There may be little doubt that Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) are the favourites for this year's Milan-San Remo, with their performances so far this year indicating there is every chance it could be a battle for the win between the regular rivals, perhaps with world champion Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) getting a look in.
However, there’s never a sure thing in bike racing and particularly not at Milan-San Remo, where the race is finely balanced between the sprinters and the attackers, and quick thinking can trump strength.
Read on for our ten riders to watch at the 299 kilometre 112th edition of La Classicissima.
Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma)
- Age: 26
- Race record: 6th in 2019, 1st in 2020
Van Aert was on blistering form last August, winning Strade Bianche and then going on to take Milan-San Remo, beating Julian Alaphilippe up the Via Roma in a two-up sprint. The Belgian has shown he has the same level of form this year by winning two stages at Tirreno-Adriatico and finishing second overall and so rightly heads our list of ten riders to watch.
Van Aert has everything needed to win Milan-San Remo: the endurance to survive the 300km race distance, the power to go with the late attacks on the Cipressa and/or Poggio and then the speed to win the sprint in the Via Roma.
This year’s race is expected to be an epic showdown with his eternal rival Mathieu van der Poel and Julian Alaphilippe. The likely script should include them going away together on the Poggio and then fighting it out in the sprint.
Other riders could get involved and change the outcome and the pure sprinters could rush back into contention if the big three look at each other in the final kilometres. However Van Aert will surely secure a place on the final podium, it is just impossible to predict which step.
Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix)
- Age: 26
- Race record: 13th in 2020
Mathieu van der Poel has matched and sometimes bettered Van Aert’s success over the years, and especially in recent weeks, with three 2021 wins to his name, including Strade Bianche. That should mean Milan-San Remo will be their biggest race-off, with the sport’s Monuments offering the most important arena for their battles.
Van der Poel won last year’s Tour of Flanders in a two-up sprint, while Van Aert had dominated last summer’s Strade Bianche and Milan-San Remo. This year Van der Poel seems to have a light edge but Van Aert is about to reach his peak form just in time for the spring Classics. Both have the power to go on the attack on the Poggio and the speed to win the sprint in the Via Roma. So what could make the difference?
Van der Poel’s biggest weaknesses could be his tactics and Alpecin-Fenix team. The Dutchman could be tempted to throw caution to the wind and attack on the Cipressa, his lack of experience in La Classicissima fooling him into thinking early aggression is the best way to success.
An attack could of course work and lead to a legendary victory 60 years after his late grandfather Raymond Poulidor won the race. However the speed of modern-day Milan-San Remo makes the success of a Cipressa attack mathematically improbable and destroys the hopes of success on the Poggio or in a sprint finish.
Alpecin-Fenix have improved in 2021 but Van der Poel is almost certain to be alone when the big attacks are likely. That could expose him to Deceuninck-QuickStep team tactics and a sense of isolation.
This year's Milan-San Remo is a chance for van der Poel to prove he is as tactically brilliant as he is physically strong.
Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep)
- Age: 28
- Race record: 3rd in 2017, 35th in 2018, 1st in 2019, 2nd in 2020
The world champion is wearing his rainbow jersey with pride this year and would love to win in the Via Roma just like some of the greats of the sport have done.
A few weeks ago Alaphilippe seemed behind in form and struggling to be competitive. However he has dug deep, suffered and gradually built his fitness. He showed it at Strade Bianche and again at Tirreno-Adriatico when he beat Van der Poel and Van Aert to win in Chiusdino.
Alaphilippe perhaps knows he would be beaten by both of them in a Via Roma sprint and so will surely try something before then.
He has the genius to attack early on the Poggio to get a gap, on the twisting descent of the Poggio or even in the final corners in San Remo. That is why he can never be forgotten, even against Van der Poel and Van Aert.
Michael Matthews (Team BikeExchange)
- Age: 30
- Race record: 3rd in 2015, 7th in 2018, 12th in 2019, 3rd in 2020
When the attacks go on the final part of the Poggio, only a select few riders are likely to be able to go with Van Aert, Van der Poel and Alaphilippe.
Matthews is one of them and the Australian also has the ability to win the sprint on the Via Roma, clearly demonstrated by his third place at the head of the bunch bearing down on Van Aert and Alaphilippe last year. He really could trash the pre-race predictions and again confirm his class.
Matthews made his season debut at Paris-Nice, taking an alternative route to Milan-San Remo. However, he finished third in a sprint stage and again on an uphill finish, indicating he is on form and competitive.
Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-QuickStep)
- Age: 30
- Race record: 28th in 2019
If Alaphilippe is unable to go with the late attacks on the Poggio or is having a bad day, then Deceuninck-QuickStep will switch to Plan B in the hope that Sam Bennett can win a classic high-speed bunch sprint up the Via Roma.
The Belgian team also has Davide Ballerini as a second sprint alternative but Bennett has earned the title of protected sprinter, even if the Italian has impressed mightily this spring.
Bennett has ridden Milan-San Remo five times, often struggling on the Cipressa or Poggio but is a different and far better rider after his first season at Deceuninck-QuickStep and his Tour de France success.
He often struggles to believe in his own talents but must surely know he has a chance if this year’s Milan-San Remo is decided in a sprint.
Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansghrohe)
- Age: 31
- Race record: 4th in 2012, 2nd in 2013, 4th in 2015, 2nd in 2017, 6th in 2018, 4th in 2019, 4th in 2020
Peter Sagan has never managed to win Milan-San Remo despite a decade of placings. His worst result was 17th on his debut in 2011 and he has come second twice with defeat to Gerald Ciolek in the snow in 2013, and then in 2017 to Michał Kwiatkowski in that famous three-rider, shoulder-to-shoulder sprint with Alaphilippe.
Sagan is far from his best this year after two weeks off the bike in February due to COVID-19 and so he may even struggle to go with the big attacks on the Poggio.
However his ability to create magic and have the last laugh can never be ruled out.
Philippe Gilbert (Lotto Soudal)
- Age: 38
- Race record: 14th in 2004, 6th in 2005, 32nd in 2006, 21st in 2007, 3rd in 2008, 23rd in 2009, 9th in 2010, 3rd in 2011, 87th in 2012, 32nd in 2013, 13th in 2014, 55th in 2015, 29th in 2017, 75th in 2018, 68th in 2019, 9th in 2020
This year’s race will be Gilbert’s 16th Milan-San Remo and with a win recorded at four other Monuments victory at Milan-San Remo would allow him to become only the fourth rider to win all five.
The Belgian has made no secret of how much he’d like to scoop up that final Monument but he has had his work cut out to return to top form in time this year, after a knee injury sustained at last year’s Tour de France limited his winter training volume and intensity.
However, after Paris-Nice Gilbert said he’s coming back to his best level, and will surely be a contender in the spring Classics even if he doesn’t make it back to 100 per cent.
Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo)
- Age: 36
- Race record: 69th in 2006, 49th in 2009, 28th in 2010, 8th in 2011, 3rd in 2012, DNF in 2013, 44th in 2014, 45th in 2015, 33rd in 2016, 1st in 2018, 8th in 2019, 23rd in 2020
Nibali will be out flying the flag for Italy a Milan-San Remo yet again this year, the home nation hoping he can pull off a surprise victory as he did in 2018 with his solo attack.
Lo Squalo hasn’t delivered any spectacular results so far this season but a couple of top 10 results in March demonstrate that the Trek-Segafredo rider has recently shifted up a gear, particularly with the ninth overall at such a fiercely contested Tirreno-Adriatico. It’s also a better result than the he delivered at the race in 2018 and that's the year he then went on to win Milan-San Remo.
Whether he’s at the front at the end or not, Nibali is a rider that’s likely to animate the race, attacking and trying to find an inventive way to beat the fast finishers and power of Van Aert and Van der Poel.
Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ)
- Age: 29
- Race Record: 129th in 2013, 34th in 2014, 127th in 2015, 1st in 2016, 6th in 2017, 3rd in 2018, 32nd in 2019, 24th in 2020
The French champion is another former winner of the race that provides a reminder that anything can happen in the Via Roma after a hectic race.
Demare won in 2016 when Fernando Gaviria’s crash ruined Peter Sagan’s challenge with 200 metres to go and a slipped chain ended Nacer Bouhanni’s just as he looked poised for victory. Démare was caught behind a crash on the Cipressa but miraculously returned to the front and then won the sprint. Interestingly, he is the last sprinter to do so.
After an impressive run of victories in 2020, the 29-year-old rider has yet to take his first win of 2021, but has come close with a second in the first stage of both the Paris-Nice and Tour de la Provence. He won't be under any illusions that he can stick with the climbers on the Poggio but has the Groupama-FDJ team at his service. That makes him a rider to watch if the peloton can reel in the attackers and pull it back together for a bunch sprint.
Michał Kwiatkowski (Ineos Grenadiers)
- Age: 30
- Race Record: 40th in 2016, 1st in 2017, 11th in 2018, 3rd in 2019, 15th in 2020
The Ineos Grenadiers rider has the ability to grab hold of an opportunity at Milan-San Remo, with his tactical nous helping deliver that win in 2017, when he out sprinted Peter Sagan.
30-year-old Kwiatkowski has never been too far from the front since then, netting another trip to the podium in 2019, beaten by Alaphilippe and Oliver Naesen in a sprint to the line from an elite group which formed on the Poggio.
This year Kwiatkowski fronts up to the race having started the season strongly at the Étoile de Bessèges with second overall. However things didn’t go quite to plan in the next race with a crash that left him with some nasty-looking road rash.
The wounds were still healing as he delivered a DNF at Strade Bianche and raced Tirreno-Adriatico as he recovered. Having got through that tough week and had a little more time to heal, perhaps as the squad's protected rider he can now continue on from that strong beginning at Étoile de Bessèges.
Ineos have Tom Pidcock as an interesting alternative as the British rider makes his Milan-San Remo debut.
The best of the rest
The beauty of Milan-San Remo is that dozens of riders roll out of the Lombardy capital knowing they have a real chance of victory seven hours later on the Italian Riviera.
In recent years the attacks on the Poggio have stolen the glory from the pure sprinters. The presence of Van Aert, van der Poel and Alaphilippe make that likely once again. But if they hesitate for just a few seconds, if they miss a turn or look at each other, the sprinters could pounce and steal the glory. Last year Matthews won the sprint just two seconds behind Van Aert and Alaphilippe.
If Milan-San Remo comes down to a sprint, then we will have a whole new list of riders to watch and we can add Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Victorious), Elia Viviani (Cofidis), Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates), Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal), Giacomo Nizzolo (Qhubeka Assos), local resident Nicolo’ Bonifazio (Total Direct Energie) and Nacer Bouhanni (Arkea Samsic) to the list of potential winners.
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