The world's best sprinters often appear in the finishing shot of Milan-San Remo, the photographers capturing the moment they lunge for the line, shoulder to shoulder across the Via Roma finish.
Yet the sprinters are often just a bit-part in one of the sport's most iconic photographs. They always sprint to the line but are frequently the bridesmaids, left fighting for the placings behind a lone attacker or small group who jumped away to steal their thunder.
Last year, Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) was the man to raise his arms to celebrate victory while behind him all the sprinters lowered their heads in defeat. It has been a similar story for the last five years, the attackers snatching victory from the sprinters time and time again.
The presence of Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), and his hunger to continue his incredible run of 2022 success, is expected to tip the Milan-San Remo balance even further away from the sprinters. Indeed, as the fast men prepared to line-up for Wednesday's Milano-Torino, a final hit out before the seven hours in the saddle on Saturday, there was widespread despondency and even an air of defeat.
Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal) and Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix) are on form while Alexander Kristoff (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux), Giacomo Nizzolo (Israel-Premier Tech), Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe), Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ), Nacer Bouhanni (Team Arkéa-Samsic) and Fabio Jakobsen (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl) are also riding, but the sense is that Pogačar, Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers) and their three strong teams will wreck their hopes of a sprint victory in the Via Roma and any place in the Milan-San Remo finishing shot.
"I'm from Milan and I'm a sprinter, so Milan-San Remo is the race of the year for me. It's traditionally the Classic for the fast guys, but now the climbers like it too and they'll turn up wanting to win," Nizzolo said despondently.
"As we've seen in recent years it's getting harder and harder for Milan-San Remo to end in a sprint finish. The big-name guys can make a difference on the Poggio. The sprinters can only hope that they look each other in the eye, ease up and so we can get back on and beat them. That's my hope anyway."
QuickStep-AlphaVinyl named their final Milan-San Remo line-up on Wednesday, revealing that Julian Alaphilippe was unable to race due to bronchitis, opening the door to a late call-up for sprinter Fabio Jakobsen.
The Belgian team is well aware that Pogačar, van Aert and their strong teams could blow the race apart on the Cipressa but without Alaphilippe they have opted to give Jakobsen his Milan-San Remo debut in the hope of learning for future editions of the race.
QuickStep-AlphaVinyl selected Andrea Bagioli, Davide Ballerini, Mattia Cattaneo, Mikkel Honoré, Fabio Jakobsen, Florian Sénéchal and Zdenek Stybar. Ballerini will now become their protected rider in the absence of Alaphilippe, with Jakobsen perhaps a card to play if the attacks cancel each other out and give the sprinters a chance.
"We have a young team at the start, featuring also Fabio, who has had a great season so far and will make his first appearance here. Despite not being among the favourites, we are still motivated to do a good race," said directeur sportif Davide Bramati.
Lotto Soudal hope Ewan can survive attacks
Lotto Soudal are aware of the expected scenario for Milan-San Remo but are still going all-in with Caleb Ewan in the hope that he somehow survives the attacks and wins a sprint of some kind in the Via Roma. They don't really have any other strategy.
The Australian finished second in 2018, just metres behind solo winner Vincenzo Nibali, and was second again in 2021, beating Wout van Aert, Peter Sagan and Mathieu van der Poel but unable to catch Stuyven before the line.
Ewan is perhaps the best climber of this year's Milan-San Remo sprinters due to his higher strength to weight ratio. If Pogačar and the rest hesitate at any moment, it immediately increases his chances of success.
He won stage 3 of Tirreno-Adriatico in Terni in convincing fashion after also impressing at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne where he was second to Fabio Jakobsen, but handled the climbs and aggressive racing just weeks after recovering from COVID-19.
Ewan, who this year has also won stages at the Saudi Tour and Tour du Var, quit Tirreno-Adriatico on stage 4 to give him time to rest up and do some final training for Milan-San Remo.
"I feel like I'm climbing quite well and I'm happy that my sprint is also good. I am happy with where I am at," Ewan said recently.
"It's important not to go too deep at Tirreno because if you do, you might not recover in time for Milan-San Remo."
Attacks on the Cipressa: A sprinter's nightmare scenario
Ewan knows he needs to be fresh for the expected attacks on the Poggio and perhaps even earlier if UAE Team Emirates force a selection on the Cipressa with the aim to leave the sprinters behind.
Pogačar would then attack again on the Poggio in the hope he can distance or hurt van Aert and anyone else who could beat him in a sprint in the Via Roma. The Slovenian hinted that Cipressa could be the decisive point in this year's Milan-San Remo after he won Tirreno-Adriatico.
"A long range attack in Milan-San Remo, would be something special but I don't think it's likely," he said when asked if a repeat of his 50-kilometre solo attack to win Strade Bianche was possible.
"But maybe on the Cipressa you can do it…" he added with a glint of enthusiasm in his eye. That prospect was something that his compatriot Primož Roglič also joked about after his win at Paris-Nice.
Nizzolo and other sprinter's teams fear such a nightmare scenario.
"I think the Cipressa will be crucial this year. In recent years it has been fast but not terrible for the sprinters. That could change this year," he warned.
Plenty of sprinters will line-up at the new Milan-San Remo start in the shadows of the Vigorelli velodrome, many with strong teams around them. However the balance of power in the peloton is definitely in favour of Pogačar, van Aert, likely Poggio-surger Ganna and other puncheurs and barodeurs.
If UAE Team Emirates split the peloton over the Cipressa, there are probably not enough teams able and willing to lead the chase on the Aurelia coast road and onto the Poggio.
"I'm assuming that Pogačar will attack," QuickStep-AlphaVinyl directeur sportif Davide Bramati told Het Nieuwsblad, condemning the sprinters' hopes.
"UAE Team Emirates will go 'a bloc' up the Capi and then attack on the Cipressa. I think that some riders will be able to follow him but this year's Milan-San Remo is not a race for the sprinters."
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Stephen is the most experienced member of the Cyclingnews team, having reported on professional cycling since 1994. He has held the position of European editor since 2012 and previously worked for Reuters, Shift Active Media, and Cycling Weekly, among other publications.
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