The 25-year-old Belgian backed up his victory at Strade Bianche last weekend by edging defending champion Julian Alaphilippe (Dececuninck-Quick-Step) by a tire’s width on the Via Roma after the pair went clear on the descent of the Poggio.
The pair held off a late chase from a powerful group that finished just a handful of seconds behind, after trimming van Aert and Alaphilippe’s advantage in the closing kilometers. Michael Matthews (Sunweb) rounded out the podium, taking third.
Van Aert’s victory marks his first monument win and completes a remarkable comeback from his serious injury at last year’s Tour de France.
“Of course, I’m super-happy, my second win [after Strade Bianche],” van Aert said after the race. “I don’t have words. I know everyone says that when they win a monument, but to start the second part of the season like this, it’s crazy.”
Alaphilippe sparked the race into life over the summit of the Poggio in a throwback to his victory in 2019. The Frenchman accelerated clear and looked to be forging a gap over the descent, however, van Aert managed to bridge back as Alaphilippe plummeted around the sharp bends of the iconic descent.
“Hold on, hold on .. was the only thing in my mind [on the descent],” van Aert said. “Alaphilippe went quite early and I had to close a little gap on him. I dropped again but there was nobody behind me, so I had no choice but to keep pushing, and I got rewarded, because on the downhill I came back.”
Alaphilippe was wily as ever going into the final kilometer, leaving his Belgian rival to lead out the sprint. However, with a bunch of around 25 riders including Matthews, Greg Van Avermaet (CCC-Team), Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Philippe Gilbert (Lotto-Soudal) mounting a fearsome chase, there was no time for cat-and-mousing.
“Julian played it really good, he put me on the front and I needed to keep the speed as the bunch was coming back,” van Aert said. “It was hard to do the right pace and keep something back for the sprint, but in the end it was just enough as I won by just half a wheel.”
Alaphilippe, who was downplaying his chances before the race, nearly pulled the first double at San Remo since Erik Zabel won back-to-back editions in 2000 and 2001.
“Of course, my feelings are mixed,” the Frenchman said. “I am very happy to be on the podium. I knew that Wout van Aert would be very strong. He was the big favorite and in the end, he really deserves his victory. I went all out in the Poggio. After that, it was a very difficult sprint. We fought well, but in the end, the strongest won. That’s how it is.”
The race played out in the mid-summer sun as Italy basked in the middle of a heatwave. As if the originally-planned 299-kilometer parcours for the race wasn’t enough in the mid-30-degree heat, a late change to the route earlier in the week bumped the race to a monster 305km.
With a long day ahead, the peloton let a break of seven riders go away early and build a large gap as the long slow burn and building of anticipation began.
As the bunch entered the final 90km and the newly-added Colle di Nava approached, Matteo Trentin was brought down in a touching of wheels in the bunch and withdrew from the action, leaving CCC Team without one of their co-leaders.
The race remained under control as the peloton slowly chipped away at the now-fracturing breakaway’s lead. With Deceuninck-Quick-Step driving the pace, the action began hotting up at 40km to go as the race approached its return to its traditional route and the closing salvo of the Cipressa and Poggio.
With the break caught by the bottom of the Cipressa, the race sprang into life as teams looked to position their riders into the climb.
An opportunistic attack on the Cipressa by Loic Vliegen (Circus Wanty) drew out Jacopo Mosca (Trek-Segafredo), with Tadej Pogacar (UAE-Team Emirates ) and Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) among those to react.
Bora-Hansgrohe lifted the pace to bring the attackers back to heel over the summit, however, the accelerations put Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal), Fernando Gaviria (UAE-Team Emirates) and a number of others in trouble as the race strung out and the lead group thinned.
Daniel Oss (Bora-Hansgrohe) was next to throw the dice off the bottom of the Cipressa, taking a gap on the bunch on the flatlands approaching the Poggio. Around 10 seconds behind him, Deceuninck-Quick-Step and Mitchelton-Scott took control of the 60-strong peloton.
Oss was inevitably caught at the base of the Poggio as the decisive final phase of the race began, with Gianni Moscon (Ineos) attacking first, and Gianluca Brambilla (Trek-Segafredo) and Aime de Gendt (Circus Wanty) next to go. Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) was the next of the sprinters to suffer under the pace, clinging onto the back of the bunch and struggling to regain contact.
In a harkening back to 2019, Alaphilippe brought on the decisive move in the final kilometers of the short climb. The Frenchman accelerated once, with only van Aert able to stay close as a handful of others lingered a split second behind. Alaphilippe accelerated again a hundred meters later, shaking off an attempt by Greg van Avermaet (CCC Team) to respond.
Having topped the climb alone, Alaphilippe descended like a wildman off the Poggio, railing the corners and taking no precautions. However, van Aert kept composed and was able to make contact by the base of the climb.
From there, the pair went into the final on the Via Roma, with van Aert taking the spoils after seven-and-a-quarter hours of racing.
The race was yet another near-miss for Sagan who placed fourth. The Slovakian has now raced Milano-Sanremo 10 times, placing in the top-10 in all but two appearances.
“I don’t have yet the condition I had at this race in the past,” he said. “My form is steadily getting better, but I’m not in a position yet where I could have responded to Van Aert and Alaphilippe on the Poggio. I think my season starts at the Tour de France this year and, in my view, I’m on the right track.”