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Milan-San Remo 2021: Who is going to win?

19 Mar 2021

Where should your money be for the first Monument of the year, Milan-San Remo, this Saturday?

Words: Joe Robinson

The first Monument of the season will take place on Saturday 20th March with the 112th edition of Milan-San Remo.

Known as La Primavera due to its early spring date, San Remo is a race that is decided by a list of mitigating factors and can be won by almost any rider in the peloton.

The biggest factor is that it is the longest race on the UCI calendar with this year’s course totalling 299km. Pop in the neutralised zone at the beginning and the peloton will actually be riding over 300km, a big day out no matter who you are.

At the tail end of this giant route are two final climbs which so often define the image of the day's racing. First comes the Cipressa, 5.6km at 4.1% after 263km, and then the Poggio, 4km at 3.7% after 293.5km. At another race, these would be little more than speed bumps. But after seven hours of full gas riding, they can become mountains.

Furthermore, being Europe in April, the peloton has often been suckerpunched with all types of weather variables, from snow blizzards to torrential rain and even the odd early summer heatwave. Luckily for the peloton, this year's race looks to be mild and dry.

Last year's event, held in August due to the coronavirus pandemic, was won by Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) who outsprinted defending champion Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) on the Via Roma.

Below, we look at the favourites for the 2021 edition and yes, there are more names than just Mathieu van der Poel.

Who will win Milan-San Remo 2021?

Well, it's official, we are experiencing a golden age of bike racing. The generation of today have taken the sport to an entirely new level and their seemingly collective agreement to never race defensively has meant that the beginning of this season has witnessed some of the best racing in decades. It will continue because the stars of today's peloton are here to entertain.

The three faces that are taking the sport of cycling into this unknown territory are Van der Poel, Van Aert and Alaphilippe. All three are continually amazing us with what they are capable of and all three are more than capable of winning San Remo this weekend.

After all, Van Aert and Alaphilippe have won this race previously, both having manufactured victory with attacks on the Poggio at 4km from the finish, and are therefore more than capable of adding a second win to their palmares.

And as for Van der Poel, he is the form rider with two stage wins at Tirreno-Adriatico and victory at Strade Bianche already this season. All three have proven their ability to win in almost all scenarios – be it from sprints, long range attacks or deadly accelerations on final climbs.  

Of the three, Van der Poel certainly has the edge and goes into Satruday as the favourite. He has three head-to-head victories against Van Aert and Alaphilippe this year already and took those victories in three different ways – the aforementioned bunch sprint, long range solo attack and attack on a final climb.

The fact that he has managed such versatile routes to success will certainly play on the mind of his rival duo, especially Alaphilippe who you feel is the most susceptible to mind games.

Van Aert is second favourite after Van der Poel. While he did not manage the overall victory at Tirreno-Adriatico – Tadej Pogacar was just too good – Van Aert's overall performance was frightening.

He won a bunch sprint against the world's best sprinter, won a time trial against the world's best time-trial specialists and then climbed with the world's best climbers on a summit finish.

He is a direct competitor to Caleb Ewan, Pippo Ganna, Tadej Pogacar and Mathieu van der Poel. It's remarkable.

Alaphilippe, though, cannot be written off. He is such a maverick and is just utterly unpredictable. Even when you think he is beaten, he pulls out a firework that completely alters the direction of the race. 

Picking a winner beyond these main three may seem pointless, but Van der Poel, Van Aert and Alaphilippe may not have it all their own way.

To cause an upset, I'm drawn to Trek-Segafredo who arrive with former winner Vincenzo Nibali and Classics powerhouse Jasper Stuyven in their ranks. You can set your clock to a shark attack from Nibali at San Remo and as for Stuyven, he is Cyclist's dark horse for the race.

We personally think that Stuyven, on form, could reach the levels of the three favourites and is overdue a big victory.

There's also the chance that Saturday's race could end in a sprint finish from the peloton. It's been a while since this was the case, the victory of Groupama's Arnuad Demare in 2016 to be precise.

Sam Bennett has to be favourite for that potential outcome. The Irishman from Deceuninck-QuickStep is the world's fastest sprinter right now and has steadily improved his ability to overcome tough days in the saddle and still be in the hunt for victory. With Alaphilippe marking the big attacks on the Poggio, Bennett will be there to finish things off if it all comes back together, or at least that'll be the plan.

If not Bennett, why not Lotto-Soudal’s Caleb Ewan? He certainly has the ability to win San Remo having finished second behind Vincenzo Nibali on the Via Roma in 2018. The only issue could be the recent illness that saw him withdraw from Tirreno: is it a bigger worry than the team have let on? It will certainly be a good excuse if he loses a sprint.

Other sprinting options that may have passed you by are everyone’s favourite boxing cyclist Nacer Bouhanni of Arkea-Samsic, who is actually in a bit of form, Elia Viviani of Cofidis and Demare – both of whom are unfortunately not in form – and Fernando Gaviria of UAE Team Emirates, a man who has been heavily impacted by catching Covid twice in 2020.

Peter Sagan, remember him? The three time World Champion is in the field for San Remo and has so often been a top favourite. But by virtue of his recent bout of Covid and lack of race miles, you have to say Bora-Hansgrohe's best chance lies with recent Paris-Nice winner Max Schachmann, not that we'll be holding our breath for him on Saturday.

Other names that feel worthy of a mention are Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal), Magnus Cort (EF Education-Nippo) and Michael Matthews (Team BikeExchange). While victory may be out of their reach, a solid result is certainly achievable.

The victory us romantics are holding out for is of course for Philippe Gilbert. If the Lotto-Soudal man wins Milan-San Remo, he joins the exclusive club of Eddy Merckx, Roger De Vlaeminck and Rik Van Looy as the only riders to win all five Monuments.

Now, wouldn't that be a story?