Tadej Pogačar will be Wout van Aert's most redoubtable rival at Milan-San Remo on Saturday but the Slovenian might also prove to be a useful ally of circumstance. Such are the intricacies of cycling's longest day.
Van Aert won this race two years ago by matching Julian Alaphilippe's rasping acceleration on the Poggio and then outsprinting the Frenchman on the Via Roma after they had rid themselves of the pure sprinters.
Pogačar lines up at this edition of Milan-San Remo with considerable ambition after a remarkable sequence of early-season success but his presence could yet help Van Aert shape the race to his liking.
"He is a stage race rider and he wants a tough race. There will perhaps be more interest than usual in imposing a high tempo or attacking early. With his condition, he can certainly determine the course of the race," Van Aert told Sporza on Friday.
"In a way, we are also allies. I would also benefit from a hard race. So we don't have to adjust much, but he is another type of rider you have to keep an eye on. From a pure sprinter, you don't expect an attack on the Poggio: from him you do."
In a press conference on Friday afternoon, Pogačar seemed rather open to the idea of launching an offensive from as far out as the Cipressa. "If you're good, you can go clear. In the last couple of years, it was mission impossible, but you never know," the UAE Team Emirates rider said.
Van Aert, for his part, reckoned that a higher intensity on the Cipressa might not take a toll until the following kick up the Poggio.
"It could be possible, but it is difficult to force something there," Van Aert said of a putative Pogačar onslaught on the Cipressa. "Often not much seems to happen on the Cipressa, but that climb sometimes puts the race in a decisive shape. And without the Cipressa, the Poggio would not be decisive at all."
Van Aert has spent the week since Paris-Nice training on the Côte d'Azur. The Jumbo-Visma rider won the Montlučon time trial and steadied the waters for Primož Roglič on a turbulent final stage, but he was, by his own admission, short some of his habitual sharpness in the sprint. "I took it easy this week, which is good for my explosiveness. I couldn't really do more in five days," said Van Aert, who placed third a year ago and sixth on his debut in 2019.
An outbreak of cold and flu in the peloton has seen a number of contenders withdraw from Milan-San Remo, with Alaphilippe, 2021 winner Jasper Stuyven and Caleb Ewan among the most notable absentees. Van Aert's Jumbo-Visma squad is at full strength, however, with Primož Roglič and Christophe Laporte both on hand, while there have also been some late additions to his list of possible rivals.
Mads Pedersen, who beat Van Aert with a powerful sprint in Dun-le-Palestel on stage 3 of Paris-Nice, has been drafted into the Trek-Segafredo squad to replace Stuyven, while Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) lines out in his first race since a nagging back injury saw him cut his cyclo-cross campaign short in December.
Van der Poel hasn't raced on the road since he placed third at Paris-Roubaix last October, and although he has been training in Spain in recent weeks, he had not been expected to return to competition this weekend. Van Aert, who has been racing against Van der Poel on all terrains since they were teenagers, was not surprised to see the Dutchman opt to compete at Milan-San Remo.
"Of course, he will only start if he feels he is ready. But if there's one Monument where you can go for the win without any race kilometres in your legs, it's San Remo," said Van Aert. "That's why it was a surprise to me that he wouldn't start at first, but apparently they've changed their minds at Alpecin-Fenix."
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Barry Ryan is European Editor at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.
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