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Milano-Sanremo Breakdown: Pre-Race Favorites Foiled by Patience, Skill & Nerves of Steel

After the favorites are once again left with nothing to show for their efforts, we get yet another example that it is better to fly under the radar in modern cycling

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The ‘real’ cycling season began on Saturday as the peloton undertook the iconic march down the Liguria coast for the season’s first one-day Monument of Milano-Sanremo. While the sport’s three best riders, Tadej Pogačar, Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel were heavily favored for the win, the forgotten Slovenian, Matej Mohorič spoiled the party by prying open a gap with a dare-devil descent off the Poggio that the bigger names didn’t dare match. Once clear, he was able to use his world-class solo riding ability and full focus to hold off the highly disorganized chase group to win his first career Monument.

In my mind, the two major takeaways of the day were just how exciting and unique modern riders and tactics can make the final 30-kilometers of a fairly simple course and that due to this aggressive modern racing style, it is better to attack than wait to be attacked.

MSR Race Notebook:

22.9km: After Jumbo led a frantic and high-speed run into the day’s penultimate climb, the Cipressa, Pogačar’s UAE team sends a rider to the front to increase the pace even higher, which causes a small-ish elite group to split off the front of the peloton. This both rids the group of sprinters and the other teammates of the other favorites.

12.4km: After breaking up the race and establishing an elite lead group, UAE keeps the gas on the pedal through the flat run between the final two climbs. But interestingly, the gap between the peloton has held relatively steady, which tells us while high, the pace isn’t nuclear.

8.6km: Jumbo’s Laporte leads the peloton into the Poggio to keep van Aert towards the front. This is smart, but this effort burns valuable energy for a rider who could have played an important role on the other side of the climb. UAE also uses a massive effort to take Pogačar up into the lead.

8.2km: A few moments later we see why. Pogačar attacks from the front, and while the effort is impressive, it is too telegraphed, on too shallow of a slope, and into a headwind to create any real gaps.

7.8km: The pace slows to a crawl after Pogačar is caught and Roglič uses this moment to attack. While this looks good, the climb still isn’t steep enough and Roglič should be conserving his energy to simply make it over the top with the lead group to help van Aert on the other side.

6.4km: When they get to the steeper slopes, Søren Kragh Andersen attacks and Pogačar follows. We can see that van der Poel and van Aert scrambling to respond, but if we look closely, Mohorič doesn’t overextend himself and simply stays in the wheels behind.

6.1km: Kragh Andersen keeps attacking even after being reeled in by Pogačar while van Aert and van der Poel bridge across. This effort looks good, but pulling Pogačar is never a good idea, and this move should have been saved for the bottom of the descent.

5.5km: When we get to the summit, we can see the group of four cresting together, while Mohorič comes over a few seconds back in the group behind.

4.7km: Since he has avoided going into the red on the climb, Mohorič is able to shoot across the gap to the leaders as the descent starts, which means that once he makes contact, he is moving faster, which allows him to blow and create a small gap.

4.4km: Once he has his small gap, Mohorič drops his seatpost to lower his center of gravity. He glances down to check to see if it has worked and nearly rides off the road. However, he is such a good bike handler that this doesn’t slow him down and he simply hops back up from the gutter. He is going so fast and taking so many risks that Pogačar, one of the best bike-handlers in the peloton, simply can’t keep up and lets the gap go.

2.5km-1km: After a thrilling descent that saw him shoulder-check a front gate after over-shooting a corner, Mohorič kept the pressure on the false-flat downhill run to the finish. Behind, we can see the peloton freewheeling and arguing about who will do the work to reel him in. As they pass under the 1km-to-go barrier, it is clear they won’t be able to pull him back, and the slight decrease in pace gives a fleeting moment for Pogačar, who is sitting last wheel, to attack and bridge up, but he lets it pass and the chase group’s fate is sealed.

Finish: Mohorič stays away for the win while Anthony Turgis, who had been invisible all day, shoots away in pursuit to finish 2nd while van der Poel wins the sprint for 3rd.

