Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by Anton Vos/CorVos/SWpix.com
Due to work commitments at Paris-Nice, I missed out on Tadej Pogačar’s latest extraordinary feats at Strade Bianche and Tirreno-Adriatico, which bolstered the comparisons between the young Slovenian rider and Eddy Merckx, the greatest racer of all time – comparisons, it should be added, that even “The Cannibal” himself has acknowledged are fully merited.
They’ve led to the UAE Team Emirates phenomenon being listed as one of the short-priced favourites for this weekend’s first Monument of the season, Milan-Sanremo, behind 2020 winner Wout van Aert and sprinter Caleb Ewan, who was at the front of the pack chasing in on Jasper Stuyven’s heels last year.
Like Merckx at his best, Pogačar looks capable not only of winning any race he starts, but doing so in the way that he chooses. His long-range attack at Strade Bianche looked ill-judged until it became clear that he was strong enough to hold off his pursuers, while his Tirreno-winning attack on Monte Carpegna from a group of very strong climbers was completed with extravagant ease. Like a cat toying with a mouse, Pogačar is currently in total command, invincible to the point where, some say, he’s making racing predictable.
I don’t agree with this perspective. As with Lionel Messi in his footballing prime, or France’s effervescent rugby captain Antoine Dupont, Pogačar is always worth watching because there’s the likelihood of something exceptional occurring. If Sanremo does happen to be the setting for his next demonstration of instinctive brilliance, I’m eager to see it, especially as he’s hinted at a longer-range attack than we’ve come to expect in “La Primavera”, where the final ascent of the Poggio is the critical point for most of the likely contenders.
Pogačar has form on his side, both current and in the Monuments – he’s won his last two, the 2021 editions of Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Tour of Lombardy. Although he’s lined up just once in Sanremo, in 2020, when he was the pack that came in a couple of seconds behind Poggio escapees Wout van Aert and Julian Alaphilippe, he’s shown again and again that he’s quick to learn from experience and that, once this is absorbed, victory isn’t too long in coming.
While this bodes well for the UAE leader, other factors count against him or are at least unknown. We know that he’s currently in a class of his own as a climber, but has he got the power to open a winning gap on the Poggio or even on the Cipressa that precedes it? These are small and not especially steep hills, much more benign in their length and gradient than the Carpegna, where he roughed everyone up last weekend.
Let’s consider the Cipressa first. Rising to just 239 metres, the top of this climb arrives 21.6km from the line. It’s possible to get a gap climbing it, but recent history suggests that it’s impossible to maintain it all the way into the finish. It’s 26 years since young Gewiss rider Gabriele Colombo last achieved this feat. No one has managed it since because the peloton moves so rapidly when it returns to the coastal road beyond the Cipressa that it inevitably reels in any rogue attackers. Pulling off a winning move here would be an extraordinary accomplishment, even for the remarkable Pogačar.
If he does decide to adopt the now standard tactic of holding back until the Poggio, the question will be whether he also adopts the usual strategy of delaying his attack until the upper third of the 160m climb. If so, van Aert, Ewan and a whole host of other powerhouse performers will be ready for him, and will be sure to respond.
From the top of the Poggio, 5.5km remain to the line, most of it the fast and very technical descent back down to sea level. He could keep or even get a gap here if he’s daring enough, but by this point victory in La Primavera essentially comes down to one thing: how quickly you can sprint after 300km of racing. If a group comes shooting down off the Poggio and into Sanremo and Pogačar is in it, the situation will enable a very direct comparison to be made between him and Merckx.
The first two of the Belgian’s Sanremo wins all came thanks to his sprinting speed, which was exceptional. Pogačar has shown that he’s got a strong finishing kick, but yet not shown that he’s got the ability to outpace the likes of van Aert or Ewan.
The one thing that can be said for sure about Pogačar’s targeting of Milan-Sanremo is that it provides a very intriguing and, some would argue, a much-needed element of unpredictability into a race that unfolds a very formulaic way. The UAE leader’s brilliance is such that it’s possible to believe that he could attack on the Cipressa, or even on the capi, the three headlands that are the prelude to this climb. Like Merckx, he has more than one way to victory.
Classics’ talking points
- Mathieu van der Poel’s return to fitness has come too late for him to line up in Milan-Sanremo, but the Dutchman’s Alpecin-Fenix team have confirmed that he’s in their line-up for the Tour of Flanders on 3 April.
- Flanders is also on Tadej Pogačar’s race programme for the first time. Local lore suggests experience is vital for Flanders success, but Julian Alaphilippe showed on his debut two years ago that pure talent can make up for any deficit of knowledge when he made it into the race-winning break with van Aert and van der Poel, before being taken out of it in a collision with a race organisation motorbike.
- Even though Anna van der Breggen has made the move from saddle to team car, SD Worx remain the team to beat, their attack buoyed by the off-season arrivals of Lotte Kopecky and Marlen Reusser, as well as by the whole squad’s determination to do its best for teammate Amy Pieters, who remains in a coma following a training crash in December.