You can’t have night without day, yin without yang, or an adrenaline-fuelled white-knuckle finish at Milan-Sanremo without the six, long, quiet hours that precede it. This is how it works. Death, taxes, and an attack on the Poggio; these are the certainties of life.
It’s the crescendo to this three-hundred-kilometre monument of pro cycling.
The dazzling contrast to all that has come before.Embed from Getty Images
The Poggio itself is only what it is because of where it is, and what comes before. Taken alone it’s a bump in the road, a climb of four kilometres in length at a 3.7% gradient. But with the road from Milan already in the legs, the menace of a well drilled Team Ineos at the front of the race, and a half dozen of the world’s most motivated pro cyclists in tow, it becomes a test of the highest calibre.
Such was the case, in this 2021 edition, when Julian Alaphilippe, World Champion and professional puncheur, tried to attack. But when the group is riding uphill at twenty miles an hour how does he do that? Where does he go? A couple of metres clear, is where, no more.Embed from Getty Images
Strung out on that climb were Van Aert, Van Avermaet, Van der Poel, Kwiatkowski, Pidcock, Sagan, Ewan, Stuyven; all the names. And it’s too fast to attack. Just hang on, is the plan, crest the summit with seven kilometres to go, take a chance or two on the descent and roll the dice on the run in to Sanremo.
The beauty of Milan-Sanremo lies in the endless structure and the utter chaos that follows. For those who can feasibly win it’s six hours of eat, drink, save energy, do nothing. If you are visible enough to get picked out by a TV camera you’re doing it wrong. If you feel wind against your face before Sanremo is in sight you’ve lost.
That’s energy expended.
Do nothing. Wait for the Cipressa, the climb before the Poggio, and do the minimum. And then the Poggio itself, with eleven of the three hundred to go, and BOOM!
Rattle up the slopes, crest the summit, daredevil descent down the other side. From there the riders emerge, swinging right onto the coastal road, ragtag like revellers from a nightclub, straggling in ones and twos, some disorientated, in need of a lie down, others spoiling for a fight. The final dregs of a boozed-up night spilling out on to the street.Embed from Getty Images
Belgium’s Jasper Stuyven, as if spotting a cab – he can handle his beer, that lad – makes a dash for it. Soren Kragh Anderson chases. Caleb Ewan and Mathieu van der Poel sober up and spot the danger. Wout Van Aert goes too, but Stuyven is away down the road. After six soporific hours a clear, clinical, tactical head is required. But whoever makes the effort to catch Stuyven burns their match and loses the sprint.
Stuyven, he who dares, opportunistic, bold and beautifully timed, wins.
This slow burn from Milan to the tinderbox of Sanremo shows us once more that the occasional troughs of life are what make the peaks so good. Just ask Jasper Stuyven.
(Top Image: Jasper Stuyven – by filip bossuyt from Kortrijk, Belgium – 315 stuyven, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50374956)