Caleb Ewan and Philippe Gilbert have been preparing for Milan-San Remo this week but like everyone in the cycling world, they were shocked to see the crash at the Tour de Pologne that saw Fabio Jakobsen hit the barrier at high speed and suffer serious injury.
As a world-class sprinter and experienced classics rider who often speaks out for the safety in the peloton, they were both shocked by how the crash happened but both doubted what, if anything, can be done to make sprinting safer in the future.
"Sprinters need to have respect for each other because we're all trying to win. In a way, we're all in it together and we don't want to harm each other," Ewan told media, including Cyclingnews, on the eve of Milan-San Remo in the Lotto Soudal hotel west of Milan.
"Moving lines is something we've all done but we also know there's a limit, and you know that if you keep going, the rider is going to end up in a barrier. You can't just keep pushing a rider into a barrier."
Gilbert revealed that he has contested the downhill finish in the Tour de Pologne twice. He knows riders sprint in a massive gear of 56x11, touching 80kph and that this amplifies every tiny error and extra movement.
"When you take risks at that speed, you know it will end up bad for any of the people who are involved in a crash. Even at 60kph it's really dangerous to do a move like this," Gilbert said.
"It wasn't smart to do it and we should also ask if it was smart to hold the sprint where they did. It's like holding the Tour de France sprint on the Champs-Élysées on the descent side; there'd be crashes there, too. But they do the finish in a smarter way, so it has to be asked why they did it downhill in Poland?"
Gilbert's long career has taught him there is less and less respect in the peloton, especially between the sprinters.
"I've seen a lot of sprints over the years but I've never seen a lot of respect, probably not once," he said.
"There are now so many sprinters pushing the same watts, with the sprints decided by one or two centimetres, even at the Tour de France. Sprints are becoming more and more about who risks the most. I don't honestly think there's a solution. It's up to the sprinters, only they have the key to make them safer."
Ewan was not optimistic that the sprinters can come together and create some common rules of respect and safety.
"One of my good friends is Sam Bennett and we speak a lot but I can't say I'm good friends with the other sprinters and don't speak too much, there's also often a language barrier. I don't know if we'll get together to try to change something but I doubt it," he said.
"I only hope all the sprinters took something from what happened there and that it reinforces that we need to respect each other. It's super dangerous what we do and we don't need to make it any more dangerous."
Joint leadership for Milan-San Remo
Ewan and Gilbert were both highly sought, especially by the Belgian media, before Milan-San Remo. Gilbert is chasing victory on the Via Roma to complete his set of cycling Monuments, while Ewan is confident he can survive on the late climbs and win any eventual bunch sprint finish. They did their interviews apart for language and practical reasons, with no sign of rivalry within the Lotto Soudal team. They travelled to Milan together this week, studying the new Milan-San Remo route along the way.
"I think we have a perfect mix going into Milan-San Remo," Ewan suggested.
"The race usually goes two ways: a sprint of 40 or 50 guys, where I can be good, or a small group of say ten guys like last year and that's Philippe's speciality. He's a real puncheur. It's good to have those two options." Ewan admitted that Gilbert will have the freedom to join attacks on the Poggio but then called on him to help him if there's a sprint finish. Ewan is expecting a harder race on the new, inland route, with six-rider teams and 30°C summer temperatures adding further difficulties
"I think it's going to be a harder race. I think the weather will be a real test and affect the race even more than the route. The Turchino is 150km from the finish but the new climb is at about 70km to go, so they could be tempted to attack. The team sizes could hold them back - at least that's what I'm hoping."
Ewan can visualise a perfect sprint in the Via Roma. "Like any sprint, you have to get the timing just right," he explained. "But I think the Via Roma suits me because there's fatigue in your legs, it's slightly uphill. It's more about instinct. You feel what is going on around you and you can see who his still good and who not."
Gilbert could make cycling history if he wins Milan-San Remo and completes his set of cycling's one-day Monuments. Yet it does not weigh on his shoulders.
"I know that if I win Milan-San Remo I know my whole career will have an extra dimension that hasn't been seen for a very long time. Even other riders ask me if I'm going to make history," he revealed.
"But it's not extra pressure. I want to win, my ambitions are clear and I'll try to win. But if I don't happen, it doesn't happen. Win or lose I'll reset and go on, as I've always done."
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