Top Ten:
1) Matej Mohorič +0
2) Anthony Turgis +2
3) Mathieu van der Poel +02
4) Michael Matthews +02
5) Tadej Pogačar +02
6) Mads Pedersen +02
7) Søren Kragh Andersen +02
8) Wout van Aert +02
9) Jan Tratnik +05
10) Arnaud Démare +11

Ten Takeaways:

1) In a race that rewards positioning over the Poggio, Matej Mohorič executed a perfect ride.

  • Going over the top just behind the leaders, only to attack them either on, or just following, the descent is proving to be the go-to way to win the race.
  • This sounds easy but is very difficult to execute for a number of reasons, but potentially the hardest part is that to achieve this winning position a rider has to be comfortable being slightly dropped and potentially watching the race ride away from them up and over the summit. Adding to the complexity is the fact that in nearly every race one would compete in except for MSR, going over a climb and onto the descent in front is the preferred position.
  • But, Mohorič going over the summit slightly behind the four leaders allowed him to increase his speed to the point that when he passed them, the delta in velocity allowed him to wedge open a slight gap, which proved to be the winning margin.
  • I completely missed it in my pre-race preview, but in retrospect, Mohorič is the perfect winner for the modern Milano-Sanremo. His last three finishes in this race were 5th, 11th, and 10th, and he is one of the most potent solo finishers in the peloton.

2) Solo remains the best way to win big races riders

  • And once he was away, he actually held the advantage to the ever-growing trend of a disorganized chase full of misaligned incentives.
  • There is likely a myriad of reasons for this shift in racing, but one of the main ones is that the intensity has gotten so high that it is difficult for riders to get teammates into the crucial moments of the course.
  • Another unspoken advantage the solo riders have is the draft from the lead camera moto, which has started driving absurdly close to the lead rider.
    • For example, between the end of the Poggio descent and the finish, Matej actually put out less power than Mathieu van der Poel, who was tucked in the chase group behind (436 watts vs 406 watts) and only went two seconds slower.
    • The race organizer RCS is taking a lot of heat for this in certain circles, but remember we saw Simon Yates get an even greater draft on stage 8 of Paris-Nice (an ASO race) to hold off the chasing Wout van Aert.
  • This also brings up the question of why more teams fail to get multiple riders over the Poggio?
    • We’ve seen riders clip off the front of the group to foil sprinters year after year, so it seems slightly odd that a team like Jumbo wouldn’t invest more in getting any riders over the Poggio with Van Aert. Perhaps this is simply due to the length of the race and the massive effort required by teams to keep their leaders in position over the hilly coastal roads, but going forward, it could be worth it for a team to hold riders back, roll the dice as far as positioning goes, and try to get a teammate or two over the top with their leader.

3) Mohorič’s dropper post likely made a difference

  • Sean Kelly’s famous daredevil descent off the Poggio to win the 1992 edition took 3’46. Matej Mohorič carved it in 3’37, a whopping 9 seconds faster on Saturday.
  • Some of this increased speed is certainly due to more aerodynamic equipment, but a significant portion has to be due to the lower center of gravity afforded by his prototype dropper post (which until this point, has nearly been the exclusive terrain of mountain bikers).
  • Also, Mohorič showed that great descending isn’t about riding perfectly but just being willing to risk it all and not overcorrecting mistakes
  • Ironically, the disorganized chase in the group behind showed that Mohorič likely could have waited to attack at the bottom of the Poggio and would have had a good chance of winning without taking risks on the descent.

4) Anthony Turgis and TotalEnergies mean business this classics season

  • Turgis is proving that he is a criminally underrated classics contender.
  • After two consecutive top ten rides at the Tour of Flanders, he rode to an incredibly impressive second place ahead of the best riders in the world and was a few pedal strokes away from mowing down Mohorič on the Via Roma for the biggest win of his career.
  • And amazingly, TotalEnergies, who lost their star rider Peter Sagan on the Cipressa due to an ill-timed dropped chain (how is it possible chains are routinely dropping on such high-end bikes?) ends up with a podium at a Monument. Just like last week, I’m still asking the question, is TotalEnergies actually good?

