Milan-Sanremo is arguably the most difficult of the five Monuments to predict the outcome of, for one simple reason: it is the first of the season. Compared with the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, which are preceded by a whole series of cobbled Classics, Liège–Bastogne–Liège, that’s held at the very end of the spring Classics, and Il Lombardia, coming at the very end of the season, riders turn up to Milan-Sanremo without much racing for us to analyse their form and assess their chances.
Hence all the speculation currently about whether ostensible pre-race favourites like Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck) and Julian Alaphilippe (Soudal - Quick-Step) have good enough shape to win on Saturday. From the scraps of racing we’ve seen of them so far, the signs aren’t greatly encouraging. The three of them have just one win on the road between them this year, and each has endured imperfect preparations: Van Aert had to delay his season due to illness, and has yet to register a top five finish; Van der Poel has suggested that his efforts to win the Cyclocross World Championships last month hindered him at a below-par Tirreno-Adriatico; and though Alaphilippe does have a win under his belt at the Faun-Ardèche Classic, he looked well short of his best at Strade Bianche, his first major target of the season.
But how important is a rider’s form in terms of their chances at Milan-Sanremo?
Recent history certainly suggests that you can’t expect to turn up here without already impressing in the preceding weeks — in only three of the past 16 editions stretching back to 2007 has the Classic been won by a rider without a win already that season.
In particular, success at Strade Bianche has become an indicator of who might triumph at Milan-Sanremo. Fabian Cancellara became the first rider to win both races in the same season in 2008, and the double has become more common in recent years as Strade Bianche has grown in prestige, with Michał Kwiatkowski achieving it in 2017, Alaphilippe in 2019 and Van Aert in 2020. They might be very different races in terms of character and parcours, but held just two weeks apart, it’s clear that if you’re going well in Tuscany, you’ll likely hold that form for La Primavera. (Although there won’t be a repeat of the double this year — Strade Bianche winner Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) will miss out due to concussion)
Back when Milan-Sanremo was more of a sprinter-friendly Classic, before the current generation of elite puncheurs rendered it seemingly impossible for them to remain in contention after the Poggio, it was essential to arrive at the race in form. In each of the 15 times the race was decided by a group sprint between 1997 and 2016, each winner had noticed up at least one win already that season. Most recently, Arnaud Démare triumphed in 2016 after winning the opening sprint of Paris-Nice, John Degenkolb opened his account a whole six weeks earlier at the Dubai Tour in 2015, and Alexander Kristoff also enjoyed promising early success in the Middle East with a win at the Tour of Oman prior to his triumph in 2014. With the exception of Kristoff (who won at the Volta ao Algarve), their winless early-seasons should make us sceptical of their chances even if a sprint does transpire, while the likes of Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Deceuninck), Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) and Arnaud De Lie (Lotto-Dstny) all look promising.
But before we draw too many conclusions from these stats, and prematurely declare Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) the odds-on favourite based on his prolific start to the season, a closer look does indicate there’s been a subtle change in the trend. Previously it was the case that winners of Milan-Sanremo would have been among the top stars of the early season, winning on multiple occasions, but more recent winners haven’t been quite so eye-catching. Each winner between 2007 to 2012 had two or more wins to their name before their victory at Milan-San Remo triumph (in 2009, Cavendish had as many as five); since 2013, only Démare and Alaphilippe have had more than one. It seems getting a win remains important as a precursor to winning Milan-Sanremo, but you don’t necessarily have to be in blistering form.
More recently still, even one prior win has not turned out to be necessary — all three of the aforementioned riders to have won Milan-Sanremo off the back of a winless early season since 2007 have occurred in the last five editions. In fact, both of the last two editions were claimed by winless riders. Last year, Matej Mohorič only had a few high-placings at the Volta a Comunitat Valenciana prior to his race-winning descent on the Poggio, and 2021 victor Jasper Stuyven won having not even placed in the top 10 of a race beforehand.
One thing both of these riders had in common was that they were not counted among the top favourites for Milan-Sanremo going into the race. As a result, they were able to slip away in the final stages of the race unmarked, their rivals preoccupied by other riders they deemed as more of a threat. Mohorič took off on the descent of the Poggio, Stuyven during the hectic final kilometres, and each rider soloed to the finish alone. In some ways, they were successful precisely because of the lack of form they’d shown prior.
Perhaps therefore we’ve entered a new era of Milan-Sanremo, where stealth is valued, and showing hot form puts an unwanted target on your back. With this in mind, the likes of Van Aert, Van der Poel and Alaphilippe — who missed out at the expense of Mohorič and Stuyven — might all be in a better position to win on Saturday than it seems.