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Milan-San Remo: 5 favourites, 5 outsiders

Milano Sanremo 2021 - 112th Edition - Milano - Sanremo 299 km - 20/03/2021 - Filippo Ganna (ITA - Ineos Grenadiers) - photo Luca Bettini/BettiniPhoto©2021
Van Aert, Girmay, Pogacar among the Milan-San Remo contenders (Image credit: Getty Images)

Milan-San Remo is a deceptively complicated race, and its range of intricacies and possibilities opens the door to a wide range of contenders. 

Puncheurs can try their luck on the Poggio, sprinters can hope things come back together on the Via Roma, and rouleurs can chance their luck in between.

This year, we may just have a climber and all-rounder good enough to do what no one has done since 1996 - launch their winning move on the Cipressa. 

As ever, Cyclingnews continues its build-up to the biggest races with a run-down of riders to watch, but this time we're doing things a little differently, analysing the top tier of bookmakers' favourites before picking out a few potential surprise packages. 

Favourites

Tadej Pogačar

  • Age: 23 
  • Team: UAE Team Emirates 
  • MSR experience: 1 appearance - 12th in 2020

SANREMO ITALY AUGUST 08 Giulio Ciccone of Italy and Team Trek Segafredo Tadej Pogacar of Slovenia and UAE Team Emirates Cipressa 239m during the 111st Milano Sanremo 2020 a 305km race from Milano to Sanremo MilanoSanremo MilanoSanremo on August 08 2020 in Sanremo Italy Photo by Nico Vereecken PoolGetty Images

This is Pogacar on his last and only Milan-San Remo appearance (Image credit: Getty Images)

The Tour de France champion is utterly dominating the pre-race narrative head of this edition of Milan-San Remo. As well as picking up his second yellow jersey last year, he also won Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Il Lombardia, confirming his credentials as a Monument man as well as a Grand Tour man. And, after storming into the season with seven wins to his name already - including a 50km solo exhibition at Strade Bianche - he heads to Milan in flying and fearsome form.

San Remo is the Monument that perhaps suits Pogačar the least, the one that comes down to the finer nuances and is the least rewarding of sheer physical superiority. And yet, Pogačar has reached such a level of superiority over his fellow professionals that it feels like he could just ride away on the Poggio or Cipressa, or wherever takes his fancy.

Although Pogačar could rip the race apart on the Poggio and has a zippy enough sprint to win from a small group, the consensus is that he’ll look to launch his offensive from long range - as he did at Strade Bianche. The UAE team selection - with no Gaviria, Trentin, or Ackermann - only adds weight to that theory. The winning move hasn’t gone on the Cipressa since 1996 but Pogačar has already done away with enough theory and logic in his short time as a professional. He has already become such an era-defining cyclist that he seems single-handedly capable of reshaping one of the oldest Classics.

He has nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Wout van Aert

  • Age: 27
  • Team: Jumbo-Visma
  • MSR experience: 3 appearances - 1st in 2020

wout van aert milan san remo

Wout van Aert won Milan-San Remo in 2020 (Image credit: Getty Images)

For all the talk of Pogačar, Wout van Aert perhaps remains the out-and-out pre-race favourite. The bookmakers certainly still have the Belgian champion as the biggest banker. Van Aert can punch his way up the Poggio, slip off and solo home afterwards, or sprint from any sized group on the Via Roma. He has all the ingredients and, similarly to Pogačar, he’s currently operating on a different level to most of his competitors.

Van Aert’s pre-race form at Paris-Nice was remarkable, and yet it did raise one sliver of doubt. He went clear in a Jumbo-Visma 1-2-3 on the opening day before winning the stage 4 time trial and pretty much saving the overall title for Primoz Roglic on the final day with a breathtaking climbing performance over the Col d’Eze where he was at times dropping his own leader. After winning Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, he’s clearly his the season with raw strength and endurance - not to mention climbing ability - in abundance. However, the question is whether it has blunted his finishing speed. At Paris-Nice he claimed three further podiums in sprints - two of which he’d have expected to win. On both occasions, he was roundly beaten by Mads Pedersen.

Van Aert has suggested this was a product of his short-term preparations and it’s not a new direction in his rider profile, nor a streamliner that can’t be turned around quickly. This Saturday should at least prove or disprove that ahead of the cobbled Classics.

In any case, even with a couple of percentage points knocked off his top-end kick, Van Aert remains a bona fide favourite. A sprint at the end of a 300km Monument isn’t the same as a 190km Paris-Nice stage, and strength will balance the books to some extent against pure speed. Van Aert won Milan-San Remo in 2020 and he’s the big favourite to add to a collection that could grow to the scale of De Vlaeminck or even Merckx.

