Mathieu van der Poel: No surprise if Tadej Pogačar goes solo on the Poggio

Defending Milan-San Remo champion looks ahead to Saturday's race and his 2024 season debut, as he bids to go back-to-back

Clock13:35, Friday 15th March 2024
Tadej Pogačar attempted to surge clear last year, but was swiftly followed by Filippo Ganna, Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel

© Getty Images

Tadej Pogačar attempted to surge clear last year, but was swiftly followed by Filippo Ganna, Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel

Preparing to make his season debut and looking to defend his title at Milan-San Remo on Saturday, Alpecin-Deceuninck's Mathieu van der Poel is under no illusions as to who his biggest rival may well be on the day: Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates).

"Pogačar is clearly already in good shape and he realises that he has to make the race hard. I expect a fast climb of the Cipressa before the Poggio. My tactic? Follow," Van der Poel told Het Laatste Nieuws and others at a pre-race press conference on Thursday evening.

"Actually, there is not much tactics involved in this race. Normally everything happens on the Poggio. It will be important to be well positioned on the Cipressa, then of course also on the Poggio and that's where the legs will speak."

Unlike others, however, Van der Poel is clearly not sold on the idea that UAE Team Emirates may produce a race-winning move on the penultimate climb, the Cipressa.

It is a scenario that whets the appetite of many fans, who have long since watched the race decided on the final climb of the Poggio, and it may well be Pogačar's simplest route to victory. His team reduced the front of the race to under 30 riders with a quick tempo on the Cipressa in 2022, whilst sports manager Matxin Joxean Fernández hinted at a similar move this time around.

But Van der Poel is unnerved, instead pointing to the Poggio as the point at which Pogačar may be at his most dangerous.

"When I returned from training and started watching, Pogačar had already left. But I didn't really miss much," the Dutchman said, referencing Pogačar's recent solo exploit to win Strade Bianche.

"I won't be surprised if he takes off on the Poggio on Saturday, but at the same time, everyone knows he wants to do it there. It won't be easy, but if you are better than the others, I think it is possible."

There is no sense of complacency though, for the winner of last year's Milan-San Remo, who knows full well that race-winning moves can come from a number of sources. Indeed, when he last made his season debut at Milan-San Remo, it was Matej Mohorič who ventured on a daring escapade to win ahead of the third-placed Dutchman.

Van der Poel will not have to tussle with his long-term rival Wout van Aert on Saturday, with the Visma-Lease a Bike rider preparing for the Giro d'Italia elsewhere, but there are plenty of contenders for the 29-year-old's throne.

"There are plenty of other strong riders. Last year you had [Filippo] Ganna as a surprise, maybe someone will stand up again now. Strong riders are enough."

Ganna will be joined by the likes of Ineos Grenadiers teammate Tom Pidcock, Lidl-Trek's Mads Pedersen and Jayco AlUla's Michael Matthews as would-be winners, and that is not to mention Van der Poel's own teammate Jasper Philipsen, who is currently the peloton's preeminent sprinter.

"He will certainly get a free role," noted Van der Poel. "Jasper will mainly have to see how he feels and whether he can survive the Poggio in a group that might be able to return or sprint for the win."

Van der Poel is the team's primary leader for a reason, though, and is confident that his preparations have gone to plan for a title defence this Saturday.

'We've trained really hard to be as good as possible here'

Coming in having already proved himself capable of winning Milan-San Remo, the only question mark hanging over the defending champion's head is one of race sharpness. The 29-year-old has not raced since the Cyclo-cross World Championships in early February and when he last made his road debut at the race known as La Primavera, in 2022, he could not produce a race-winning attack.

He did, however, finish on the podium, and did so amid talk of an ongoing back injury. For that reason, Van der Poel is confident that his shape in 2024 is greater than two years ago.

"I feel really good. I trained very hard in Spain, but I need a few races to really reach my top level. The difference with two years ago was that we now knew that this would be my first race – that's why we've trained really hard, to be as good as possible here."

The Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and a tilt at Liège-Bastogne-Liège are to come for Van der Poel – the latter of which he has yet to win – and the Dutchman gives the impression of a relaxed rider ahead of Saturday. He has the condition to win, the pedigree to win, but he can sit comfortably having already added this race to his palmarès.

"For me, it might be a little easier to race on Saturday, because I have already won the race. You can gamble a little more or race a little more patiently, because the pressure is a little less. Maybe that is an advantage."

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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