Monaco’s proximity to San Remo meant that Sam Bennett didn’t have to stray too far this week to gauge the prevailing conditions on the Cipressa and Poggio. The forecast was disheartening: a tailwind in the finale of Milan-San Remo suits attackers rather than sprinters.
“I was just driving that direction today and it looked like a tailwind,” Bennett told reporters on Thursday. “It doesn’t really look that great for myself, but all I can do is hope for a bit of headwind and try to hang on.”
Bennett didn’t even need to leave the comfort of his home, of course, to understand the prevailing trend at Milan-San Remo. From Erik Zabel’s first victory in 1997 to Arnaud Démare’s 2016 triumph, the sprinters’ grip on La Classicissima was only occasionally loosened, but for the past four editions, the decisive move has forged clear over the Poggio.
In the build-up this year’s race, Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) and Bennett’s Deceuninck-QuickStep teammate Julian Alaphilippe have marked themselves out as the outstanding favourites. Amid rising speeds on the Poggio, Milan-San Remo increasingly gives the impression that it is no longer a race for fast men.
“Yeah, I think they still consider it to be the sprinters’ Monument, but I can’t see it,” Bennett said. “Each time I do it, the group is gone up the road. Every year, the standard is getting so high, and guys are going up the Poggio so quick. We’re going up the Poggio at the same speed as on the flat.”
Bennett lines out for his sixth Milan-San Remo appearance this year, but in that time, he has never yet remained in contention over the Poggio. Last August, he arrived at the rescheduled race buoyed by a fine stage win at the Vuelta a Burgos and nurturing the form that would later carry him to the green jersey at the Tour de France. The numbers suggested he might contend for the win, but the speed on the Cipressa and Poggio imposed its own brutal logic.
This time out, Bennett travels to Italy off the back of two stage victories at both the UAE Tour and Paris-Nice. The Irishman also looked to be climbing well in the final days of the Race to the Sun, but he knows that offers no guarantee for the Cipressa and Poggio.
“Just judging off myself and the numbers, I think I’m in a good place, but it’s just about having the legs on the day as well,” Bennett said. “I just hope that I got this week right, because it’s important to fuel up and recover well from Paris-Nice, to respect the hard efforts you make there. From my experience, everything is on the right track, but you really don’t know until you go to race on Saturday and you’re in the moment.”
Bennett’s chances could ultimately be dashed by his own teammate Alaphilippe, who is among the men most likely to accelerate on the Poggio, but therein lies the beauty of Milan-San Remo’s many moving parts. If Bennett survives in the peloton behind, he can serve as a foil for Alaphilippe. If the attackers are brought back, Alaphilippe can do the same for Bennett. Deceuninck-QuickStep have a second sprint option, too, in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad winner Davide Ballerini.
“We have many cards to play here with Julian, myself and Ballerini. I think we have to use those cards to our advantage,” Bennett said. “Julian’s going to be extremely strong in the final, especially on the Poggio. But he can always say to the guys that he has Sam Bennett behind, so he can always play that card. It’s just going to work to our advantage to have a strong team.”
And, despite the recent success of attackers on the Poggio, the outlook is not entirely bleak for the sprinters. The peloton has never been too far behind. Last year, Alaphilippe and Van Aert had just two seconds on the chasing group. In 2018, Bennett’s friend and fellow sprinter Caleb Ewan was even closer to the line attacker Vincenzo Nibali when he won the sprint for second. A race of 300 kilometres can still come down to fine margins.
“Something that’s missing for me is to win a Classic or at least a one-day WorldTour race,” Bennett said. “It’s something I really want, something I’m fighting for but so is everyone else. I just have to keep fighting for it and hope that one day it will happen. All I can do is enjoy the race and see what happens.”
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