Milano-Sanremo: The Spring Classic
We’re bringing good cards to the first Monument of the year
The finale of Milano-Sanremo is often the most exciting hour of the cycling season.
It kicks off after 242 kilometers of racing, 52 kilometers from the finish, on the Capo Mele, a short climb overlooking the Mediterranean. Then come the Capo Cervo and Capo Berta, before the ascent of Cipressa and the final showdown on the slopes of Poggio. From the summit of the Poggio, there’s just a screaming fast descent to the finish line in the seaside resort of Sanremo.
But first, Italians have to say their long goodbye to winter. Their springtime classic will start Saturday morning in the outskirts of Milano. As the peloton traverses the length of the Po Valley, from the cold mist of Italy’s industrial north to the Riviera dei Fiori, their spirits will begin to rise. This will be the 114th edition of the race they call The Spring Classic.
Mikkel Honoré is married to an Italian woman and knows what Milano-Sanremo means to her country.
“For the Italian people, Milano Sanremo is La Primavera, the spring classic,” he says. “It is something special: the opening of spring. You go from Milan, where it is usually cold and a bit rainy, you pass the Passo Turchino, and you drop down to Genoa, where it is warmer, near the Mediterranean sea, so it is like going from cold winter to summer. It reminds most Italian people that the seasons are turning.”
Alberto Bettiol, Stefan Bissegger, Magnus Cort, Mikkel Honoré, Neilson Powless, Jonas Rutsch, and Łukasz Wiśniowski won’t waste a pedal stroke during the first half of this year’s race. They will eat and drink and stay out of the wind. Their Milano-Sanremo will only begin to bloom when they race out of the tunnel atop the Passo del Turchino and plunge down its switchbacks to the sea. At the top of that col, they will have raced 144 kilometers and have 150 kilometers left. Once they hit the coast, they will hardly have the chance to catch their breath, as the peloton stretches into a long line and swooshes through the cramped, colorful streets of dozens of seaside towns, rounding cliffside corners, up, down, heading west beside the Med.
“The intensity just builds up over hours,” says sports director Matti Breschel. “It’s almost like an Italian opera. You’ve got the violins playing at a slow pace, and then you add the bass and suddenly the drums kick in, and you’ve got the whole thing exploding, before the Cipressa. And then, the finale is just iconic. But the start has always been special. It is an early start, and as soon as the Italian speaker starts to talk, the pigeons start to fly, and you feel the sun a little bit, even though it is a bit chilly.”
At 294 kilometers, the sheer length of Milano-Sanremo makes the finale all the more explosive. The Italian classic is the longest race that our riders do, by far, and that makes it unpredictable.
“Everybody’s abilities change the longer the race gets,” says Neilson Powless. “It is not as easy as just knowing what you can do for four minutes on the Poggio with fresh legs as hard as you can go. It is almost like you are racing with different people after seven hours in the saddle. It is really about who has been able to handle the fatigue throughout the day well, who has been able to fuel well, and who has a strong enough team there to still put them in position for the last hills.”
Mikkel Honoré knows how hard it can be to manage your effort almost 300 kilometers into a Monument.
“You can have the perfect preparation, perfect shape, and once you are there, even if you have done everything perfect, and correct, sometimes you can just go lights out and not have the legs and your body just won’t do what you want it to do,” he says. “You cannot miss even one or two percent when you start the climbs, but you can just have lights out after 300 kilometers.”
We’ll do everything we can to make sure that doesn’t happen. The whole team is committed to leading Neilson, Magnus, and Alberto into the final two climbs at the front of the peloton. The first decisive point is the Cipressa—5.6 kilometers long at 4.1%. Its summit is 21.5 kilometers from the finish. The race is rarely won there, but it is very often lost.
“It is all about positioning coming into the Cipressa,” Mikkel says. “The peloton is going to split and this year it is going to be even harder. It looks like we are going to have a tailwind, so there will be very, very fast climbing times, and I am sure that the climbers are going to make a very hard race to drop some of the fast guys. On the Cipressa, you need to start in a super good position and keep the wheels.”
Neilson Powless thinks that tailwind will be to his advantage. He, Alberto, and Magnus will aim to follow the best on the Cipressa to avoid the splits that are sure to open up on the climb and its descent. Then, they will go all in on the Poggio.
“This year, I am even more excited about it, because it looks like it will be a tailwind up both climbs, which will help the climbers,” Neilson says. “I think this is the best year to put in a bid for victory. I am hoping that I will be able to follow the best on the Poggio when the attacks go, and then we’ll also have Alberto Bettiol and Magnus there. They are faster at the finish than me, so if it is still a group and we are there they can have good trust in me to help with the sprint.”
Our riders will have to trust their instincts and communicate well. Because the finale is so dynamic, and sprinters and climbers and punchy riders are all raring to have a go, it is very hard to read the race and pick the right moment to attack. You have to have luck to cross the line first by the Casino Sanremo.
“It is something that is just there, but it is there in a split second and if you think about it, then the moment or the opportunity is gone,” says Matti Breschel. “Obviously, for sprinters it makes sense to wait, but only if you have teammates to pull the last three kilometers. And if you have the punch and you are in a good position, then there is no time to wait and you have to kind of seek your opportunity whenever the Poggio kind of kicks in. There is a moment, just before the top. I think it is like one kilometer before the top. There it gets a little bit steeper. That is where the big guys will attack and there is a really good moment, but then, at the bottom of the descent of the Poggio, the big guys can sometimes take a deep breath and all look at each other and we’ve seen attacks coming from behind that have managed to stay away with a couple of seconds. With Neilson going so well, we have to take advantage of his good shape. I think he can do a really, really good race. Magnus is also riding well. I know it is a big dream for him to win this race one day and this year he had perfect preparation or at least the confirmation that the shape is there. And then we have Alberto. We have a super strong team, so there is no real excuse.”
See you in Sanremo!