Seven conclusions from Milan-San Remo
How Stuyven dared to lose, questions about Ineos' tactics, close again for Caleb Ewan and why spring has sprung
Stuyven and Trek-Segafredo find their best form for the Classics
After Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Trek-Segafredo looked off the pace and devoid of ideas. By their admission they were awful in the first race of Opening Weekend but their response since then has been nothing short of emphatic.
Mads Pedersen provided a tactical masterclass to win Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, and just a few weeks later his friend and teammate, Jasper Stuyven, went one better with a perfectly executed performance to win Milan-San Remo, his maiden Monument.
Stuyven has been earmarked as one-day Classics king for some time, having originally served notice with a win in Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne in 2016, before adding an Omloop victory four years later.
There were lean spells in between those to victories as both Stuyven and Trek struggled with consistency as they emerged from Fabian Cancellara’s intimidating shadow. However, there were enough glimpses of the team’s potential, and as Pedersen told Cyclingnews last month, Luca Guercilena deserves credit for his patience when it came to developing Classics talent rather than annually recruiting it.
Now the team look every bit as competitive as their rivals but their primary strengths are their collectiveness and their ability to read a race and choose the right moment. Pedersen didn’t hit the front in either of his Gent-Wevelgem (2020) or Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne wins until the finale, and Stuyven’s Milan-San Remo triumph came as a consequence of individual brilliance.
The Belgian was in tenth place, just trailing Caleb Ewan when Julian Alaphilippe launched his stinging attack on the Poggio, and then used his rivals, including Michael Matthews, to remain in contention when Wout Van Aert tried to break free just before the crest of the climb. On the descent Stuyven used his momentum and a slight hesitancy from Alaphilippe to surge away. When Pidcock lacked the horsepower and desire to respond, the initial gap was created.
Stuyven still had a huge amount of work to do but the first port of call was to keep going – a task easier said than done given the natural reaction would have been to look back and survey the scene. There was no such hesitancy.
He eventually, and wisely, turned his head on a corner, just when Andersen was on his wheel – a move that afford him the chance to scope out his rivals without losing speed, and when the Team DSM rider took to the front it gave Stuyen the possibility to recover for a moment and then time his sprint for the line.
With less than 150 metres to go Stuyven waited for Andersen to tighten up and then unleashed a winning Milan-San Remo sprint that even Cancellara would have been jealous of. Stuyven deserved to win Milan-San Remo because he dared to lose it.
Trek-Segafredo’s race started with Conci in the break ended with Stuyven raising his arms on the Via Roma to cement his place alongside some of the greatest names in the sport. Both the Belgian and Trek-Segafredo are amid their best Classics form in years. (DB)
The three tenors lose an edge and their supremacy
Milan-San Remo was the first one-day Classic where Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) had raced together, but where one of them had failed to win. That highlighted the quality of Jasper Stuyven’s attack and the dimension of the so-called three tenors’ defeat.
They had been hyped up as the only real contenders for victory at Milan-San Remo after their battles of the past, their recent successes and their incredible multiple talents.
Yet beyond the Via Roma finish, as Stuyven collapsed on the floor in sheer joy and celebrated with Trek-Segafredo doctor Gaetano Daniele, the big three could only try to find their best excuses and explanations for defeat. All three had failed to move on the Cipressa to make an early selection and distance the sprinters, the attacks on the Poggio came too late and were too timid, meaning 17 riders would finish in the front group. All three then opted not to chase Stuyven for fear of helping another, so they all lost out.
Van Aert accepted he had hesitated because Ewan was there, Van der Poel was often out of position and without a teammate to help him, while Alaphilippe is clearly not yet near his form of 2019 or even of the summer of 2020.
Perhaps worst of all, Stuyven and Trek-Segafredo proved that the big three can be defeated by playing off their rivalry. Mads Pedersen took advantage in last year’s Gent-Wevelgem, now Stuyven has done it again with a perfectly-timed late attack.
