Anything can happen on the Via Roma, and in 2016 almost everything did. Fernando Gaviria’s crash ruined Peter Sagan’s challenge with 200 metres to go. A slipped chain ended Nacer Bouhanni’s just as he looked poised for victory. Arnaud Démare, previously caught behind a crash on the Cipressa, emerged from the tumult to win Milan-San Remo, the last sprinter to do so.
In the four editions since, the fast men have been unable to last the pace on the Poggio, where the race has been rent asunder by the accelerations of men like Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma). Together with Strade Bianche winner Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), they form a troika of favourites who are expected to continue that trend on Saturday.
From a purely physical standpoint, Alaphilippe, Van Aert and Van der Poel can take the race to places nobody else can reach, but mercifully for everyone else, Milan-San Remo is rarely decided on strength alone. Speaking to reporters on Wednesday afternoon, Démare pointed out that the margins are usually tight at La Primavera, even in an era where attackers on the Poggio have had the upper hand.
“We’re all challengers behind these three favourites. That’s clear from looking at the past week,” Démare said. “But I won’t say it’s not possible [to win].
“I can say they’re very strong, physically they’re above everyone else, and obviously we’re waiting for their attacks. But if you think back to last year, they were very strong then too. Van Aert and Alaphilippe went away on the Poggio, but by the finish, we weren’t very far behind them at all. If there’s a hesitation, the peloton can come back.”
For the 20 editions from Erik Zabel’s first win in 1997 to Démare’s 2016 triumph, the Poggio provided plenty of frissons but only occasionally proved decisive. To break the apparent deadlock, RCS Sport even went as far as adding the climb of the Pompeiana to the route in 2014, only for it to be ruled out due to safety concerns. The accelerations of Alaphilippe, Van Aert, et al in recent seasons seem to have since rendered the Pompeiana debate moot.
“How do you explain it? You explain it with puncheurs who are strong and ‘punchier’ than before, so we haven’t been able to get back on from behind,” said Démare, who placed sixth in 2017 and third in 2018. “It’s not that the sprinters are less good than before, it’s more that now there are riders who are very strong when they attack.”
Démare’s ability to hang tough on short climbs has improved over the years, as evidenced by his performances at the Tour de Wallonie last year. He declared himself stronger now than in 2016.
“It was a surprise then, I didn’t expect to be at the level to win it,” he said, though he harbours few illusions about being able to track Van Aert, Van der Poel and Alaphilippe if and when they accelerate on the Cipressa or Poggio. Instead, he and his Groupama-FDJ teammates expect to be forming ad hoc alliances on the drop into San Remo with other sprinters.
“Van der Poel, Van Aert and Alaphilippe are dominant, but behind them it’s quite even and we have to count on that to try to get back on from behind,” said Démare. “This year, we’ve brought punchier riders like Rudy Molard and Kevin Geniets to help me on the Poggio. It’ll be up to us to adapt and play differently to get back on. The goal is to get back into the match.”
Not that there is any guarantee that a rider like Van der Poel, author of a remarkable solo victory at Castelfidardo on Tirreno-Adriatico, will wait until the Poggio to try to ignite the race. “These are riders who break the norms. When you see the Van der Poel’s attack on Sunday, you have to be ready for anything, even on the Cipressa.”
Démare enjoyed a sparkling 2020 campaign, notching up 14 wins, including four stages of the Giro d’Italia. The French champion has yet to get off the mark this season, missing out to Davide Ballerini on the opening stage of the Tour de la Provence and to Sam Bennett on the first stage of Paris-Nice.
In years past, Démare has quietly left Paris-Nice before the final weekend, satisfied that he had run through the scales sufficiently in the early part of the race. This time out, he opted to continue all the way to Nice, despite the lack of sprint opportunities late on.
“It wasn’t the hardest Paris-Nice because we didn’t have much wind in the early stages, so I kept going,” Démare said. “I could see all the sprinters working to hang at to the front on the later stages with an eye to San Remo. Nacer [Bouhanni] was often around me, pushing hard. We all had San Remo on our minds.”
Van der Poel and Van Aert, in particular, are the names on everybody’s lips, not least because they appear to have the ability to overpower the pure sprinters in the event of a mass finish on then Via Roma. En route to placing second overall at Tirreno-Adriatico, Van Aert laid out his sprint credentials by outpacing Caleb Ewan in Lido di Camaiore on the opening day.
“I’ve beaten him before, so I can say he’s beatable,” Démare said. “He had to be really strong to beat Caleb Ewan, but like all sprinters, he’s beatable. As a sprinter, you can never set out already beaten. Anything can happen.”
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