When Alexander Kristoff won Milan-San Remo in 2014, it was a cold, rainy day, organisers had scrapped plans to add the Pompeiana between the famed ascents of the Cipressa and Poggio, and the race finished on the Lungomare Italo Calvino, giving the sprinters an extra kilometre to regroup after the final climb. Now eight years older and in the final years of his career with Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux, the Norwegian admits La Classicissima di Primavera will be harder for him to win.
It isn't just the alterations to the course that have complicated Milan-San Remo for the sprinters, the new generation of cycling's stars seem to be able to do everything. This especially applies to Kristoff's former teammate Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), who has been tipped as one of the main favourites. The Norwegian was not so sure of the Tour de France champion's chances when asked during a virtual press conference on Thursday.
"He's in the best shape of his life he just win Tirreno, he looks stronger than ever but I think it's gonna be difficult for him to win San Remo," Kristoff said to Cyclingnews. "It's not an easy race and I think he will struggle to drop everybody in the climbs - but if there's one guy that can do it, it's him."
Pogačar won all three races he started this year - the UAE Tour, Strade Bianche and Tirreno-Adriatico - but as strong as the Slovenian's form is right now, Kristoff is tipping Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) to win.
"The way Van Aert and Jumbo have been riding, they may look like the bigger favourite because if it comes to a sprint I will say Van Aert is the bigger favourite. Pogačar can also finish quite fast so you never know."
Kristoff's victory in Milan-San Remo was the last time the race finished on the Lungomare. It was moved away from the Via Roma in 2008 due to road works, and it stayed there because shopkeepers on the Via Roma complained the road closure hurt their business. Since 2015, the race returned to the storied tarmac graced by the tyres of champions like Eddy Merckx - who still holds the record with most Milan-San Remo wins at seven.
Since it moved back to the Via Roma, Kristoff said, it has gotten harder for sprinters to win.
"I feel maybe the last years it's been very hard on the Poggio. Some years, some groups managed to hold off all the way to the final. Last year it was a late attack by [Jasper] Stuyven.
"When I won, it was almost one kilometre longer after the downhill from Poggio. Maybe this one k was a little bit more in the favour of a bunch sprint. Now it's one k shorter so it's a little bit bigger chance to hold off [the chase] with a late attack. It's still a very open race and almost any type of rider can win it. You can win from an attack or from a sprint or attack maybe little bit earlier. I think it's a very exciting race when it's so open and so many guys have the chance to win."
Kristoff's record in Milan-San Remo is remarkable: he's been on the podium twice, just off the podium in fourth two more times, and in the top 10 six years in a row. Every season except for the pandemic-reshuffled 2020 calendar, he's used Paris-Nice as a tune-up for the race. This year, however, he switched for Tirreno-Adriatico. It was a fortuitous choice since dozens of riders fell ill during the French race.
"Last year I got really sick after Paris-Nice so this year I stayed healthy so I'm positive so far," Kristoff said. He was able to use the Italian races to become better acquainted with his teammate and fellow sprinter Biniam Girmay, who was his last lead-out man at Milano-Torino on Wednesday where Kristoff took a confidence-building third place.
"I didn't win a lot [this year] but I won one race [Clasica de Almeria] and I had a few podiums. Also yesterday I showed I have quite good speed in the legs. I know if it comes down to a sprint I can do a good result - it gives confidence I can trust my sprint, but that's not the main issue in the Classics. You need to be there for the sprint. I feel the shape is quite OK. I feel like Tirreno was good for me, I felt quite good yesterday, so I hope to have the same feeling on Saturday and also going into the classics in Belgium."
Plans with Girmay
With Girmay, Intermarché have a solid plan. The Eritrean won the Trofeo Alcúdia in Mallorca in January and the silver medal in last year's World Championships under-23 race in Flanders. A punchy climber with a wicked sprint, Girmay is the back-up for the final in Milan-San Remo where Pogačar and Van Aert's teammate Primož Roglič are expected to attack hard on the climbs.
"It's gonna be very difficult to follow these guys of course, especially on the Poggio but also maybe the Cipressa so we need good legs," Kristoff said. "Biniam usually climbs a bit better than me so we will probably give him a free role to survive the climbs in case I miss it. Because Biniam also has a really fast finish, and if we manage to get him over to climbs we also have a good chance for a good result.
"We must just hope we are strong enough to manage to hold on in the group, or at least a group that maybe can come back after the Poggio. [Any] attack before the Poggio I think is quite pointless - it's so fast you just waste energy and waste your chances, so I think we must just focus on trying to enter the Poggio in a good position and do it as fast as possible."
For his part, Girmay insists he is only going into Milan-San Remo to learn from his more experienced teammate, but he's already shown himself to be quite formidable in a small bunch sprint. The lead-out in Milano-Torino, he said, was too crowded for him and riddled with roundabouts and turns and Kristoff and he lost each other. Saturday will be different.
"I think it should be a bit easier also after the Poggio to find each other because usually, the pack is not very big, so it's a very different race than Milano-Torino," Girmay said.
"Every race or every year we progress every step - but for Milan-San Remo of course it's my first Monument. I'm just going for the experience. I'm just still learning.
"To participate in Milan San Remo with Alex as a teammate it's really amazing for me. He won already in 2014, he's also been many times top 10. So it means so much experience for me, not only in Milan-San Remo, we did Milano-Torino, also. I have a lot of experience with him so it's really good for me."
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Laura Weislo has been with Cyclingnews since 2006 after making a switch from a career in science. As Deputy Editor, she coordinates coverage for North American events and global news. A former elite-level road racer who dabbled in cyclo-cross and track, Laura has a passion for all three disciplines. When not working she likes to go camping and explore lesser traveled roads, paths and gravel tracks.