Pro racing is so complex and so variable that being the strongest rider in the race is not always enough to secure victory. That’s just one reason why we love it. (SF)
Close again for Caleb Ewan
One of the criticisms leveled at Ineos over the weekend was that their tempo on the Poggio only played into the hands of Caleb Ewan and limited their chances of the attacks on the Poggio.
To be honest, the Australian looked so good he probably could have handled anything his rivals could have thrown at him over the final climb. The biggest impact of British team’s high pace was to dislodge Tim Wellens - Ewan’s last bastion of help, who simply peeled off and sat up due to the pace set by Ganna.
If Wellens had survived then Ewan would have had the teammate he so desperately needed to keep the race together, like Luca Paolini did for Alexander Kristoff just a few years ago.
Ewan was fastest in the sprint but was forced to settle for second place. He will undoubtedly be disappointed with the result and he may never get a better chance to win Milan-San Remo but his performance still demands respect.
He pulled out of Tirreno-Adriatico with illness yet arrived at Milan-San Remo as the only pure sprinter able to match the Poggio accelerations. If anyone from the lead group had latched onto Stuyven’s wheel the moment the Belgian attacked and he had sat up, then it could have been Ewan celebrating on the Via Roma.
Two second places at Milan-San Remo demonstrate Ewan’s class and durability, but he will always suffer from the fact that La Classicissima becomes a complete lottery in the final stages and that no one wants to take him to the line.
Perhaps if Sam Bennett had made it over the top, then Alaphilippe would have patrolled the front, but perhaps John Degenkolb and Philippe Gilbert could have gone the distance too and been there for Ewan. There's always next year. (DB)
Deceuninck-QuickStep underperform and are under pressure
Deceuninck-QuickStep still lead the table of most successful teams of 2021 having won 10 races. However, Julian Alaphilippe’s 16th place at Milan-San Remo confirmed that they underperformed significantly in a race they have often won.
Sam Bennett was affected by an unfortunate puncture before the Cipressa and Davide Ballerini had a bad day, meaning Alaphilippe had to shoulder full team leadership without anyone with him over the Poggio.
Deceuninck-QuickStep are traditionally the super team of the Classics but their rivals have been edging past them in recent years and seem ready to steal the crown.
Team manager Patrick Lefevere has admitted he has given his sponsor until March 31 to confirm their next round of sponsorship and all his riders are at the end of their contracts. That can only create pressure to perform and tension in the team about leadership and opportunities, with rival teams ready to pounce and sign the best riders.
The next five weeks will be vital for Deceuninck-QuickStep and perhaps even decide their destiny. (SF)
Questions about Ineos’ tactics
After all of Dave Brailsford’s rhetoric around aggressive racing and changing up Ineos’ tactics it was interesting to see the British squad revert to type and set a fast tempo leading towards the Poggio, followed by a brisker, but still even pace on the slopes of the final climb.
In the Opening Weekend they raced with verve and vigour, and while their tactics weren’t without fault in Belgium, they at least made the race exciting. Brailsford’s words looked hollow on Saturday when their time trial world champion Filippo Ganna nullified the race on the lower slopes of the Poggio, only for Michal Kwiatkowski to fail to make an attack and then fade. Debutant Tom Pidcock surprised many by being in the front group but admitted that he didn’t know the descent and so rode a cautious race.
In their defense, Milan-San Remo is a very difficult to Classic strategise, and very different to a Belgian one-day race. The windows of opportunity here are short, with the Cipressa, Poggio and the run-in to the finish the only chances over the 300km to try to spring a winning move.
There’s nowhere to surprise your opponents, and that means that all the favourites know when they need to pay attention. That means contenders either need to be extremely strong or time their move perfectly to gain an advantage.
In the Belgian Classics there are far more sections or road, or cobbles, where you can put the opposition under pressure or sneak away, but if everyone is roughly on the same level, like they were on Saturday, then the race turns into much more of a lottery and the differentials are much harder to find. Just ask Alaphilippe, Van Aert and Van der Poel. Because of the weather, and the course, none of them could make the difference.
