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a new generation watches and rides milan sanremo
A semi-interesting question to ask of certain bike races is if they would survive without their history or prestige; whether, as a mere sporting spectacle, they can provide sufficient entertainment to warrant repetition every year. It’s a flippant point, one that completely disregards the foundations for everything we know and understand about cycling. Yet the cycling internet (predominantly Twitter) relishes toying with the idea every year when Milan-Sanremo reaches our screens.
The inevitable flood of memes and derisory comments about La Classicissima’s length and relatively low action-per-kilometre ratio remain a cheap, reliable source of humor that transcends linguistic differences, and is sustained by the frustration of riders (most recently Mads Pedersen) who openly dislike the race and speak of its challenges in less than enthusiastic tones. But today, Mathieu van der Poel, in six kilometers, offered a defense of the race in its entirety. His performance reminds us of the joy of longer-form racing, the emotive joy that can underline success, and the success of the cycling formula itself, which can best be described as always the same, but always different.
The question of bike-racing as a viewing spectacle is complicated by its historic debt to print media – the industry as a whole owing its existence to the loss-leading marketing scheme of pre-war European newspapers. Articulating the racing in a long-form narrative, late-edition written dispatches interwove characterizations of grit and determination against the rugged beauty of the outdoors, captivating and concentrating public attention into reports of ardor. The decline of written cycling media therefore reflects a redefining amongst fans of how we perceive our sport. The written form’s decline is in part a demise of storytelling, indicative of our trends in media consumption and the continuing struggle to create and distribute our narratives arcs in a digital world of instant judgements cast in the spotlight of TV punditry or a tweet.
This is not the age of written media us writers, journalists and Substack subscribers want it to be. Instead, this is a media environment of supposedly shorter attention spans, where action and events are concentrated and condensed into video clips set to house music or tweets set in block caps. The physical effort and endurance required can often feel ignored in this elite sport, ground down to an arbitrary presumption, neglected by results or so-called ‘hot takes’ in reaction. This is what makes the internet’s lens on Milan-Sanremo all the more difficult to see through. Where a diplomat characterizes the race as one of attrition and nuance, of delicate balance or fine poise, the internet is markedly less even-handed in its assessment.
To paraphrase Hemingway, victory in Milan-Sanremo occurs ‘gradually, then suddenly’. For six hours, the riders traverse the plains of Lombardy and Piemonte, almost gracefully ascending the Passo del Turchino before banking along the Ligurian coast, ever aware of their positions in the peloton, but rarely threatened by external events or the rival presence of others. This year, the peloton almost caught the nine-rider breakaway by accident on the descent of the Turchino when Trek-Segafredo chose to make Julian Alaphilippe’s efforts to rejoin the peloton from a small collision moderately more stressful. The breakaway (overwhelmingly constituted by wildcard teams) was saved its embarrassment and admirably survived over the three Capi hills that saw the peloton shed away its veteran domestiques who had been working for the prior 240km, as well as Mark Cavendish.
That Milan-Sanremo is often diminished as a sporting spectacle due to this prolonged preceding monochrome is unfortunate, given that the heavy bearing of 260km of racing in the legs is what gives the race dynamism and unpredictability in its sphincter clenching climax. Road cycling is a sport of formulas and tradition, yet underpinned by the creative freedom and variables that riders themselves can deploy in pursuit of victory. For all the technological progress continually made, race-winning moves and actions still depend on the synchronicity of mind and body in reaction to the moves and actions of others. In the words of former MSR winner Mark Cavendish: “It’s chess. It’s fucking chess.”
In Milan-Sanremo, where the choice of means to achieve victory appears limited around an attack either climbing on or descending from the Poggio, victory is seized in the moments of hesitation, the doubts and limitations of your rivals. It perhaps explains why this one-time sprinters’ classic so rarely favors its so-called favorites, each rider varyingly risk-averse and unwilling to sacrifice themselves in vain. No favorite was willing or able to sacrifice themselves to recall Matej Mohorič or Jasper Stuyven in 2021 or 2022, respectively. Mathieu van der Poel made sure no one could catch him when he attacked over the Poggio’s summit in 2023.
