Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by SWpix.com
Milan-Sanremo is the Monument Tadej Pogačar knows best and has studied the closest, but it remains elusive
Milan-Sanremo isn’t a race that draws consensus. Glance down the list of starters and there may be two dozen names or more that could feature as podium finishers. Yet, at Paris-Nice and during the week that’s followed two are mentioned again and again: Wout van Aert and Tadej Pogačar.
The Belgian, of course, won La Primavera in 2020, and that success surprisingly remains his only one in a Monument so far. Pogačar was 12th that day on his debut in the event. He returned last year and finished fifth, among the seven riders who came in two seconds behind his Slovenian compatriot Matej Mohorič. Consequently, it’s clear that certainly capable of winning Sanremo.
Yet, when asked in his press conference the day before the start of Paris-Nice whether he could join Rik Van Looy, Eddy Merckx and Eric De Vlaeminck as a winner of all five Monuments, Pogačar picked out Sanremo as the race most likely to prevent him emulating this very select trio. “Every time I do it, I get a bit closer. But it’s still really far away. For me, I think it’s the toughest race to win of them all.
“You really need to be perfect after 300k. With just that one small climb at the end, you really need to get it perfect. So, it’s a tough one to crack. But we will try this year again. And I do still have many years to come.”
Pogačar revealed that he has done a good number of training rides out to Sanremo and beyond from his home in Monaco. “I live close to Sanremo and go there on the bike sometimes and allow different scenarios that could happen in the race to go through my head,” he admitted. “It is a race that I often have in mind, and I have multiple scenarios in my head already planned.”
Naturally, he wouldn’t be drawn on the details of these scenarios. He’s got the punch to go clear on his own climbing the Poggio, the descending ability to maintain any advantage, and the speed to win from a group lacking the true sprinters. But the same can be said of several other Sanremo contender, van Aert notably, so there’s been some conjecture about whether one of Pogačar’s scenarios might involve an earlier attack on the Cipressa.
It’s a longer and harder climb than the Poggio, and with a more testing descent, all of which suit him. The evident difficulty with an attack on the Cipressa is that riders have to hold off the bunch on the nine kilometres of flat coastal road leading into the foot of the Poggio. You have to go back to 1996 for the last winning sortie from the Cipressa, Gabriele Colombo the victor after an unbelievably rapid attack that just one other rider, Alexander Gontchenkov, was able to match. The pair finished in that order.
Marco Pantani (1999), Michele Scarponi (2011) and Vincenzo Nibali (2014) subsequently made thwarted attempts on the Cipressa to escape the shackles of the sprinters’ teams, which then dominated Sanremo’s finale. Since Arnaud Démare’s victory in 2016, which was the last time La Primavera was went down to a bunch sprint, the Poggio has been the launch pad for every winning attack, and the overriding opinion is that this will be the case again this Saturday afternoon.
Yet, if there’s one rider who could upend that logic, it’s Pogačar. He’s regularly served up the unexpected, from his breakthrough in the Grand Tours at the 2019 Vuelta, when he won three stages and rode away from the GC favourites on the final mountain stage, to that extraordinary finale at La Planche des Belles Filles in 2020, to his long-range winning attack at the 2022 Strade Bianche and his blast of speed up the Oude Kwaremont the following month in the Tour of Flanders that scattered all of his rivals and ultimately had Mathieu van der Poel (pictured) clinging on by his fingernails.
Local knowledge will guarantee that Pogačar will be well aware that the weather conditions for Saturday will encourage breakaways by small groups or even a solo rider. The wind will be blowing briskly from the east, hurrying the riders along the coast road towards Sanremo, effectively shortening the section between the race’s final two climbs and offering encouragement for any rider considering the Cipressa hail Mary. A move there could cause a reprise of the panic that ensued when the UAE leader bolted away up the Oude Kwaremont last year, perhaps resulting in a small but select group forming.
This is all conjecture, of course, but it’s sure to be one of the scenarios that Pogačar has been playing out during those Sanremo training expeditions. He will have been weighing up whether he can neutralise the significance of that “one small climb at the end” by attacking on the slightly bigger one that precedes it. The Cipressa or bust…
If he can crack the code to Sanremo success, he’ll have three of the five Monuments on his palmarès, including the one he regards as the most challenging. He showed last year when he finished fourth on his debut at Flanders and should have won that the Ronde is well within his reach. Three months later, he looked almost equally at ease on Roubaix’s cobbles during the Arenberg stage the Tour de France, although he’s recently knocked down any suggestion that he will focus on “the hell of the north” any time soon, insisting it’s for later in his career. But he’s also made clear that Roubaix will eventually be on his radar.
As much as Van Looy, Merckx and De Vlaeminck, he’s a racer who not only wants to compete any every kind of terrain, but believes he can win.
The updated second edition of The Monuments by Peter Cossins is on sale from 16 March.