There was a raft of criticism, especially in Italy, directed towards Ineos' use of Ganna on the Poggio, with a sense that if he’d raced his own race he could have attacked a la Stuyven.
That’s a big if. Firstly it assumes that Ganna, who was recovering from illness, could have followed a more attack-laden approach to the Poggio, and that he would have been given the same level of freedom enjoyed by Stuyven, who arguably – and this isn’t intended as a slight - was one of the least marked riders to have crested the Poggio in the lead group.
Ineos’s tactics were sensible up to a point, it’s just that Kwiatkowski didn’t have the legs and Pidcock is a Milan-San Remo novice. Putting their faith in a rider whose best result in a Monument before Sunday was 74th, and who was coming back from flu would have been a far riskier strategy. (DB)
A tailwind creates a super fast race
This year’s Milan-San Remo was the third fastest in the 112-year history of the race, the strong eastern tailwind blowing the race along and playing a significant factor in the outcome.
Stuyven covered the 299km race distance in six hours, 36 minutes and six seconds, for an average speed of 45.064 kph. Only Gianni Bugno in 1990 (45.806 kph) and Filippo Pozzato in 2006 (45.268 kph) went faster.
The average speed highlighted the intensity of the race and the impact of the wind. The eight-rider break formed early and the peloton, wary of the tailwind, chased at speed across the Lombardy plain to keep them within reach.
The 30 kph easterly tailwind along the Mediterranean helped many in the peloton stay fresh and strong for longer into the race. It meant the three early capi had little effect and the wind then blew the peloton up the Cipressa, with the high speed making it difficult for attacks to get away.
Filippo Ganna’s long turn on the front into the headwind on the lower slopes of the Poggio also stunted any early attacks, with the tailwind helping riders stay in contact or stay very close over the exposed summit.
Stuyven clearly felt the benefits and dived away to victory in the final kilometres, knowing nothing but his own pain would blunt his speed before the finish line. (SF)
Spring has sprung just in time for the northern Classics
Milan-San Remo traditionally signals the start of spring, falling on or near the spring equinox, with the warm weather of the Italian Riviera symbolically signaling the escape from the winter weather that still enshrouds Milan and the north of Europe.
La Classicissima also marks the start of the Monuments, the biggest Classics of the calendar. where the very best in the peloton come together from Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico.
Like an aperitivo, Strade Bianche offers an even earlier taste of what awaits and the two Italian races, like daffodils pushing up ready to flower, suggest that we are set for a superb spring of Classics racing.
Mathieu van der Poel’s performance at Strade Bianche was stratospheric, while Van Aert and Alaphilippe responded blow for blow at Tirreno-Adriatico. Tom Pidcock’s ability to be a protagonist in the finale at just 21, and in his first season at WorldTour level, indicates he is a special talent and a rival for the big three.
Now Stuyven has added his name to the list, teammate Mads Pedersen also seems ready for a successful spring and Peter Sagan’s (Bora-Hansgrohe) fourth place
less than 50 days after recovering from COVID-19 indicates he is not done yet.
Then the rivalry between Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) and Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) is set to return at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, while Marc Hirschi finally makes his debut with UAE Team Emirates.
The next five weeks and the next five weekends until Liège-Bastogne-Liège bring down the curtain on the cobbles on April 25 should be something to savour, one race after another as the season blooms into flower. (SF)
Thank you for reading 5 articles in the past 30 days*
Join now for unlimited access
Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
*Read any 5 articles for free in each 30-day period, this automatically resets
After your trial you will be billed £4.99 $7.99 €5.99 per month, cancel anytime. Or sign up for one year for just £49 $79 €59
Join now for unlimited access
Try your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
Get The Leadout Newsletter
The latest race content, interviews, features, reviews and expert buying guides, direct to your inbox!
Stephen is the most experienced member of the Cyclingnews team, having reported on professional cycling since 1994. He has been Head of News at Cyclingnews since 2022, before which he held the position of European editor since 2012 and previously worked for Reuters, Shift Active Media, and CyclingWeekly, among other publications.