I’ll keep this short. There’s 300km of tarmac on the route from Milan to the famous Via Roma, and just two key bumps totalling less then 10km of climbing. There are two enormous race favourites, with just three Sanremo appearances between them.
Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel are the best one-day racers in the peloton. They may, in fact, be the best two riders in any race type, save for misty altitude battles. There can be no disputing their excellence… so can they be stopped tomorrow?
Van Aert has won both Sanremo and Strade Bianche. He’s been racing on tarmac for longer and this preview is not the time to list the attributes which make him the most terrifyingly unique rider in the world. Then there’s van der Poel; who can now boast his own Strade victory, alongside a stunning Amstel Gold and a crucial head-to-head victory at last year’s magnificent Ronde.
Van der Poel is currently the bookmaker’s favourite at 13/5 (although the price has changed twice since starting this post). Van Aert is a shade longer at 3/1. The dance up the Poggio suits Van der Poel better. No rider can match the miniature explosions generated by each of his pedal turns. Van der Poel could look to drop Van Aert on the Poggio. If the two escape together, he will revert to the mind games that have served him well since the two began duelling at junior cyclo-cross events.
Van Aert doesn’t need to rely on the Poggio this time around. He can do all his damage on the fast, flat finale. Jumbo are capable of putting him into position. And he can easily win from a small group.
However, the two are capable of becoming obsessed with each other; and you don’t need a long memory to recall an example. In a thrilling Gent-Wevelgem last year, Van Aert appeared rattled at the finish after Van der Poel squashed each of his efforts with a touch of naivety. Both men missed the winning move by Mads Pedersen and rolled home at the back of the second group. A similar occurrence is the only way that neither will succeed at Sanremo.
And the winner is… Julian Alaphilippe (6/1)
It is staggering to describe Julian Alaphilippe as man with some freedom, but such is the form of the cyclo-cross converts that the darling of French cycling starts Sanremo at 6/1. His route to victory is simple. Attack hard and stay away. He descends brilliantly. The Poggio launchpad is Alaphilippe’s old friend. It almost worked in 2017 & 2020, and did work in 2019. Yes, he’ll have to watch Van der Poel’s counter, but the Poggio is longer that you might realise. It’s certainly longer than the finish of Strade Bianche, where the Dutchman blew him away. With Sam Bennett and Davide Ballerini, the Deceuninck team possess the finest sprint options in this “Sprinter’s Classic”. But this is not a Sanremo edition that favours the sprinters. With the existence of Van der Poel, Bennett’s hopes of a monument will have to be put on hold.
Look out for… Filippo Ganna (28/1) & Maximilian Schachmann (40/1)
With all the above considered, it is simply too difficult to back a pure sprinter for this year’s race. Instead, there’s value in Paris-Nice winner Max Schachmann (40/1). Even with Peter Sagan and Pascal Ackermann, it would be criminal for BORA to prevent Schachmann from chasing on the Poggio. Ackermann will be desperately hanging on to the bunch when the fireworks start. INEOS are never invisible, and Filippo Ganna (28/1) should be their strongest and liveliest option. Anything near his Giro form from last October would be extremely entertaining. He’s a rider that could even go for an early attack on the Cipressa.