Mads Pedersen

  • Age: 26
  • Team: Trek-Segafredo
  • Milan-San Remo experience: Debut

DUNLEPALESTEL FRANCE MARCH 08 Mads Pedersen of Denmark and Team Trek Segafredo celebrates at finish line as stage winner ahead of Wout Van Aert of Belgium and Team Jumbo Visma L and Bryan Coquard of France and Team Cofidis R during the 80th Paris Nice 2022 Stage 3 a 191km stage from Vierzon to DunlePalestel ParisNice WorldTour on March 08 2022 in DunlePalestel France Photo by Bas CzerwinskiGetty Images

Mads Pedersen is in flying form (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Mads Pedersen wasn't on our original list when we carved out our first draft of this piece. That's because he wasn't on the start list. Trek-Segafredo preferred to back defending champion Jasper Stuyven, and Pedersen preferred to focus squarely on the cobbled Classics. 

All that has been flipped on its head now. Stuyven has come down with illness, and so Pedersen has been called up to lead the line. This isn't just a case of roster-filling, however; Pedersen - a debutant - goes straight into the top tier of favourites. 

That's not just because of his compatibility with the Milan-San Remo parcours but chiefly his recent run of form. In fact, he's going so well it was baffling that he had no intention of lining up for one of the biggest races of the spring. 

Pedersen kicked off his season with second at GP Marseillaise, then won a stage apiece at Etoile de Bessèges and Paris-Nice. The latter was the big statement. His stage win came on an uphill drag, where he hit out early but kept pounding the pedals all the way to the line. The rider in his wheel was licking his lips, convinced he was being given an armchair ride, but he only ended up slipping further away. That rider was Wout van Aert. A few days later, Pedersen outsprinted the Belgian champion once again, although this time it wasn't for the stage win as late attacker Mathieu Burgaudeau stayed away. 

Still, the message was clear: Pedersen was faster than Van Aert. Plus, he's storming up small hills like they're not there, and that points to one thing: form. The former world champion wasn't going to bother with Milan-San Remo but it would have been a crying shame to waste this opportunity.

Filippo Ganna

  • Age: 25
  • Team: Ineos Grenadiers
  • MSR experience: 4 appearances - 64th in 2021

Milano Sanremo 2021 112th Edition Milano Sanremo 299 km 20032021 Filippo Ganna ITA Ineos Grenadiers photo Luca BettiniBettiniPhoto2021

Filippo Ganna leading the way on the Poggio in 2021 (Image credit: Sprint Cycling Agency)

If Pogačar needs to go from range, Van Aert can do what he wants, and Ewan favours a group sprint, then Ganna is in the even more niche category of needing to slip away after the Poggio and ahead of the Via Roma. His chances are dictated by circumstances more than any of the other favourites, but he remains a leading contender.

Ganna caught the eye at last year’s Milan-San Remo as he took command on the Poggio for Ineos. He looked so good there that the Italian press went into overdrive about him being capable of winning but sacrificing his chances for, as they saw it, no good reason. Ganna gracefully pointed out that he had been ill in the build-up and that he was carrying out a game plan for the team’s leaders, Tom Pidcock and Michal Kwiatkowski.

However, this year, things are different. Ganna has made no secret of his desire to broaden his horizons beyond time trialling and target the biggest road races, starting with San Remo. This time he has accepted the hope and expectation from the home fans, even welcoming it onto what he jokingly described as his “pretty large” shoulders.

Ganna is still known as a time triallist, with three wins against the clock to his name this year, but he’s becoming an all-rounder. There were hints of it at the 2020 Giro d’Italia, but this season his climbing has been striking for one of his size. He wouldn’t have finished top 12 overall at the Tour de la Provence - which had a big summit finish - had he not been disqualified for an illegal bike change. At the same race, he finished third in an uphill sprint, behind sprinter Bryan Coquard and world champion Julian Alaphilippe, and ahead of climber Nairo Quintana. He’s an all-rounder who hasn’t yet found his limits.

Ganna needs the tactical stars to align for him. He himself talked of his chances of slipping away late on as a ‘movie script’, but it’s one that has played out twice in the past four years.

