Is Milan San Remo Still the Sprinter’s Classic?

Milan San Remo has traditionally been known as the sprinter’s classic, due to its penchant for being the easiest classic to ride and consistently serving up fast-finishing winners. Despite being the longest race on the calendar at close to 300km, and featuring a mid-race mountain pass along with two climbs inside the final 20km, Milan San Remo has consistently been the lone chance for pure sprinters like Erik Zabel, Mark Cavendish, and Mario Cipollini to win a monument.

However, the last three years have seen a stark shift away from the pure sprinter demographic to more traditional allrounders and even GC contenders. Michał Kwiatkowski won from a breakaway group in 2017, Vincenzo Nibali took a spectacular solo victory in 2018, and Julian Alaphilippe won from a 12-person peloton in 2019. None of these winners would even remotely fit the role of a sprinter (Alaphilippe’s surprising bunch sprint victory at stage 6 of Tirreno-Adriatico aside).

With editions in the 2000s and 1990s dominated by true sprinters, we have to go all the way back to the late 1980s to find three consecutive victories for non-sprinters  (Laurent Fignon ’88-’89 and Gianni Bugno ’90).

Part of the reason for this evolution is the increased speed the winners have been riding up the final climb of the race, the Poggio, which tops out 6km from the finish line.

On Saturday, the lead group of Julian Alaphilippe, Michal Kwiatkowski, Oliver Naesen, Alejandre Valverde, Peter Sagan, Matteo Trentin, and Wout Van Aert set the fastest time ever up the Poggio with a time of 5:37 (this is according to La Gazzetta Dello Sport. For the record, Kwiatkowski’s Strava file has him clocked at 5:41 with an average speed of 38.3km/h). This is over 30-seconds quicker than 2016, the last time a sprinter (Arnaud Démare) won the race, and more than a minute faster than 2014 when John Degenkolb took the victory.

Below is a chart depicting the average speed for the fastest time up the Poggio from 1979-2019 courtesy of Mihai Cazacu at Climbing-Records.com (who recorded a slightly slower, but still second-best ever time of 5:50 and average speed of 38.06 km/h).

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The chart depicts a noticeable increase in speed with the introduction of EPO to the peloton in 1991, along with a noticeable decrease with the introduction of the bio passport in 2009. Twitter anti-doping crusader Ufe recently published an annotated version of the chart.

While there can be endless debate about what the faster climbing times mean (for what its worth, level-headed cycling statistician Cillian Kelly seemed to find the increased speeds concerning shortly after the race) the fact is that the Poggio is being climbed with a ferocity we haven’t seen in years. It is difficult to imagine any pure sprinter staying with the lead group over the Poggio on Sunday following Deceuninck – Quick Step’s train, Alberto Bettiol’s race-splitting attack and Alaphilippe’s counter that killed off any sprinter’s chances.

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The fact that Deceuninck – Quick Step possessed a huge pre-race sprint favorite in Elia Viviani and chose to completely spike that card by drilling it up the Poggio in an effort to flush out any sprinters and get Alaphilippe in a reduced group over the top shows the seismic shift the race has undergone in only three years. To see a team with likely the strongest sprinter specifically working to isolate an all-rounder in a group of normally faster finishers (Sagan, Trentin, Kwiatkowski, Matthews) was astonishing. The fact Alaphilippe won the race shows their supreme confidence was correct, but it was still bizarre to see a team purposely burn of their star sprinter in the “sprinter’s classic” (If I was Viviani, I would have been on the phone with my agent immediately following the race to see if any other teams need a sprinter).

There must be widespread headshaking amongst the biggest, faster riders in today’s peloton at the sight of their lone monument being overtaken by the allrounders and Grand Tour champions. But the lack of bunch finishes is likely welcomed by RCS.

The race organizer added the  Poggio in 1960 after 89 riders made it to the line together in the 1959 edition. The climbed helped the attackers and reduced the size of the finishing group for a few years, but soon the sprinters began to dominate again.

To curb this domination, RCS added the Cipressa in 1982, but the increased speed of racing gave the sprinters the upper hand once again. RCS Sport planned to add an extra climb to the finale in 2014 an effort to burn off the fastmen and reduce the chances for big, boring sprint finishes.

While the plan to add an extra climb was thwarted by a landslide that rendered it unrideable, it seems the request for more aggressive racing has been answered organically. Whether by utilization of doping practices or simply realizing that riding up a climb faster makes it more difficult for riders that can’t ride up climbs as fast as you, Milan San Remo has seen a rapid evolution in the nature and speed of the finale.

This is all part of a larger trend of seeing the new wave of fast-finishing all-rounders that can climb with the best winning on all but the flattest, fastest finishes (which are featuring less and less in Grand Tours). It is hard to argue with the increased excitement factor, but it will be interesting to see if this new trend sticks, or if we see a reemergence or mass sprints on Via Roma once again.

Tuesday Power Rankings: Milan-Sanremo, Spring Classics, Who’s Trending Up and Who’s on Blast

Milan-Sanremo is behind us as we head full-speed into the meat of the Spring Classics season. While Sanremo is traditionally a mere amuse bouche, this year’s version was an instant classic, and we still have E3 Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and the entire Ardennes triplet ahead of us. For single-day racing fans, the next few weeks are as good as it gets. Let’s run down who the winners and losers are coming out of this past week of racing.

Let’s take a look at three riders trending up coming off the first big block of serious racing.

Who’s Looking Good

Vincenzo Nibali
Bravissimo! Vincenzo Nibali, the shark of Messina, lived up to his nickname by displaying extremely aggressive racing to become the first Italian to the win Milan-Sanremo since Filippo “Pippo” Pozzato in 2006, and the first Grand Tour winner since Sean Kelly won in 1992. With this victory, the Italian goes a long ways towards cementing himself as the best all-around racer of his generation. This Milan Sanremo victory was his third Monument victory. This adds to an already impressive list of wins, which includes all three Grand Tours.

