What is Pogačar planning? Three ways the Slovenian rider could win Milan-Sanremo

All eyes will be on the UAE Team Emirates rider on Saturday, but can he pull off another Monument win?

One hundred and seventy-five riders will stand on the start line of Milan-Sanremo in the Italian town of Pavia on Saturday morning. The sun should be shining down on the usual bustling scene that makes up the beginning of a bike race, and 228 kilometres of riding towards the glittering Mediterranean coast will await the peloton. Many of those competing will imagine that they know what to expect from the race – Milan-Sanremo usually follows a sort of script. 

It will begin with a short fight for a breakaway to establish itself – which will usually end up being a few riders from smaller teams who are looking to get their sponsors some prime television time. The peloton will meander along a few minutes behind the break, but as the kilometres tick down, the pace of the bunch will go up. It will go like this until the catch is eventually, almost inevitably, made. For a long time, things will be relaxed, easy, stress-free.

When the race’s penultimate climb, the Cipressa, begins to loom in the distance, the tension will rise as teams jostle for position on the winding Italian lanes. Once they hit the base of that ascent with just 20 kilometres left to race, it will be fireworks. These will explode up and over the final climb of Poggio and continue to fizz down the technical, tense descent into Sanremo. A winner will be decided one way or the other in that final 20 kilometres of racing, but at least the peloton knows in advance where the racing will really kick off. Or do they?

Out of the 175 riders taking part in Milan-Sanremo, there is one in particular who everyone will be watching: the swashbuckling Slovenian superstar of Tadej Pogačar. Milan-Sanremo might historically always follow the script, but Pogačar is starting to make a habit of improvisation. Everyone knows what happened at Strade Bianche a few weeks ago, when the UAE Team Emirates rider did the impossible, dropping the entire peloton with 80 kilometres still left to race on the white Tuscan roads and riding solo to the win by almost three minutes. Things like that aren’t really supposed to happen in modern bike racing, but Pogačar is making us question everything we thought we knew about the sport. 

With this in mind, is it really so inconceivable that Pogačar could do something very different at Milan-Sanremo this year? A solo attack like his Strade spectacle would be a tall order given the flat terrain that shapes the majority of the race, but if everyone is expecting things to kick off when the peloton hits the Poggio – and the entire bunch will be watching what Pogačar does when he gets there – can we count out a longer range solo move from the Slovenian? Although anything is possible when it comes to Pogačar, it seems improbable that he’ll try to split the race before the final two climbs, because there simply isn’t the terrain to do so, but UAE Team Emirates making a move before the Poggio is something that should seriously be considered.

It’s true that successful attacks on the Cipressa are few and far between in the history of Milan-Sanremo – the last time a move worked on that penultimate climb was in 1996 when Gabriele Colombo won the race alone after forcing a small selection. It's also true that, normally, attacks on the Cipressa end up being caught on the coastal road to the the Poggio, but normally, riders don’t win Strade Bianche by three minutes. Pogačar does things that people don’t expect, and a move on the Cipressa could be one of them.

The other option that the 25-year-old has is to wait until the Poggio to launch his attack, with the aim of reducing the group and winning a sprint to the finish. The nature of the Poggio climb means that it’s probably not quite hard enough for Pogačar to go solo here, but he has a good chance of getting the edge in a sprint from a select group if his team has made the race hard enough to get rid of some of the fast men. Last year, Pogačar did his best to drop everyone on the Poggio, making the race hard enough to create a selection, but leaving himself open to the storming attack by Mathieu van der Poel over the crest of the climb. Pogačar can’t make the same mistake again, which is why an attack on the Cipressa could be the answer to ensuring he isn’t caught out on the Poggio.

A problem that Pogačar could face in Milan-Sanremo is that everyone will be watching him, expecting his attack to come. This means that he’s unlikely to be able to have any element of surprise, and we could see him watching and following the moves of others, rather than making the race himself. Equally, he told the world the exact point he would attack at Strade Bianche, and everyone knew it was coming, yet they still had no response. Maybe Pogačar’s form on Saturday will simply be so good that even if his tactics are anticipated, he’ll still be able to distance his rivals.

If there’s one thing cycling fans have learnt over the past few seasons, is that the sport is constantly changing. Scripts are being ripped up by riders like Pogačar –we can watch races with expectations of how things are going to go, but with him on the startline, everything feels a little bit more uncertain. For those racing the Slovenian rider, it makes their lives harder than ever. For fans of the sport, there’s never been a more interesting time to watch bike racing.

Shop now