5) Mathieu van der Poel is back

  • After being off-the-radar for months to recover from a back injury, van der Poel was pulled into the race on Friday and shockingly rode to his best career Sanremo finish with 3rd place. Oddly, the harder race helped him since he has had trouble with positioning on the Poggio in the past. It is almost impossible to overstate how impressive this is.
  • It might seem insane that they called him up the day before, but Sanremo is the perfect race to return in. The simplicity of the course means a rider has a long time to get comfortable and ride into the effort, and the length of the race allows the event to act as a long race-paced training day where he could build valuable confidence.
  • Things might be different when we head back up North for the cobbled classics, but just using the eye test on Saturday, van der Poel appears fit and will be a major player for the rest of the spring.

6) Tadej Pogačar finally shows a weakness

  • While he lit up the race, Pogačar’s attacks on the Poggio were on some of the shallowest pitches and into a headwind.
  • In lieu of attacking on the lower slopes, he needed to wait until the very top of the Poggio, which is the steepest section and where every successful attack was gone. Without these early attacks, he could have countered Søren Kragh Andersen’s move and ridden away for the win. Instead, he ended up playing the patsy for Matej Mohorič.
  • He has stormed through the sport over the last 24 months, but this was his heat check moment and showed that one of his only weaknesses is that he tends to lean on his raw power instead of hatching an incredibly nuanced and well-thought-out tactical plan. Frankly, this is unlikely to ever affect his grand tour career but could stand in his way of matching Eddy Merckx’s one-day success record.

7) On top of this, his UAE team made the race too hard for him to get clear on the Poggio

  • Pogačar’s UAE team used the fastest ascent of the penultimate climb in 23 years (9’30) to blow up the race and create the most select group I’ve ever seen at this race from that far out.
  • While impressive, this effort made the race so selective that the pace up the final climb, the Poggio, was the slowest since 2018, which meant that the pace wasn’t high enough for Pogačar to land a knockout blow.
  • Also, their decision to ride between the Cipressa and Poggio is dubious in retrospect. Yes, they kept dropped sprinters and teammates of other favorites off the back, but wouldn’t Pogačar’s attacks on the Poggio have accomplished this aim anyway?
  • Ultimately, their ‘between climb’ effort gave Mohorič a free ride and kept him fresh enough to survive the Poggio.

8Wout van Aert & Jumbo-Visma mismanaged their efforts

  • Between MSR and Paris-Nice, Jumbo has been walking the line between dominating races and complete race mismanagement over the last two weeks.
  • On Saturday, their strategy should have been to go all-in on getting as many riders over the Poggio with van Aert as possible to nail back attackers and force a sprint, but instead, they burned their team setting a hard pace into the Cipressa and Poggio, and even had Roglič attacking on the Poggio when he should have been in the wheels.
  • These (in my mind unnecessary) efforts meant they had nobody left to close down Mohorič or launch their own moves with Roglič or Laporte which would have put the others in an impossible situation of letting them ride away for the win or setting pace to close them down and pulling van Aert to the finish line.

9) Should we worry about Primož Roglič?

  • There was a lot of chatter between Roglič’s near-collapse at Paris-Nice and his inability to stay with the leaders on the Poggio that he simply can’t compete with Pogačar at this year’s Tour de France.
  • However, I would caution against reading too much into races occurring four months before the Tour, and while Roglič didn’t look great on Saturday, it is important to point out that he raced 200km over cobblestones in bad weather two days before Milano-Sanremo.

10) Saturday proved that we are living through a golden era of cycling

  • At the ‘easiest’ Monuments of the season, we were treated to the sight of the sport’s best grand tour GC riders duking it out against the sport’s best one-day riders.
  • This sight would have been impossible to conjure during the height of the mid-2010s Sky era when there was almost an impenetrable firewall between the sport’s different disciplines.
  • Also, at Italy’s biggest one-day race, their top-placed rider was relatively unknown Vincenzo Albanese in 11th. While a great result for his Eolo team and himself, this should strike panic amongst Italian cycling fans who are watching their best racers age out of contention.
  • Meanwhile, Slovenia, which is proving to be cycling’s new heartland, got three riders inside the top ten.