Pop, fizz and bang: a pulsating finale of Milan-Sanremo

Multiple dice were rolled, and multiple actors fired a bullet. But in the end, it took a photo finish to settle a breathtaking race

He’s gone, television viewers screamed. That’s it, the elastic’s snapped, game over. Except it never was. On none of the multiple attacks that took place inside a pulsating final hour of racing at Milan-Sanremo, did any of them stick and last to the finish.  

Tadej Pogačar, the race favourite and two weeks on from his Strade Bianche masterpiece, hesitated on the Cipressa, but tried once and tried again on the Poggio. Usually, the Slovenian just needs one throw of the dice, but on both, he was unable to dislodge his rivals. It seems that it’s not always as easy as a PlayStation game.

Mathieu van der Poel, a winner in the season’s first Monument just 12 months ago, marshalled Pogačar like a bodyguard looking for a pay rise from an observing boss, always attentive to a fuse being lit, and always ready to counter-attack. 

Matej Mohorič, the masterful descender, tried to get away a few kilometres down the Poggio’s twisting road from where he famously attacked to win in 2022. Tom Pidcock, the Slovenian’s great descending adversary, jumped clear on the Via Roma, he and Matteo Sobrero of Bora-Hansgrohe intent on foiling the approaching sprinters.

Each and every move looked like being the decisive one, the moment where this most breathtaking of finales would finally climax. But they never were. Not quite lurking at the back, but hanging onto the aforementioned players by their coat tails at times, were a selection of sprinters, that species of bike riders who once dominated this marathon race but in recent years have been sidelined by the do-it-all superstars.

There was Mads Pedersen, in the form of his career. So too was there Michael Matthews, a performer in the same mould as Pedersen, and also Jasper Philipsen, undoubtedly the fastest sprinter of them all.

Image by Getty Images

For the trio to have their shootout, though, they needed the escaping Pidcock and Sobrero to be caught. Cue Van der Poel: sacrificing his own chances to aid teammate Jasper Philipsen, the rainbow jersey dragged back the pair, allowing the three fast men to come through and settle the most intriguing of contests. 

Mads Pedersen went first, backed by his long-time companion and another former winner of this race, Jasper Stuyven, but he faded as the line approached. It paved the way for Philipsen and Matthews to provide the denouement. It needed a photo finish camera to write the final settlement, though, and when it did, it confirmed the former and not the latter as the victor, Philipsen’s maiden Monument triumph. Michael Matthews, a podium finisher at this race for a third time, must wonder if he’ll ever be able to conquer this beast. So too will Pogačar, who impressively, but not surprisingly given he is Tadej Pogačar, came through for third.

Analysis will question the tactics of the big teams – especially UAE Team Emirates who spent most of their bullets on the Cipressa – but sometimes there’s a case to be made for not pouring over the details of the coulds, the woulds, and the shoulds, and instead enjoying and basking in the spectacle put on week after week by an extraordinary group of bike riders. 

This was the fastest ever edition of the iconic, historic and beautiful race, and there was also the fastest ever ascent of the often decisive Poggio (5-39). The top-10 counted Tour de France winners, world champions, and victors of cobbled Classics. In other words, two handfuls of Galáticos.

Few races attract such a varied cast of actors, and few races can prompt such a dizzying, suspenseful and tense final hour of racing. But for racing to be captivating, to stir the emotions, to get the viewer off their couch and onto their feet, bike racing needs effervescent bike riders who want to make the race go pop, fizz and bang.

We are blessed in this era to have cyclists who understand this glorious sport is a form of entertainment. And on the third Saturday in March, as winter begins to roll into spring, we were blessed once again by another remarkable race. 

TV viewers thought they had guessed the winner five, six or seven times, but they were never right, because charging through right at the death, further consolidating his title not just as a fastman but an all-rounder who can negotiate bumps in the road, was a 26-year-old Belgian man who is staking his claim as this extraordinary generation’s most turbo-charged and speediest man. As ever, Milan-Sanremo delivers, and for the 14th consecutive year, it’s a new winner on the podium - this one by the name of Jasper Philipsen. "It's incredible,” he beamed. “A Monument is something you dream of.”

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