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Although the bookmaker may suggest otherwise, Milano-Sanremo is not guaranteed to be the “Julian van der Wout” show.
Mathieu van der Poel, Julian Alaphilippe, and Wout van Aert have blazed their way through the season to date, torching the opposition with devastating attacks, long-range solos, and bunch sprint supremacy.
But if any race is one where anything could happen, it’s “La Classicissima.” In a seven-hour slog where the tiniest lapse of concentration or one forgotten energy gel can make the difference between mastery and mediocrity, there are more riders to keep tabs on this weekend than pro cycling’s “big three.”
Here are three riders that could steal the show on Saturday:
Davide Ballerini (Deceuninck-Quick-Step)
Palmarès: 19th in 2019
Davide Ballerini has only raced Milano-Sanremo twice, but he’s on red-hot form with two wins at Tour de la Provence and a trophy cabinet-topping Omloop Het Nieuwsblad victory.
The young Italian is only the third choice for his team behind Alaphilippe and Sam Bennett but offers a versatility that sits perfectly between the sprint prowess of the Irishman and the punchy attacking of Alaphilippe. Bennett could struggle if the race goes wild on the Poggio, and Alaphilippe may not have the legs to outsprint van Aert and van der Poel. Ballerini can do both.
What sport director Davide Bramati is saying: “In the past couple of years, we have always featured in the finale at Sanremo. We won’t hide the fact that we would like to do it again this Saturday, but at the same time, we know that we are not the favorites for this edition. On the other hand, the riders are really keen on doing their best in this first monument of the season and we’ll just see what happens”
How we’ll win: Hangs tough on the Poggio and hits the Via Roma with Alaphilippe and a dozen others before surprising the lot with a 100-meter dash for the line.
Arnaud Démare (Groupama FDJ)
Palmarès: 2016 winner, 3rd in 2018
Arnaud Démare has a victory to his name and an albatross around his neck when it comes to Milano-Sanremo. The French fastman took the 2016 edition with a win that was accompanied by a chorus of doubt as the peloton accused him of taking a tow from a team car on the Cipressa climb. Whether Démare was guilty or not, he’s one with a good chance this weekend after enjoying his best season to date last year.
The Frenchman will need the race to play his way if he’s to repeat his 2016 success, however. He won’t make it over the Poggio if Alaphilippe and Co. start throwing haymakers and shatter the front group, but if a larger bunch hits the Via Roma together, he’s got the acceleration to beat the best.
What he’s saying: “We’re all challengers behind these three favorites [van Aert, van der Poel, Alaphilippe]. That’s clear from looking at the past week. But I won’t say it’s not possible to win. Physically they’re above everyone else, and obviously, we’re waiting for their attacks. But if you think back to last year, they were very strong then too. Van Aert and Alaphilippe went away on the Poggio, but by the finish, we weren’t very far behind them at all.”
How we’ll win: Snatches it by centimeters in a 20-rider bunch sprint.
Michael Matthews (Team BikeExchange)
Palmarès: 3rd in 2015 and 2020
If ever a rider was built for success at Milano-Sanremo, it’s Michael Matthews. The versatile Aussie can out-kick the climbers and last through the 10 minutes of torture that is the Poggio. He’s the type of rider that could be in the mix no matter how the race plays out Saturday.
“Bling” is back with Team BikeExchange this season and has big ambitions for success in the classics with a team that is giving him its full backing. Having twice hit the podium in Sanremo, including last summer where he sprinted for third with a smashed hand, Matthews will be hoping his strong start at Paris-Nice sets the tone for a win that would top his already-brimming trophy case.
What he’s saying: “I will arrive at Milano-Sanremo after a strong week at Paris-Nice. We had great work from all the team, and it was really good for me, both physically and also mentally to be back with my GreenEdge teammates. Going to my next challenge of Milano-Sanremo, I feel even more motivated to do well and our target is to fight to arrive until the last few meters at the front and play our best chances for victory.”
How he’ll win: Counters moves by Alaphilippe, van Aert and van der Poel over the Poggio and out-kicks a group of six on the Via Roma.
Bonus wildcard: Peter Sagan
Palmarès: 2nd in 2013 and 2017; 4th in 2012, 2015, 2019, 2020
Sure, it’s extremely unlikely, but the world would be a better place if Peter Sagan strikes this weekend. He’s still rebuilding after a COVID layoff, but just look at the palmarès, if there’s any man that knows how to make it to the pointy end of Sanremo, it’s Sagan.
Sanremo is a race full of surprises where experience and luck can make as much difference as power and racing-form. If everything goes his way and one of the “big three” has a mishap, Sagan could see his chances.
What he’s saying: “My form is getting better and better, so I should also be in the front, but for now I’m on a different level than [van der Poel and van Aert] … Who will win at Sanremo? Maybe I will!? No, that’s hard to say, we’ll see how the race goes. The weather can also play a major role.”
How he’ll win: Who knows. Peter will find a way.