Words by Jeremy Whittle | Photo by ASO/Alex Broadway/SWpix.com
The finale of the 2022 Milan-San Remo represented peak Slovenia, both on the way up and on the way down the famed and winding Poggio.
On the way up, it was all about how much pain Tadej Pogacar could inflict; on the way down, everything depended on how many risks Matej Mohoric was prepared to take. Either way, Slovenian riders were once again pivotal in dictating the outcome of a hugely significant race.
As usual, in the beloved Italian race, the winner was the rider who got his timing right, exactly when it counted.
‘Pog’ on the Poggio took his rivals to the brink, and beyond, of their capabilities, yet for once, perhaps slightly blunted by the cold he picked up in the aftermath of Tirreno-Adriatico, he failed to shed them; instead, Mohoric, almost by sheer force of will, straightened out the bends in the plunging descent towards the Via Roma to pull off yet another high-profile win for his nation.
Mohoric has always been a fearless descender and has now become one of the fastest downhill racers in the peloton. That skill has secured him big wins in the past, and also, more than once, left him bruised and battered on the road, most recently at Strade Bianche, but his win in San Remo was also about the endurance honed in a series of marathon victories.
Breakneck descender he may be, but he’s also a long distance specialist. The 27 year old won the longest stage in the 2018 Giro d’Italia, a mere snip at 244 kilometres, the longest stage of the 2021 Tour de France, a hilly 249 clicks, and also the longest stage of the 2017 Vuelta too, a jaunt of just 207 kilometres. His Strava showed he’d raced just over 300 kilometres on his way to victory in San Remo.
While all eyes were on Pog on the Poggio, Mohoric waited for his moment. It came as the front group swung into the first bend of the descent towards the finish. In a race won by fractions, it was a smart move, and — as he explained afterwards — had been months in the planning.
“In the end, it was all worth it,” he told journalists from cyclingpro.net, describing success in San Remo as the biggest win of his career. “I cannot say thank you enough to every single member of our team, the mechanics, the suppliers, FSA. I am lost for words. We pulled it off, it’s incredible.”
Instead of the usual all-or-nothing tactic of attacking on the Poggio — employed so successfully in the past — Mohoric and his team stacked everything on his well-known endurance and detailed knowledge of the descent. His skill, allied to a cleverly-employed dropper seat post, and a TV motor bike that unwittingly punched a big hole in the air, just when he needed it, got him the gap that took him to victory.
As ever there was a crop of nearly men, outwitted in the blink of an eye, with their own hard-luck stories to tell after the season’s longest race. For some like Michael Matthews, who took his third top-five finish and fifth top-10 finish in the Italian race, the Slovenian had been “dragged away” by the TV motorbikes. In fairness to Mohoric, he wouldn’t be the first rider to have tucked into the slipstream of a motorbike on the tight and tortuous bends of the Cipressa and Poggio.
More stunning was the return to racing of Matthieu van der Poel, who showed his tenacity by clinging on to Pogacar on the Poggio and then gunning down the descent in pursuit of Mohoric to seal an impressive third place. “It’s a difficult race to win,” he said with some understatement.
This season’s World Tour has so far been dominated by Slovenian riders, with Pogacar, Primoz Roglic and now Mohoric, claiming every major win — a sequence interrupted only by Wout Van Aert’s victory at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. It’s a phenomenal show off strength from a nation that less than a decade ago had made little real impact on the European scene.
With such dominance in road racing, raised eyebrows of course follow, and Mohoric’s ill-advised ‘zipped lips’ gesture, after taking a second stage win in last year’s Tour de France, hardly endeared him to any sceptics, while the human rights concerns over the Bahrain sponsorship — heightened by the growing debate over sportswashing — will also fuel some unease.
But in San Remo, as he was hugged and backslapped by a succession of his rivals, nobody was thinking about all that. Instead, there was a widespread sense of awe at the red hot bike-handling skills that had taken him to victory, allied to a sense of incredulity at the latest in the Slovenian serial of successes.