Words by Nick Bull
As somebody who has never done it, the idea of racing nearly 300 kilometres in a single day seems incomprehensible. So the thought of coming so close to winning a race over that distance, a victory that would have been a career-defining, and still being able to speak so positively about that experience is definitely something I cannot relate to.
For Jürgen Roelandts, however, that’s his reality. Five years on from being beaten – somewhat controversially as it later emerged – by Arnaud Démare on the Via Roma, he still takes great pride in coming third at Milan-Sanremo. “It was a good day… a good day,” he said. “I don’t regret anything. I have mostly nice memories and with 50 metres to go I thought I had it. I thought I was going to win Sanremo.”
Having raced at WorldTour level for 13-consecutive seasons, Roelandts is now enjoying his first year of retirement, a decision that he brought forward a year after crashing heavily and injuring his shoulder at last October’s BinckBank Tour. During his career he placed in the top five twice at Sanremo, Flanders (third in 2013 behind Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan), the world championships road race, E3 and Scheldeprijs. “All results that I can be proud of,” he said.
But he knows that his life may have played out differently had he crossed the line first in Sanremo on 19 March 2016. Not only would it have been only his seventh professional victory (excluding the national road race title he claimed in 2008), but he would have become the first Belgian to win La Primavera since 1999, all while riding for Lotto-Soudal, the country’s second most popular team.
“Of course I didn’t do my career for those reasons, but I think I would have been very popular in Belgium. Yes, it would have changed things. To win a Monument was a career goal, just like it is for a lot of people in my country. For me to do that, it would have been at Flanders, Paris-Roubaix or Sanremo. I came close on this day and I had some other chances after this race – fifth in Sanremo two years later when [Vincenzo] Nibali was really strong and won solo – but now I’ve retired I know that this was my best shot.”
Roelandts was remarkably three years removed from his last victory, a stage of the Tour Méditerranéen, going into the 2016 race. Twentieth at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, nine seconds behind winner Greg van Avermaet, was his best result of the season at that point, however, his form was beginning to come good at the right time.
He said: “I came from Tirreno where I had felt really good. This made me confident. Also, in the previous years in Sanremo I had felt strong at the end of the race and I was always in the front group but something went wrong. In 2013 when the group [including eventual winner Gerald Ciolek, Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan] went on the Poggio, [Philippe] Gilbert and I missed it by maybe five seconds. Then in 2015 I waited too long to start my sprint, I was trapped and it was too late.”
Despite his so-near-yet-so-far moments, Roelandts was still enamoured with the race. “I always liked the explosive final – Cipressa, downhill, Poggio, downhill, the finish. A lot of this is in the mind. When you go onto the Poggio it’s a mental race. Everybody is tired but you need to fight for position. If you think in your head that your legs are tired, you are going to turn on to the climb in 20th or 30th position and it is going to be really difficult. But if you make the extra effort early on and ride the climb in the top five, maybe top 10 positions, the first two kilometres are so much easier. You take your speed with you and you don’t have to brake, start, brake, start so much. I’m not the best climber but I learned this over the years.” Watching the race back, Roelandts navigated the race’s two noted climbs perfectly. He was never far away from then-world champion Sagan or Cancellara on the Cipressa, and he can be seen towards the head of the peloton with team-mates Jens Debusschere and Tony Gallopin on the Poggio.
“Jens – who is also my brother-in-law – was riding his first Milan-Sanremo that day,” Roelandts recalled. “He was also my room-mate and before the race we agreed that we would talk about our strategy if we both made it to the top of the Poggio before 15th position. We made it to the top in the peloton and he was in my wheel so I called him. I said I felt really good and that I would do the sprint – I asked him to drop me into [Nacer] Bouhanni’s wheel.”