Milan Sanremo is normally billed as the “Sprinters Classic,” and is often won from a reduced bunch sprint. However, Nibali turned the race on its head by attacking the slopes of the final climb of the race, the Poggio, and beat the long odds by making the solo move stick to the line. Fabian Cancellara won La Classicissima solo in 2008, but the Swiss strongman snuck away on the final 2km run into the finish, not with a dramatic attack on the slopes of the Poggio. The attack and solo win harked back to cycling’s age of heroes, specifically Eddy Merckx’s solo win in 1971. Nibali ‘s attack with 7km to go in the race was perfectly timed, as he was able to play the remaining sprint rivals off each other, which meant any significant chase failed to materialize until it was far too late.

Nibali’s solo win in the sprinter’s classic adds much-needed excitement to the Italian Spring Classic and Italian racing in general. The finish line was awash with a palpable energy as victory-hungry Italian fans cheered as the chasing pack looked to swallow the lone Nibali. The image of the climbing specialist posting up for victory in front of the chasing groups of sprinters was powerful enough to land on the front page of La Gazzetta Dello Sport, real estate that is almost exclusively reserved for soccer news. Watching an attacking climber/non-sprinter foil the fast men will certainly inspire similar racers, and hopefully, mean more lively finales in the future.

As a bonus, the Italian wants to get a feel for the cobblestones ahead of the cobblestone-ridden Tour de France Stage 9 and is heading north for the Tour of Flanders in two weeks time. Cycling fans are in for a treat If the Italian can capture some of that magic at La Ronde.

Alejandro Valverde
If Nibali is the most versatile racer of his generation, he is merely following in the footsteps of Alejandro Valverde. The Spanish all-rounder has been around for ages, winning his first professional race all the way back in 2002. Valverde crashed out of the 2017 Tour de France with a severe kneecap fracture and many questioned if time had run out on his already long career. The answer came in his first major race of the 2018 season when he rode away from a full Team Sky train to victory on stage 2 of the Tour of Valencia. Just to make sure we knew this wasn’t a fluke, Valverde chased down Adam Yates two days later on Stage 4 to win on the brutally steep summit finish. Just to make sure we hadn’t missed the message, Valverde stormed away on the Queen stage of the Abu Dhabi Tour, winning the stage and taking the overall lead. After an impressive fourth place at the one-day Strade Bianche, he found his place in the winner’s circle once again by taking the sprint and putting himself in the driver’s seat for the overall at the Volta a Catalunya. This run of form is incredible, especially when we consider Valverde is 37 years old and coming off a potentially career-ending leg injury. One has to wonder how Nairo Quintana feels while he watches this run of victories. Movistar announced plans in December to send all three leaders, Quintana, Valverde, and Landa to the Tour de France. At the time, I assumed Valverde would be lucky to be at the start. Now I’m marking him as a favorite for every Ardenne Classic, as well as a major name to watch as he head into a Tour de France with minimal time trialing kilometers and an excess of technical challenges.

Caleb Ewan
The young Australian sprinter wasn’t mentioned among the favorites for Milan-Sanremo, but if not for the heroics of Nibali, Ewan would have walked away with the biggest victory of his career. Ewan’s burst of speed at the end of a hilly 300-kilometer race was highly impressive and showed that he a pure, flat-line sprint specialist. Ewan was on my “Trending Down” list in the January Power Rankings, but on Saturday he showed that he was added a previously unseen depth of fitness and climbing ability to his lethal sprint. Watch out for the young Australian to make some waves when he takes the start line at his first Tour de France start this July.

Now let’s take a moment who I have trending down after the first big monument of the season.

Who’s On Blast

Michal Kwiatkowski & Team Sky
Kwiatkowski was highly touted by some coming into Milan-Sanremo, and while his fitness seemed to be there, the tactics employed by the former World Champ and his team left a lot to be desired. After setting a quick tempo on the Cipressa, they moved to the back of the pack leading into the divisive climb, the Poggio, and were caught looking when Nibali made his move. What makes this an especially horrible tactic is that they lacked a sprinter that could have won from a big group at the finish. They seemed to be setting pace out of habit, and then sat on their hands when they needed to be the aggressor up the Poggio. If Kwiatkowski was going to the race, he needed to get clear with Nibali on the Poggio, not sitting back and waiting for others to pull the move back and rolling the dice in the sprint finish. The good news is that the Polish rider looks to be on good form physically and has a strong team heading into the Northern Classics.

 Greg Van Avermaet
Where is the Greg Van Avermaet we all fell in love with last spring? GVA has been MIA for the meat of the spring season outside a few impressive climbing days at Tirreno-Adriatico. There have been moments this spring where I’ve legitimately forgotten Van Avermaet exists. Becoming that anonymous that fast is an incredible feat after posting one of the most impressive run of Classics results ever in 2017. So far in 2018, he laid a goose egg at Strade Bianche and was a non-factor at Milan-Sanremo. Keep an eye on the dominant Belgian this weekend at E3 and Ghent-Wevelgem. If he is going to turn his season around, he’ll need to back some noise before we get to the big-show of Flanders and Roubaix.

Matteo Trentin
The Italian dazzled at the end of the 2017 season and was a high-profile signing by the Mitchelton-Scott team heading into 2018, but his solo flyer with 4 kilometers remaining might have cost his teammate Caleb Ewan the win. If he had displayed patience and used his energy to pull Nibali back for his fast-finishing teammate, it certainly would have given the chasing back the firepower it needed. One has to imagine choice words were exchanged between Ewan and his new teammate back in the privacy of the team bus.