re going to have it hard on Saturday.

“We have seen in the last years it is not easy to finish in the sprint,” said Giacomo Nizzolo. “There hasn’t been a bunch sprint in a long time. It’s a race that the climbers like it too, and they come and they really focus on trying to win it. That makes the difference, so when you do the last part of the Poggio in such a hard pace not many sprinters can make it.

“I think Cipressa could be different this year. The last few years it was not so hard, and I think it could be different this year.

A rash of injuries, crashes and illness will also take their collective toll. Former winner Julian Alaphilippe, Paris-Roubaix champion Sonny Colbrelli, defending champ Stuyven, Ewan and Sam Bennett are both out with sickness.

Mathieu van der Poel is a late-hour addition and will add some drama Saturday. Even though the team is saying he races for the first time in 2022 without “ambitions or pressure,” you can bet if van der Poel hits the Poggio with good legs he will give it a go.

And then there’s the Tadej Pogačar factor.

With his winning legs, everyone is saying he could become the first Tour de France winner to win San Remo since Laurent Fignon in the 1980s.

The sprinter’s classic isn’t reserved for sprinters anymore.

The course hasn’t change, the peloton has.

And that only makes the otherwise mundane route of San Remo one of the most unpredictable races on the calendar.