The prior chaos that gave van der Poel’s attack such efficacy was largely dictated by his rivals themselves. On the Cipressa, UAE Team Emirates conformed to tradition and set the pace, maintaining a high-tempo in an effort to distance (or at least stress) their rivals without having to try and sustain an attack on the subsequent 9km flat. Despite the ritual sacrifice of a climbing domestique (this year Felix Groβschartner), only Arnaud de Lie lost ground among the contenders. A Monument rookie riding his longest race to date, De Lie’s forced deferral of team leadership to Caleb Ewan left his hopes of a maiden WorldTour victory wanton for a while longer. Once the favourites had descended, Nils Politt vainly ploughed away for a few hundred metres. Detached from any purpose following an avoidable crash to Sam Bennett, the German rouleur presented himself as bait to Bahrain Victorious who pursued to reel him in before setting a pace for their defending champion Mohorič on the lower slopes of the Poggio.
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After prolonged hours of exertion, the body is numb to its greatest senses. All that remains is a reflective mirror of delirium, privy only to a mind’s deepest frustrations and most senseless thoughts. Only pain cuts through the nonsense, the race strategies plotted beside the espresso machines of hotel lobbies become little more than primitive commands – to pedal, to thrash, to grimace, to wrestle control from the scrutable pain of others. Tim Wellens knew his place on this Dantean sect on the hill, and quickly usurped the Bahrain riders on the front, accelerating with his commander in tow. But when the expected omnipotent acceleration from Pogačar came, it appeared from the helicopter decaffeinated, opening only a couple of bike lengths before being met by Filippo Ganna, Wout van Aert and van der Poel. Bodies numb, efforts exacerbated, racing.
In that moment, the race became whole, the consequence of Jos Van Emden and Jacopo Mosca’s pacing across the plains were felt by everyone at once – not only those who could match the leading quartet (and those who never could), but also the riders whose reserves had been nullified into sweat, their efforts no longer holding relevance to the outcome of the race, only contributory status to the withering emptiness that enveloped them as the race escaped away. It was under this stress, this friction of man and machine after 6 hours of racing, that Mathieu van der Poel lit his matchstick and made his move. Within two hairpins of the Poggio’s descent, wedged between mountains and the Mediterranean, the result was beyond doubt.
Perhaps it was the inconspicuous presence he kept both before and during the race that proved most remarkable about van der Poel’s victory. After serving as lead-out man to Jasper Philipsen at Tirreno-Adriatico, media attention was partially deflected from him building up to this race, with speculation claiming he was still building form for later in the spring campaign. In his much-romanticized rivalry with Wout van Aert, it is van Aert who is consistently more visible to the world — granting interviews in the Belgian press, striking myriad commercial deals, lighting up mountains in races like the Tour de France. When not crushing his rivals, he is usually crushing his teammates’ rivals on their behalf, a kingmaker for their successes.
Van Aert has made himself a new style of bike racer, for he transcends the old labels of rouleur and puncheur. He is a racer, a human engine with a perception on the bike only of his proximity to victory and the means in which to achieve it. Yet he cannot match the targeted peaks of van der Poel, a man who has battled a persistent back injury yet continues to relish the interdisciplinary pleasure of the bicycle more than his closest rivals. He is a sniper, a man who will set his goals and duly reach them, an impression forever forged by his calculated double attack to win the stage and yellow jersey on the Mûr-de-Bretagne in the 2021 Tour. Immensely impressive, his victory today is a popular one, supported both by the chaos of the Cipressa and the Poggio which he so ably circumvented, and the strength and depth of his rivals’ teams that he matched and overcame. His victory also forms a familial narrative arc, drawing back to the history that we collectively weigh on him – that he likely places on himself.
Across three generations, this is the 22nd Milan-Sanremo appearance by van der Poel’s family, his victory today drawing comparisons to his grandfather Raymond Poulidor’s victory in 1961, a victory secured with an attack on the Poggio that enabled the then prodigy to hold off the all-conquering Emperor of Herentals — Rik van Looy. After attacking on the Poggio and holding off an engine from Herentals, Mathieu van der Poel stands once again liberated by his success, further defining his own racing trajectory distinct from his forefathers (as he has done for almost a decade now). His victory, monumental in its own right, is enhanced by the history of his family, enriched by the prestige of the race, and remembered for the combativity and nous that was emboldened by the plains of Piedmont.
Some things really are always the same, yet they are always different.