Despite the attempts of Edvald Boasson Hagen and Greg van Avermaet, who attacked approaching flamme rouge, the race came down to the sprint Roelandts was seeking. “If you’re in the final, you’re in a bit of a tunnel,” he said, referring to the much-discussed effects of sprinting after 300 kilometres. Passing through the elongated left/right chicane around the Via Fiume he was positioned exactly where he wanted to be, behind Bouhanni. Then, as if to prove that his luck in the race was finally working in his favour, when Fernando Gaviria fell after touching van Avermaet’s wheel, Debusschere, Bouhanni and Roelandts all managed to avoid the Colombian despite being immediately behind him. “It was a bit of a mess with the crash,” said Roelandts. “[Avoiding] it was all about my reflex. I was in automatic pilot mode. I remember trying to avoid touching the brakes because I would have lost so much speed. After such a long day braking there would have been the end of the race, so I just launched.”
Roelandts started his sprint a little over 300 metres out from the line. He had to go the long way round to pass van Avermaet, before he settled on a line on the right-side of the road. While he was establishing a small gap, Bouhanni slipped a gear, eliminating the Frenchman from contention. Another slice of good fortune, check.
“It was a long sprint and there was a headwind, but with the chaos I just went for it,” said Roelandts. “Yes, I know it was long, but I thought that I would make it. I could see the line and I thought that I would make it.” It wasn’t to be: Démare edged ahead of him 50 metres from the line, before Sky’s Ben Swift benefitted from the Frenchman’s tow to take second. “I was really happy with my third place but with some rumours that came afterwards I was a bit disappointed.”
Démare found himself in the middle of a short-lived row as riders – most notably Italian’s Matteo Tosatto and Eros Capecchi – accused him of taking a tow from a team car on the Cipressa having been delayed by a crash shortly before the climb. Without any video or photographic evidence the result stood, while Démare has always denied any wrongdoing.
One thing that looked slightly off was the case of the Frenchman’s Strava file. When first uploaded and compared to other riders, it showed that Démare closed down a gap to the peloton of approximately 40 seconds over the course of the Cipressa ascent and descent. The data was promptly deleted and then reuploaded. Second time around it showed that he had set the KoM on the Cipressa as well as recording the fastest Cipressa to Sanremo segment that had been uploaded to the site at the time.
Understandably, this topic still wrangles with Roelandts to this day. He said: “[Démare] was on the car when he had the best time up the Cipressa. He crashed before it, he has the best Strava as a non-climber up the Cipressa, then afterwards he deleted the file. That’s something… I think it would have made a difference. If he wasn’t there I win Sanremo – Swift only passed me with half a wheel on the line and he came in the slipstream.”
When it comes to this year’s race, Roelandts unsurprisingly cannot look beyond the peloton’s three biggest entertainers at present. “Anybody who saw Tirreno would have to say [Mathieu] van der Poel and [Wout] van Aert are in a league of their own right now. Maybe [Julian] Alaphilippe is in there with them, but he was a little bit off their level in the final days – maybe he was saving himself? If there’s no bad luck one of these three will win.” Asked what riders like Sam Bennett or Caleb Ewan need in their favour if they’re to become the first noted sprinter since Démare to win the race, Roelandts added: “For sure they need a headwind into the finish – that would help them, it makes attacks so much harder. But if the weather is good, maybe they’ll set a new record for the Poggio this year.”
Because of the injuries he sustained at BinckBank last year, there was no chance of Roelandts being on the start line in Milan on Saturday had he continued to race in 2021. He had his last weekly physio session on Wednesday and is now looking forward to doing “anything in normal life that has been really difficult” for the past six months. He is considering his next moves within the sport but for the time being, given the travelling restrictions in and around Belgium, he is reduced to being an armchair fan.
He admits to having re-watched the ending of the 2016 Sanremo fairly recently – “it took me a long time” – and even with the towing controversy the extent of his satisfaction with that day’s ride is apparent. Roelandts said: “For the first and only time in my career I was the first rider in the peloton at the top of the Cipressa and then the first rider for all of the downhill. This is a nice memory. Of course I could have done better than third but I live with it. It was a good day… a good day.”