For observers, Milan-San Remo is as much a ritual as a bike race, with the passage over the Turchino doubling as a metaphor for the changing of the seasons. For participants, the reality of the long haul from the chill air of Lombardy to the warm embrace of the Riviera can be rather more prosaic.
“The first part is pretty boring,” Mathieu van der Poel confessed to reporters at Tirreno-Adriatico last weekend, adding that he had no particular method for relieving the tedium of the early hours of the longest day of the cycling calendar.
“Nothing special, I just try to get through those first hundreds of kilometres unscathed. But you don’t have to be focused during those first 200 kilometres. It’s mainly the last kilometres, actually as soon as you start riding on the coast, that the race really starts. That’s when the concentration has to be there.”
Just as the intensity suddenly increases once the peloton hits the coast at Voltri, Van der Poel will hope his road season can ignite as the race trips along the headlands towards San Remo. His first outing of the year at Strade Bianche two weeks ago was unexpectedly subdued, after all, his lone flash of inspiration at Tirreno-Adriatico came when he piloted Alpecin-Deceuninck teammate Jasper Philipsen to victory in Foligno.
“Not very good, but not dramatically bad either,” was Van der Poel’s own assessment of his feelings across the week at Tirreno-Adriatico. “Sometimes it was good, sometimes it was bad, but it certainly wasn’t as I expected. Still, I don’t worry that easily. I had only a short preparation before Tirreno, and I know that I needed a stage race like this to take another step forward.
“This was a week I needed. You can’t train like this at home. It was good to be at Tirreno and now with a few days’ rest, I assume I will be a lot better next weekend.”
Van der Poel doesn’t have to look back very far for an encouraging precedent. While his rival Wout van Aert was illuminating the cyclocross circuit over the Christmas period, the Dutchman complained of feeling limited by his long-standing back injury, but he would hit his stride at the tail end of the season on the back of a training camp on the road in Spain. After beating Van Aert to the World Cup in Benidorm, Van der Poel went on to land his fifth rainbow jersey by winning their head-to-head contest at the World Championships in Hoogerheide.
The relative travails of Van der Poel’s first road outings of 2023, meanwhile, pale in comparison with the difficulties he faced this time last year, when his back issue ended his cyclocross season prematurely and delayed his road debut until Milan-San Remo itself. An unexpected third place finish on the Via Roma in 2022, however, set Van der Poel on his way and within a fortnight, he would beat Tadej Pogačar to win both Dwars door Vlaanderen and the Tour of Flanders.
“In my first race last year, I came third, whereas in something like Strade Bianche, you could never do that. You can’t come third there if you’re not in top shape, whereas in Milan-San Remo you can, which says enough about that race,” said Van der Poel. “I do hope already to be close [to the win] in Sanremo. At Strade Bianche, I didn’t really expect to be in top shape, but I hope to be a lot better in San Remo.”
When Van der Poel emerged to claim that second Ronde last April, it appeared his back injury had been resolved, but he admitted this winter that he will likely be managing the issue for the remainder of his career. Although the injury appears to affect Van der Poel more obviously in his off-road endeavours, carving out time to carry out his strengthening exercises remains a priority throughout the year.
“It’s about 15 minutes or 20 minutes per day. Nothing special, just stabilisation exercises and stretching,” Van der Poel explained. “It’s impossible to do them during a stage race like Tirreno, but for the week before Milan-San Remo, we looked for a gym so we could do the strength training there.”
Van der Poel’s Alpecin-Deceuninck squad endured a long wait for the first win of their maiden season at WorldTour level, with Philipsen finally breaking the ice with his brace of stage victories at Tirreno-Adriatico. Prior to Van der Poel’s seasonal debut at Strade Bianche, manager Christoph Roodhooft told Het Laatste Nieuws that the team’s lowkey start had been in keeping with their strategy. “Our leaders have barely raced: a total of twelve of our riders trained at altitude. We did this in order to aim higher in the races that matter to us,” he said.
On Saturday, Van der Poel will line out as part of a nominal leadership triumvirate at Alpecin-Deceuninck, with Philipsen an option should a mass sprint materialise, while new arrival Søren Kragh Andersen impressed with his attack over the Poggio last year.
“If Jasper gets over the Poggio with us and he feels good, I think he has a better chance of winning a sprint than me. I get on well with Jasper, so I don’t think we need many words to understand each other,” Van der Poel said. “On paper, we have three options, but last year I think Jasper didn’t get over the Cipressa with the first group, so you never know until you get up there in the race.”
There are myriad possible scenarios, but raw strength alone rarely, if ever, decides the issue at Milan-San Remo, where the outcome is usually defined by a series of split-second decisions during the breathless final half hour over the Cipressa and Poggio. That reality serves as a warning to the on-form Pogačar, fresh from his exhibition at Paris-Nice, and as an inspiration for those still a few percentage points shy of their best. No other Monument has such a long list of potential winners.
“It would be preferable to be in top form, but you don’t have to be the best to win the race, that’s true,” Van der Poel said. “I think everyone can see how difficult it is to make a difference on the Poggio. To be able to do that, you really have to be above everyone, and even then, often a group comes back, and they end up sprinting for the win.”
It would be a surprise if Van der Poel wasn’t among them.