Fabio Jakobsen

  • Age: 25
  • Team: QuickStep-AlphaVinyl
  • MSR experience: Debut

ORLEANS FRANCE MARCH 07 Fabio Jakobsen of Netherlands and Team QuickStep Alpha Vinyl celebrates winning ahead of Wout Van Aert of Belgium and Team Jumbo Visma and Christophe Laporte of France and Team Jumbo Visma yellow leader jersey during the 80th Paris Nice 2022 Stage 2 a 1592km stage from Auffargis to Orlans ParisNice on March 07 2022 in Orleans France Photo by Bas CzerwinskiGetty Images

Jakobsen has been the top sprinter this year (Image credit: Getty Images)

QuickStep-AlphaVinyl usually bring some sort of sprinter to Milan-San Remo but they don’t usually back them. In recent years, Julian Alaphilippe has been given free rein to light things up on the Poggio and the nominated fast man has been left to cling on for dear life. The Belgian team, however, are having to change their approach this year, with Alaphilippe absent through bronchitis.

They weren’t even going to select Jakobsen, but now he’s been called up and is arguably their best chance of a result. All the talk from the QuickStep camp has been about aggressive racing and long-range attacks, and that’ll be their excuse for taking a rare day off from controlling the race. For all intents and purposes, they won’t be overtly backing Jakobsen, and riders like Zdenek Stybar will have licence to follow the moves if they do go, but they’ll be secretly hoping Jakobsen can ride a quiet race and things might come back together.

The Dutchman is an underdog in the sense that he has never done San Remo before and wouldn’t be someone you’d expect to get over the Poggio in the lead group, especially nowadays. However, he’s the top sprinter in the world so far this season with six wins, and his form was underlined by his Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne victory, where he looked impressive on the cobbled climbs. Bunch sprints have become a rarity at San Remo in recent years, and few are predicting one for Saturday, but if a big group comes together on the Via Roma, Jakobsen is suddenly the favourite.

Outsiders

Mathieu van der Poel

  • Age: 27
  • Team: Alpecin-Fenix
  • MSR experience: 2 appearances, 5th in 2021

Dutch Mathieu van der Poel of AlpecinFenix celebrates as he crosses the finish line to win the Antwerp Port Epic cycling race 183km in and around Antwerp Sunday 12 September 2021 BELGA PHOTO DAVID STOCKMAN Photo by DAVID STOCKMANBELGA MAGAFP via Getty Images

Mathieu van der Poel will be a star attraction (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

While everyone else is falling sick and dropping out, Mathieu van der Poel parachutes in from nowhere. Would you expect any other sort of entrance from the Dutch star?

We haven’t seen him all season, and we assumed Milan-San Remo would come too soon in his long recovery from a long-running back injury. There were even major doubts about his Spring Classics campaign as a whole. And yet here he is. 

Friday’s update from Alpecin-Fenix confirmed some recent whispers - that Van der Poel has been ramping up his training and has had no issues with the back, so he’ll return at the Coppi e Bartali race next week and then head to the cobbles. What no one saw coming was him lining up in Milan on Saturday, but the rate of illness in the team and the peloton as a whole left empty spot, and when you’ve got a Mathieu van der Poel, how could you leave it vacant?

The team have played down expectations, and effectively indicated that this is a substitute for a planned training ride. Using a 300km Monument as a training exercise - again, quite the flex. But Alpecin-Fenix’s announcement won’t completely squash the excitement. Van der Poel remains a box office rider capable of other-worldly things. Would it really surprise you if he raised his arms on the Via Roma?

Ethan Hayter

  • Age: 23
  • Team: Ineos Grenadiers
  • MSR experience: Debut

When it comes to Ineos Grenadiers and Milan-San Remo, most of the pre-race talk is about Ganna and his potential breakthrough as a Classics rider. If not, then it’s about Tom Pidcock, the young talent who’s one of the few capable of operating on that rarified level of Van Aert and Pogacar. If not about those two, it’s about Elia Viviani, and whether the Italian can provide a back-up sprint plan if recovered sufficiently from illness.

No one’s talking about Ethan Hayter, who’d seem to possess the raw ingredients needed to win Milan-San Remo - a strong sustained uphill kick and a powerful sprint. He won eight times last year and kicked off this season with fourth overall among elite company at the Volta ao Algarve. There are, however, major question marks over his form. He had a much more subdued week at Paris-Nice. He was regularly off the back and out of position on stages that ought to have suited him. Illness was a reasonable conclusion to draw but he showed that he is essentially fighting fit with a storming stage 4 time trial - beaten only by Van Aert, Roglic, Dennis, Kung, and Simon Yates.

That in itself raises its own questions over positioning and decision-making in a race that amplifies both things to critical levels. It may be that debutant Hayter needs experience before he becomes a San Remo contender, but you never know.

