Milan-San Remo: The 5 scenarios we would love to see

From an unlikely breakaway to echelons, sprints and Cipressa attacks, here are five situations we would love to see on the roads of Italy on Saturday

Clock18:29, Friday 15th March 2024
All eyes are quickly turning towards Tadej Pogačar and the Cipressa for Saturday

© Getty Images

All eyes are quickly turning towards Tadej Pogačar and the Cipressa for Saturday

Milan-San Remo is a race that can be – and has been – won in a plethora of different ways. Despite its long, relatively unchanging route, Milan-San Remo is arguably one of the least formulaic Monuments of the year, with everything from a long solo attack to a full bunch sprint possible on the road to San Remo.

In recent years, however, there has been a little bit of a pattern, with Poggio attacks proving the way to go, and a similar handful of riders have been animating and winning this race for the past few seasons. Even 2024’s race has an air of predictability to it: the cycling world seems to take it as a given that one of Mathieu van der Poel or Tadej Pogačar will go solo on one of the Tre Capi, and inevitably put in an eviscerating ride that makes everyone else wonder why they turned up. It will be exciting and something to behold, but it seems the possibilities for various other scenarios are slim.

This got us at GCN thinking: what would we actually like to see at Milan-San Remo? Are there any novel or rare race situations that we’re longing to see pan out on the winding, up-and-down roads of northern Italy? As it turns out, yes there are. From the possible to the outlandish, here are five ways we’d like to see Milan-San Remo decided.

Bring back bunch sprints - Matilda Price (Racing News Editor)

When I first started watching cycling, Milan-San Remo was, to a certain extent, a sprinters’ Classic. I watched Alexander Kristoff, John Degenkolb and Arnaud Démare all win on Via Roma, outsprinting a large group. Look back down the list of winners and you’ll see, amongst the more attacking victories, plenty of big-name sprinters: Mark Cavendish, Mario Cipollini, Erik Zabel. Bunch sprints might not be the overall norm in the race’s 115-year history, but they were common in the 2000s and 2010s, with the fast men more than capable of getting over the climbs in the right conditions.

However, the trend has swung back into the realm of more attacking finishes, with the new generation of riders like Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel ensuring this race is anything but a procession towards a bunch sprint. The explosive finales of recent years are all well and good, but do you know what? It’s time for another bunch finish.

We haven’t seen a proper sprint won by a pure sprinter since 2016, with 2021 coming close but Jasper Stuyven’s late aggression paying off. Every year, it seems the best sprinters in the world line up for this race, but we’re not getting to see them battle it out. Attacks over the Poggio and Cipressa are exciting, of course, but a full-pelt sprint is also a thrilling spectacle, and isn’t out of place in a Monument – remember, one of the most iconic race days of the year is the Champs-Élysées in the Tour, which more often than not brings a sprint.

Despite the narrowing chances of a bunch kick in San Remo, plenty of big sprinters will be in action this Saturday, including Jasper Philipsen, Olav Kooij, Mads Pedersen, Biniam Girmay, Arnaud Démare, Danny van Poppel and many more. Forget a Tadej Pogačar solo raid, I want to see the fastest men in the world racing at all-out speed for one of cycling’s biggest prizes.

Tactical thrill in a sprint à trois - Logan Jones-Wilkins (North American writer)

While its cousin, the sprint à deux, is the more common iteration, three-rider sprints are the most gripping, in my opinion. Instead of a one-to-one match-up, the third rider brings in a whole new level to the tactical game. Especially if two of the riders are stronger or faster, the role of the third rider turns to that of a spoiler or a joker of some kind. In Milan-San Remo, that scenario led to my favourite edition of the race back in 2017, won by Michał Kwiatkowski in a photo finish.

After Peter Sagan’s attack on the Poggio, which took with it Michal Kwiatkowski and Julian Alaphilippe, the finale was a gripping game of tactics. Sagan, as the world champion, had the most to lose, Kwiatkowski played off the Slovenian’s motivation to try and do less work, and Alaphilippe was trying to save everything he had for a sprint that didn’t suit him. Each played it well, exemplified by how close it was on the line, and it was fascinating.

This year, the favourites are structured differently. There is no equivalent to Sagan since Mathieu van der Poel nor Tadej Pogačar are both tussling for the title of strongest and fastest, rather than one being the singular favourite. Regardless, it seems highly unlikely any move over the Poggio would not include both of those riders.

While it could be the case that they ride over the summit together and descend to the line as a duo, the Poggio is a shallow climb and drafting is key. One or two riders would likely be able to follow the move which could set up a delectable three-rider move with Pogačar, Van der Poel and a rider like Mads Pedersen or Christophe Laporte, who both should have sprinters sitting behind. For me, that would make the tense finish of Milan-San Remo even more of a nail-biter.

