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A Stunning Solo: Van der Poel Steals the Show at Milan–San Remo  

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

Mathieu van der Poel made a loud statement for this year’s WorldTour road racing season – and perhaps for seasons to come – by winning the first and most prestigious Monument of the year, the Milan–San Remo, with a heady and explosive ride.

With 5.5 km to go in the 293.7-km race, he broke away from an elite trio of pre-race favourites – Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Filippo Gana (Ineos Grenadiers) – and quickly built a lead that he never came close to relinquishing. Ganna finished second, 15 seconds behind, just ahead of van Aert and a visibly disappointed Pogačar.

With the victory, the Dutch Alpecin–Deceuninck rider duplicated the exploit of his renowned grandfather, the French legend Raymond Poulidor, who won the race in 1961. “I think everybody knew that this was a race that I really wanted to win,” van der Poel told journalists after the race. “Also the team really wanted to win this one. I am really happy that I succeeded today, especially how I won it. I think it’s one to remember.”

After winning the cyclo-cross world championship in early February, after a tense and draining duelwith van Aert, van der Poel had mediocre road racing performances and before Milan–San Remo suggested he may not ride that discipline in the future. “The cyclo-cross world title was something unique but I only had a short break after the World Cup and then trained for 14 days in Spain, not enough to be in top shape,” Van der Poel told Algemeen Dagblad. “If I had to draw the perfect winter now, it would be one without cyclo-cross.”  But he added: “If things go well in Milan–San Remo next week, everyone will say it was the right approach. That’s how it always goes.”

And that is how it went. This 114th running of the race was fairly uneventful for much of its 6 hours and 25 minutes of racing, with a nine-rider breakaway forming not long after the start. The peloton allowed the riders to keep a lead that hovered around 3 minutes but finally caught up and swallowed it with 28 km to go. Then, on the penultimate climb, 5.6 km up the Cipresse, UAE Team Emirates took control of the peloton and upped the pace, primarily to drop the sprinters and prevent them from taking part in the finale.

Pogačar ignited the final tussle by breaking away from what remained of the peloton on the last climb of the race, up the Poggio di Sanremo (aka the Poggio). Though the climb was only 3.7 km at a gradient of under 4%, it came after 285 km of often fast riding. As a result, only the best riders could keep pace: van der Poel, van Aert and Ganna. But Van der Poel took off on his own halfway up the Poggio, and in so doing broke the record for the climb, covering the 3.7 km in 5 minutes 40 seconds, according to an analysis of the race video. That was 3 seconds faster than the time set by his three pursuers and 6 seconds faster than the previous record set by Maurizio Fondriest and Laurent Jalabert in 1995.

If photos are anything to go by, it was a bitter defeat for Pogačar who has still not won this race. Perhaps he should have known it would not be his day for he apparently fell off his bike before the race even got underway and appeared at the start with bits of debris and grass on his jersey.

Van der Poel understood the importance of the race and his victory, saying: “I think Milan–San Remo is maybe the only Monument where you can have a top five like this with stage racers like Pogačar, a world time-trial champion and [the] Hour-Record Holder like Ganna, and, of course, Wout van Aert.”The great Eddy Merckx won Milan–San Remo seven times between 1966 and 1976, and van Aert won it in 2020. Asked if he regretted attacking so early, Pogačar told journalists, “No, no regrets. Last year, I attacked four times, this year just once. I tried to go to the top. Maybe I was just not strong enough to go solo to the top.”

Pogačar finished fifth in last year’s Milan–San Remo, 2 seconds behind the surprise winner, Matej Mohorič (Bahrain Victorious). This year’s fourth-place finish puts a halt to an astonishing streak of success, for Pogačar had won seven times in 13 days of racing this Spring. Apparently, he runs out of gas too, on occasion.