Opinion: Milan-Sanremo is the race that will stop Tadej Pogačar winning all five Monuments

This year’s edition proved once again that the Italian one-day race will be tough to crack for the UAE Team Emirates rider

The fastest ever edition of Milan-Sanremo wasn’t hard enough for Tadej Pogačar. He said it himself afterwards: “I think actually that today was one of the easiest races ever.”

Pogačar is an unusual bike racer; for him, easier is harder. It’s not something that really computes to us mere mortals watching at home – an average speed of 46.133kph over a distance of 288 kilometres being described as “easy” almost seems laughable. It didn’t look easy for a lot of riders, either. When the likes of Isaac del Toro and Tim Wellens were pulling turns on the Cipressa and the Poggio with their teeth gritted and their bodies rocking and rolling side to side, before dropping to the back of the peloton like dead weight when their work was done, it seemed as if they were actually finding things quite difficult. 

It's true that Emirati team’s plan made perfect sense; they knew that their leader needed a much reduced bunch for a chance of breaking free from his rivals when the opportunity arose on the Poggio. This is why they hit the front of the bunch on the Cipressa in numbers, stringing out the peloton into one, long line and eventually almost halving the number of riders who remained in contention. Things went wrong for UAE when they lost positioning into the foot of the Poggio, but Del Toro’s ability to weave back to the front of the bunch and do a monumental pull for his leader, before Wellens took over, managed to save Pogačar from being isolated. Yet, as his teammates emptied themselves for him, it still wasn’t enough for the Slovenian rider. Still he shouted into his race radio, asking for more pace, more teammates, for things to be made harder. UAE Team Emirates did all that they could for Pogačar with the resources they had, but it simply didn’t work. The race hadn’t been hard enough when Pogačar’s inevitable attacks came on the Poggio, others could follow him and he would not ride solo to the finish line like he had in Strade Bianche just a few weeks before.

It’s hard to fault the approach of UAE Team Emirates at Milan-Sanremo this year, but it’s fair to question the execution. Pogačar needed the pulls of his teammates to be stronger and harder, so that the sprinters, like eventual race winner Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Deceuninck), were put under pressure, but what they did wasn’t enough. Was this really the fault of strong riders like Del Toro and Wellens, though, or can the failure of UAE Team Emirates’ plan be put down to the parcours of Milan-Sanremo?

While the climbs of the Cipressa and the Poggio are challenging, especially after over 250km of racing, their lengths and gradients don’t seem to be enough for Pogačar or his teammates to really make the difference. The Slovenian rider's strength lies in his ability to produce long, sustained, powerful attacks, as he did in Tuscany earlier this season, but Milan-Sanremo doesn’t offer the terrain for Pogačar to do this. It isn’t a race that can be won on pure power or long-range moves, it’s a game of risk and chance with a fascinating, tactical, explosive finale where the strongest rider on the day might not always win. Some may argue that Paris-Roubaix will be the biggest obstacle in Pogačar’s path to win all five Monuments, but, by gaining weight and focusing on the Classics, there are certain things he can do to prepare for a race like Roubaix. He can’t change the parcours of Milan-Sanremo, however.

The 2024 edition also showed that as modern sprinters, like Jasper Philipsen, Michael Matthews (Jayco-Alula) and Mads Pedersen (Lidl-Trek) steadily become better all-rounders, it’s going to be harder and harder to drop them on the Poggio each year. The fast and aggressive nature of modern racing, especially in Grand Tour stages, means that sprinters are being forced to change so that they can get over tricky climbs and have a shot at the finish line. Pogačar is likely never going to be able to match the pure speed of a rider like Philipsen, so if he can’t get rid of him on the way to the line at Milan-Sanremo, how will he win this race?

There has been plenty of talk about Pogačar’s ability to rewrite the Sanremo script and make it a sprinter’s Monument no more, but this year’s race might have proved that even he can’t change the narrative of one of cycling’s oldest bike races. We’ve seen  Pogačar race enough now to know that we never truly know what to expect from him, but Milan-Sanremo is proving to be a complicated puzzle for him to solve. At just 25 years old, Pogačar has a long career ahead of him to achieve that elusive goal of winning all five of cycling’s Monuments, but he may need to go back to the drawing board when it comes to Milan-Sanremo.

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