It's time for Milano-Sanremo

Michael Valgren takes us through his favorite race

March 13, 2024

The flowers on the Riviera dei Flori are starting to bloom.

That means it is nearly time for Italy’s great spring classic, La Classicissima di primavera. This Saturday, Andrey Amador, Alberto Bettiol, Jonas Rutsch, Marijn van den Berg, Harry Sweeny, Yuhi Todome, and Michael Valgren will race the first and longest Monument of the year: Milano-Sanremo.

This year’s edition of the 117-year-old race starts in Pavia, just south of Milan, and follows the traditional route down across the Po Delta and over the Turchino pass to the Ligurian coast, where the Italian fans will be waiting, ready to cheer the peloton over the hills that rise up from the Mediterranean. Once the race hits the seaside, it will only accelerate, as the riders wind through villages at high speed and compete to stay at the front of the pack. The first crux en route is the Cipressa, a 5.6-km climb through an olive grove, which the race summits after 266.3-km of racing. It is followed soon after by the Poggio, 282.4 kilometers in, before the plummet back down to the coast and into the Belle Epoque streets of Sanremo. The finish line comes after 288 kilometers of racing.

For Michael Valgren, this year’s Milano Sanremo will be a big test. It will be the first Monument that the Danish veteran will race after his comeback from a crash that nearly ended his career in the summer of 2022. After over a year of intense rehab, Michael is back in racing shape and excited to take on his favorite spring classic.

“I love Milano-Sanremo,” he says. “Italy is the country I love to race in the most. The fans make it really special. I have had a few really good experiences at Milano-Sanremo. The last time I did it was 2022. I made the front group and then I had a mechanical on the descent, which lost me a top ten result, which was a big shame. Now, I want to get my revenge. I want to get back to the race and be in the mix with the team, whatever my role is going to be. We are going there to get a result. That is for sure.”

We asked Michael what it is like to race Milano-Sanremo.

Kilometers 0 - 138: The prelude

“This year, we will start a little bit outside of Milano, so the race will be about 10 kilometers shorter than it has been in the past. Still, it will be 288 plus the neutral, so almost 300 kilometers long. That distance makes the race really, really special. The first few hours are usually pretty easy. Sometimes, there is a bit of an annoying cross-wind, but often it is pretty chilled. A breakaway will go with seven or eight guys. No one will chase hard. You will get to talk to your friends.”

Kilometers 138-260: Turchino Pass, Capo Mele, Capo Cervo, Capo Berta

“Once we get to the Turchino Pass, we will already start to feel the nervousness, the tension, because everyone wants to have a good position on the downhill, where it often splits. Once you are on the coast, it will be just about flat out. We’re in Italy, so there are some bad roads. Cars are parked in the cities, so you really have to stay alert and be at the front, because there are often so many small crashes, as guys try to move up from behind and there is no space. The last 100 kilometers on the coast is just full-gas racing. You come over the capos there on the coast, and there are always so many people there with their fireworks.”

Kilometer 260: The Cipressa

“The run in to the Cipressa is one of the craziest run ins of the whole year, because it is so, so important. Where you are in the peloton when you hit the Cipressa is basically where you will be at the bottom of the Poggio. If you are not at the front, you have to be like, ‘I have got to move up. I have to move up right now!’ The Cipressa is harder than the Poggio. There are always going to be splits on the way up and there are going to be splits on the descent. You have to think like a sprinter before it. You have to make every effort to go to the front and not wait. You are 20-some kilometers from the finish but those 20 kilometers are going to go so fast. Going into the Cipressa is just a big, big sprint. The reason people always get dropped there is that there are so many guys who do the lead out into it and then sit up. The road is not that big, so it is hard to get around them, which creates gaps.”

Kilometer 278: The Poggio

“It is funny. On paper, everybody would get over the Poggio if it were in a stage of the Tour de France. But at Milano-Sanremo, we have like 280 kilometers in our legs and that just changes everything. Even if the race has been easier for the first 100 kilometers, just riding those kilometers changes your legs.

If you hit the Poggio in 20th position, the climb is just so hard, because the guys in front are going to go full tilt. When the elastic snaps, you will be behind, so you have to be at the front at the Poggio and then see what’s in your legs. The climb is about five minutes long and there is no time to move up. You might think you are on an amazing day and all of a sudden it will just be like, boom, nothing. Or vice versa. You don’t really know how you are going until you are on the Poggio. I have often had really good legs, but some guys will be like, ‘What the heck? I didn’t push all day. I made it over the Cipressa alright and then on the Poggio I just ran out of strength.’ The race is so long and the whole fight on the coast before the climb really drains you.”

Kilometers 282-285: Descent of The Poggio

“It is very twisty, technical descent, where you can do damage. We have seen riders do some amazing downhills there in the past. You have the phone box there on the top, where you know, okay this is the top of the Poggio, and then you have a quick two switchbacks and then some longer sections. Many of the corners are blind, so you might think they are sharp, but they are actually not too bad, and others are sharper than they actually look. It is just a nasty descent. Racing in Italy with all of the olive trees around, the roads are a bit slippery. You kind of just have to switch off your brain and trust your material.”

Kilometers 285-288: The grand finale

“I’ve been in the race a few times where it is a big bunch with like 30-plus riders. Most of the times I’ve done it, I’ve had a faster guy on my team. Then, it is about finding your sprinter and getting him to the front. It is such a fast finish. There is almost no time to move. We have also seen guys come with a counter attack from behind from a smaller group. There will be this one small crucial moment, when everyone looks at each other. That is the moment to go. Otherwise it is just too late. You have only a split second to think. Beforehand, you need a good game plan covering every scenario, depending on who makes it over the Poggio. I believe that if we are all really doing well, we can have two or three guys in the front group.

Bettiol just won Milano-Torino and is obviously flying. With his kick, we'd love to have Marijn up there too. I do have to be realistic. I might be the one who has to be sacrificed before the Poggio, because the Poggio is basically almost the finish line.

No matter what, the finish in Sanremo is always a really good vibe. There is always something special about finishing Milano-Sanremo. It is almost like you are finishing a grand tour with all the Italian fans. It is a big race, the first Monument of the year.”

It sure is. Good luck, team. And thanks Michael. It is great to have you back!

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