It’s time for the Cipressa attack - George Poole (Race Writer)

Milan-San Remo: a protracted misery for some, Saturday background viewing for others (this scribe included) and the best Monument of the season for those that way inclined. What it regularly presents to all, however, is 30 or so of the most exciting kilometres of the racing season.

As the riders rampage over the Cipressa and Poggio climbs in the final 45 minutes of action, this is what makes the race so special. However, were we to lust after my esteemed colleague Matilda’s dream scenario – a throwback to the days of Erik Zabel, Mario Cippolini and Óscar Freire winning bunch sprints – then we may only find ourselves with 3km of exciting racing. I daren’t even imagine such a change from the exhilaration of recent years. Let’s leave the sprinting for Scheldeprijs.

No, what we really want is aggressive racing from even further afield than the Poggio, and for that, we need only look to one man and one team: Tadej Pogačar and UAE Team Emirates. It is his sports manager Matxin Joxean Fernández who has teased an attack on the Cipressa, and now, we must hope that the Slovenian delivers.

In truth, the Slovenian has looked somewhat perplexed as to how to win San Remo in his three prior appearances. He was pretty anonymous en route to 12th in 2020, could not handle Matej Mohorič’s descending in 2022, and lacked the firepower to distance his rivals on the Poggio in 2023. His best method of attack is to go hard and go long, just as he did in Strade Bianche recently. For Milan-San Remo, going long does not mean a 75km attack, but instead, it’s time for him to go solo on the Cipressa with a little over 25km to ride.

Not since Gabriele Colombo in 1996 has a race-winning move gone clear on the Cipressa, but ever the swashbuckling pioneer, I can imagine nothing more exciting than seeing Pogačar elicit the buccaneering spirit of Marco Pantani to attack on the penultimate climb on Saturday. This is how the Slovenian can win his fourth Monument.

Where are the crosswinds? - Patrick Fletcher (Deputy Editor)

I’m aware that it can be explained away by geography and weather systems, but it has always felt to me like there should at least be a suggestion of crosswinds in the air when it comes to Milan-San Remo. In most other scenarios, coastal roads would open the door to one of the most dramatic things you can see in pro cycling: echelons.

Milan-San Remo hugs the shores of the Mediterranean for the best part of 150km, and yet we’ve hardly ever seen any splits. This is largely down to the prevailing wind, which is often a headwind, and the fact that the roads twist around headlands, rather than being truly exposed, but still, the trip down the Ligurian coast is only ever a procession.

We have, however, seen crosswinds and echelons at Milan-San Remo. Back in 1990, the race was torn to shreds in the wind, with Gianni Bugno coming out on top in a thriller. The catch? The race was blown apart after just an hour, well before the race even reached the coast. The plains of the Lombardy-Piedmont border, then, would seem to be the more susceptible area when it comes to crosswinds.

Either way, while the general trend is for the Spring Classics to kick off and open up earlier and earlier, Milan-San Remo, despite shaking off its tag of a sprinters’ Classic, has stuck to a well-worn script until the Poggio in recent years. Modern cycling wouldn’t allow for the long-range missiles and mega time gaps of yore, but the weather could certainly shake things up a bit.

You won’t find me among the ‘Milan-San Remo is boring’ camp but it would be amazing to see a situation where the race is blown to pieces and the favourites are relatively isolated before we even get to the Capi or Cipressa. It doesn't look like the conditions will allow it this year but one day, please.

A courageous break spoils the party - Matilda

Okay, if the peloton won’t let me have a sprint finish, the only other alternative I will accept is even more outlandish: the early breakaway survives! Obviously, this will not happen, it never happens, the break is designed to be doomed. Except actually, it has happened, when Marc Gomez won Milan-San Remo in 1982, getting into the early break which the peloton, faced with the first edition of the race including the Cipressa, deeply misjudged and failed to bring back.

Like in every race, there will be an early break on Saturday, and everyone will say it is doomed, and it probably will be. But what if it wasn’t? If the right combination of riders got away in a strong group, and the peloton messed up their chase, we could see a plucky break make it to the line, which would be undeniably intriguing to witness. With so many contenders and riders anticipating some stinging attacks on the Cipressa and Poggio, lots of teams will be trying to save their matches during the first 250km of Milan-San Remo, so the potential for the peloton not effectively bringing back the escapees isn’t totally impossible.

Whilst highly unlikely, this would be a novel and exciting way for the race to pan out. For all that we love seeing the best of the best put in otherworldly performances in the Monuments, cycling is also a deeply sentimental and romanticised sport, where a fairytale, underdog winner would also be a very popular one. The break always believes, even if just a little, that they could survive – this year I will too.

You can check out our dedicated race page for Milan-San Remo, to discover the route, startlist and our official preview.

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