Biniam Girmay

  • Age: 21
  • Team: Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert
  • MSR experience: Debut

Biniam Girmay (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert) won the Trofeo Port d’Alcúdia

Girmay can sprint and climb - the ideal mix for Milan-San Remo (Image credit: Getty Images)

As a sprinter who can climb, Biniam Girmay fits the Milan-San Remo mould, or at least the closest you can come to one in a race that has so many intricacies. The 21-year-old Eritrean is still learning and developing, and that has seen his talent burst through in glimpses, with big things expected once he finds consistency and truly finds his feet at the top level.

Girmay moved to the WorldTour last summer in a mid-season transfer and embarked on a striking run of results that saw him win the GP Doubs and take silver at the U23 Worlds road race. This year, he quickly got the win tally rolling with victory at the Trofeo Alcudia at Challenge Mallorca and comes into Milan-San Remo having scored three top-10s at Paris-Nice. On stage 6 there, he was third in the reduced bunch sprint behind the solo winner, and that came at the end of a tough 213km stage. For someone so young, who has never raced San Remo, the distance is the first big hurdle, but that display would indicate that Girmay has it in his locker.

Girmay will line up alongside former winner Alexander Kristoff, and it’ll be interesting to see how Intermarché’s fortunes play out after they both seemed to sprint independently at the mid-week Milano-Torino - Kristoff placing second and Girmay 10th.

In reality, this is a race that Girmay, who lives in Italy, will want to target in the future, but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that he could spring a surprise and bag a decent result in the here and now.

Søren Kragh Andersen

  • Age: 27
  • Team: Team DSM
  • MSR experience: 4 appearances, 9th in 2022

Paris Nice 2022 - 80th Edition - 3rd stage Vierzon - Dun le Palestel 190,8 km - 08/03/2022 - Soren Kragh Andersen (DEN - Team DSM) - photo Luis Angel Gomez/SprintCyclingAgency©2022

Soren Kragh Andersen loves a risky attack (Image credit: SprintCyclingAgency)

The Dane was in the selection over the Poggio last year and finished 9th. Essentially, Jasper Stuyven made the move he should have made. We saw Kragh Andersen do it a couple of times at the Tour de France, slipping clear to victory late on, although that was aided by tactics and team numbers. This year he’ll line up alongside John Degenkolb, but the German has showed little of the form that saw him win Milan-San Remo in 2015.

Kragh Andersen, on the other hand, was flying at Paris-Nice, where he placed 17th overall. He was 16th in the stage 4 time trial but the most eye-catch result was fifth place on the hard final stage over the Col d’Eze, where he came home in a group made up largely of GC names. He has the class to be right in the mix on Saturday.

Primož Roglič

  • Age: 32
  • Team: Jumbo-Visma
  • MSR experience: 1 appearance, 67th in 2017

Paris Nice 2022 - 80th Edition - 8th stage Nice - Nice 115,6 km - 13/03/2022 - Primoz Roglic (SLO - Team Jumbo - Visma) - photo Luis Angel Gomez/SprintCyclingAgency©2022

Roglic has just won Paris-Nice (Image credit: Luis Angel Gomez/SprintCyclingAgency©2022)

Finally, he’s obviously not your rank outsider who on one’s ever heard of, but Roglič is flying under the radar a little given Van Aert’s presence. After having Paris-Nice saved for him on the final day, the Slovenian has a debt to pay and has already insisted he’s going to San Remo to work for Van Aert - who has also sacrificed himself at the Tour de France for the past couple of years. And yet, if everyone’s talking about Pogačar, the Cipressa, and an aggressive race, Roglič could find himself playing a slightly different role.

Milan-San Remo is not the sort of race open to a wild variety of team tactics but an open, tailwind finale could see Roglič deployed in a more tactical capacity, and that itself could open an opportunity or two.

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Deputy Editor - Europe. Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist who has seven years’ experience covering professional cycling. He has a modern languages degree from Durham University and has been able to put it to some use in what is a multi-lingual sport, with a particular focus on French and Spanish-speaking riders. After joining Cyclingnews as a staff writer on the back of work experience, Patrick became Features Editor in 2018 and oversaw significant growth in the site’s long-form and in-depth output. Since 2021 he has been Deputy Editor - Europe, taking more responsibility for the site’s content as a whole, while still writing and - despite a pandemic-induced hiatus - travelling to races around the world. Away from cycling, Patrick spends most of his time playing or watching other forms of sport - football, tennis, trail running, darts, to name a few, but he draws the line at rugby.