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Milano-Sanremo Breakdown: Position on the Poggio Once Again Decided the Race

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Race Breakdown: Milano-Sanremo, a visual tour of the stunning Liguria coast and hands-down the most beautiful Monument, ran on Saturday with Jasper Stuyven of Trek-Segafredo thwarting the pre-race favorites and taking a thrilling upset victory. As expected, the nearly seven-hour race came down to the final thirty minutes, with positioning leading into and on the Poggio playing a major part in the final selection.

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The World champion’s attack didn’t work the way he planned

Just as he did the last two editions, Julian Alaphillipe attacked with 6.5 kilometers remaining, and forced a select group, including last year’s winner Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel and surprisingly, Caleb Ewan. Just when the race looked like it was coming down to a bunch sprint win for Ewan, Stuyven attacked at the bottom of the descent with 3 kilometers remaining, a la Fabian Cancellara in 2008, and just held off the chasers to take the biggest win of his career. Ewan won the sprint just behind with Van Aert rounding out the podium.

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They couldn’t get rid of Caleb Ewan

Takeaways:

The Good

  • Stuyven gets an amazing out-of-nowhere victory using the playbook of his former teammate, Fabian Cancellara, who won Milano-Sanremo with the exact same move back in 2008.
  • Stuyven was helped immensely by Van der Poel’s poor positioning leading into and on the Poggio. The Dutch champion provided him with a free ride up to Wout and Alaphilippe on the hardest portions of the Poggio and kept him just close enough despite being dropped on the climb.
  • Stuyven’s position at the back of the bunch on the descent put him in the perfect position to build up speed for his race-winning attack.
  • This also mirrors his Trek teammates, Mads Pedersen’s win at last year’s Gent–Wevelgem, when he played the favorites off each other. This will be the team’s playbook for the rest of the Spring and with Stuyven and Pedersen able to fly under-the-radar, they could end up winning more Monuments than Alpecin-Fenix and Jumbo combined.
  • Ewan gets his second 2nd place at MSR in the last four years, and despite missing out on the win, puts in the most impressive performance I’ve ever seen from the Aussie sprinter. His positioning and ability to follow attacks on the Poggio was sublime, shows he is more than a pure sprinter and that he could come back and win this race in the future.

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A close surprise

The Interesting

  • Like 2018, we get another edition where Ewan wins the bunch sprint but is foiled by a breakaway rider who is so close that they finish at the same time as the sprinters.
  • The 45km/hour average speed made the race the third-fastest of all time and shows just how hard the “sprinter’s classic” has gotten in recent years.
  • Stuyven won due to Soren Kragh Anderson’s willingness to work in the final km after bridging up from the chase group. This willingness was likely due to him being all-in for 2nd place. This might seem odd from an outsider’s perspective, but a 2nd place finish at MSR is a huge resume builder and likely triggers a nice contract bonus.
  • Also, without the ability to win a sprint finish, Kragh Andersen’s options were limited at this point, and going all-in for a podium place was the right move. This is a calculation a majority of riders never correctly make and instead, simply sit in and wait to get beat in the sprint (i.e. the majority of the front group on Saturday).
  • The winning move might not have come on the Poggio, but as usual, it shaped the race. It is such a fast climb that minor positioning decisions on it are the difference between winning and losing.
  • This is evidenced by Van der Poel, whose poor positioning not only kept him from being able to attack or counter Alaphilippe’s initial move but allowed the chasers to ride his draft back to the front group when he had to come from behind to make up ground.
  • Milan-Sanremo is a race of nuance, which clearly isn’t Van der Poel’s strong suit. This will matters slightly less at later Spring Classics like Flanders and Roubaix, which tend to favor raw strength, but race craft will still be important, especially with talented riders like Stuyven, Pedersen, and Sagan waiting to take advantage of any minor slip-up or hesitation in the final kilometers.
  • I wonder if any of these details would have mattered if Van der Poel was on a better day physically. Compared to his searing attack that dropped Alaphilippe up the final climb at Strade Bianche, he looked decidedly mortal on the Poggio. This, along with him running out of gas in the final 50 meters of the sprint could signal that he was either still feeling the effects of his 50km-long solo breakaway last weekend or his intense Cyclocross racing schedule is finally catching up to him.
  • Sagan gets his 3rd straight 4th place finish here since and fifth of his career. A shocking consistency at this race for a rider who has never won it. Also, he was closing faster than any other rider coming into the finish line, which potentially signals he is on good form and could get a big result this spring with MvdP and Wout now sucking up all the oxygen.
  • Deceuninck – Quickstep refusing to send any riders back to help Sam Bennett shows they were all-in for Alaphilippe.
  • This is also a sign of just how much the sport and this race, in particular, have changed over the last few years. The prevailing theory used to be that the entire team had to support the big sprinter by towing them to, and up, the Poggio and hope they make it over. But with the rise of the new generation hybrid riders, it is no longer viable to invest everything in a sprinter since riders like Bennett have little-to-no-chance of making it over the Poggio with the front group.
  • However, Alaphilippe’s path to winning was extremely limited. He either had to get over the Poggio with one or two riders and hope he could outsprint them or go at the bottom at the Poggio like Stuyven. He simply lacks the top-end speed to beat Ewan, Van Aert, and Van der Poel in a straight-up sprint.
  • Van Aert clearly crunched film from past editions and knew this was Alaphilippe’s strategy. He was right on his wheel when he attacked and was more than happy to push the pace once they were away since he knew if he could get rid of Ewan that he had the fastest sprint in the group.
  • On this note, once Ewan closed the gap, his presence warped the dynamics of the group since the other riders knew that even if they closed down the gap to Stuyven, that Ewan would simply outsprint them. This is similar to the dynamic that helped Vincenzo Nibali stay away in 2008 after his attack on the Poggio.

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INEOS Grenadiers, what was their plan?

The Confusing

  • Ewan got little help from his Lotto team in the finale, but he didn’t need any because he had Ineos. They set the perfect tempo on the Poggio to deter attacks and keep the group intact for him. This is incredibly strange since they lacked a sprinter themselves and worked to give an armchair ride to the rider who could easily beat their own leader, Tom Pidcock, in a sprint.
  • With leaders like Kwiatkowski and Pidcock, Ineos needed as much chaos and attacking on the final climb as possible. This is likely a great example of how the team’s DNA simply doesn’t foster an attacking mindset and that being a strong team without a viable leader could be a recurring theme throughout the season.
  • To make matters stranger, Pidcock admitted after the race that he wasn’t familiar with the Poggio descent, which shows a shocking lack of detail and preparation from what used to be the most detailed-oriented team in the sport.

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Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel will be looking at each other in the Classics

What This Means for The Coming Classics

  • The playbook for beating Van Aert and Van der Poel is out in the open now and expect the same formula to repeat itself in the coming Spring Classics. Expect teams without marked stars but with talented riders like Trek-Segafredo and riders like Peter Sagan to continue to attack late in races and force the favorites to either chase or get caught looking at each other. Sagan has been marked out of countless races throughout his career and I expect him to start paying the peloton back and take advantage of the spotlight finally being on others.

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Jasper Stuyven – Big win for the strong Belgian


# Spencer Martin is the author of the cycling-analysis newsletter Beyond the Peloton that breaks down the nuances of each race and answers big picture questions surrounding team and rider performance. Sign up now to get full access to all the available content and race breakdowns. #

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