Mathieu van der Poel will line up for his second participation in Milan-San Remo on Saturday among the top favourites for victory as he once again faces off against Jumbo-Visma's Wout van Aert and world champion Julian Alaphilippe of Deceuninck-QuickStep.
The Alpecin-Fenix leader is the only one of the three prohibitive favourites without the race on his palmarès, having finished 13th on his debut there at last year's COVID-delayed race. However, he said on Thursday afternoon that the fact that he's 'chasing' his main rivals doesn't pile on any extra pressure ahead of the race.
Speaking in a virtual press conference on Thursday afternoon, the Dutchman called Milan-San Remo an "honest" race in that the strongest man – Alaphilippe in 2019 and Van Aert last year – usually wins.
"No, not really," he said when asked about the added pressure. "I think it would be really cool to win San Remo one day. Wout has an advantage in that he's won the race once, so I think for him it's a bit easier. But, yeah, for sure it will be a new race and normally San Remo is quite an honest race as well, so the strongest normally wins there."
Van der Poel said that the race is hard, not just because of the 299-kilometre distance, but also because of the few chances to attack for the win. In recent years, the winner has come from a small group or solo attack over the final climb, the Poggio, while Arnaud Démare was the last to take victory from a bunch sprint finish in 2016.
You have to look back to the 1990s for more audacious winning efforts, with Gewiss-Ballan's unheralded Gabriele Colombo the last man to win after attacking from the Cipressa in 1996, while in 1991 Carrera rider Claudio Chiappucci attacked on the Turchino, some 140 kilometres from the line, before sweeping up the breakaway and winning by 45 seconds in San Remo.
After Van der Poel's 52-kilometre solo win at Castelfidardo at Tirreno-Adriatico, an attempt from the Cipressa – 22 kilometres from the line – was not laughed off as the impossibility it usually is. Instead, Van der Poel simply doubted that enough riders would take the chance with him.
"For sure, it's one of the most difficult to win because there are not a lot of places where you can really force the race," Van der Poel said. "Most of the time you have to wait until the Poggio because the Cipressa is too far, and the race goes too fast between Cipressa and Poggio.
"So, I think it's indeed a difficult one to win, especially because the Poggio is not that steep. It's a hard one but it's difficult to really make a gap, and we've seen often that a slightly bigger group can go to the finish line as well. But then in the end I think that in a sprint after 300 kilometres, it's the strongest one who wins, rather than the fastest.
"It would be extremely nice to get over Cipressa with a small group and go to the Poggio for sure. But I don't know if you attack there, you'll get many guys with you, and the part between them is fast so you're at a disadvantage against a bunch."
Van der Poel was asked about that 52-kilometre effort, which saw him drag himself across the line 10 seconds ahead of a charging Tadej Pogačar after having led by two minutes just 10 kilometres before. He dismissed the idea that the ride would have any negative effect on his race, adding – to the contrary – that it might even help.
"I don't think it will have an impact on San Remo, or maybe even a positive impact," he said. "I noticed in previous years when I dug deep that I got better from it. I just need to have a time to recover from it, and I think I did. The day after the effort was quite OK, and the time trial was quite decent. We had some easy days to recover, so it should be more than enough."
A bigger problem, it seems, would be staying interested during the early stages of the race, a 150-kilometre-long ride to the Colle de Giovo, which replaces the landslide-affected Turchino on this year's route.
"The first 150 to 200 kilometres are just riding in a bunch and trying not to fall asleep, so it's not really my favourite kind of racing," he said.
Van der Poel added that, away from the other members of the 'big three', BikeExchange leader Michael Matthews will be another rider to keep an eye on. The Australian, twice a podium finisher at the race, finished third last year despite suffering a nasty hand injury on a wall atop the Poggio.
"As a big opponent, I think Michael Matthews was really good last year there and he has a top sprint. He did well in Paris-Nice as well, so I think he will be a guy to watch.
"For me, I've already been in this situation [as favourite] a couple of times in my career, so I don't really lie awake because of it. I just try to win the race and if I don't then I have a few chances left. For sure, I'm also realistic enough to know that I will never win some races in my career. The chance of losing is always bigger than the chance of winning, and that's the way I see it."
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