Milano-Sanremo: ‘In just 20kms it becomes the hottest race that doesn’t forgive’

Vincenzo Nibali, Jasper Stuyven, Quinn Simmons and director Kim Andersen give their impressions of la Classicissima di primavera

After 111 years, is it possible to find something new on the eve of Milano-Sanremo? With a route that has remained unchanged for years – the longest among the professionals at 300 kilometers – and a script that is as simple as unpredictable, the answer could be no.

Despite this, the first Monument of the season always brings excellent debates. Favorites? Outsiders? Who will make the selection on Cipressa? Who will attack on the Poggio? And will the teams of the sprinters succeed in holding the race?

Ahead of the 2021 edition, we present four notable and different views from Vincenzo Nibali, a veteran of 12 editions and winner in 2018, Classics specialist Jasper Stuyven, neo-pro Quinn Simmons, and director Kim Andersen.

Vincenzo Nibali: The experienced leader

For 280 kilometers, Milano-Sanremo is like a long procession. It’s the calm before the storm because in just 20 kilometers, it becomes the hottest race, one that doesn’t forgive. Each edition is a story. Everyone knows what awaits, but no one knows what can happen from Cipressa onwards. It’s the most open classic in terms of characteristics but must be approached with the utmost attention to detail.

Everyone knows that the decisive points are now the Cipressa and Poggio. But you can’t have any distractions in the long route that takes you there, starting from the neutral start, 7.6 kilometers in Milan from Castello Sforzesco to Via della Chiesa Rossa. Here the tram tracks are tricky, everyone knows this, but still someone always ends up on the ground, his race ending before beginning.

From kilometer zero, you have to take maniacal care to eat and drink; otherwise you may end up out of reserves at a key moment. I still remember my first participations, fully motivated and gritty, my head was only set on last 20 kilometers.  And then, on the Capi, suddenly the lights went out and it was game over.

Then you still have to know when to stop to pee, and not risk spending unnecessary energy to get back. Or thinking about the proper clothing for the right moment: not too light to feel cold, but also not too heavy to sweat too much.

Even if you’ve done everything right, from Capo Mele onwards, 60 kilometers from the finish, you’re only halfway there. From that point the battle for positions begins. Watchword: being in the front. Any energy spent recovering position is one less chance to win. The Cipressa is the first test, the first selection. But be careful, don’t let yourself be deceived. Even if you pass it with ease, then comes the Poggio which, between the two, is the climb that often remains more indigestible. What happens next is what remains in the annals, what will be written in the Milano-Sanremo history for that year.

Jasper Stuyven: The Belgian outsider

I like Milano-Sanremo, even if, for various reasons, I haven’t done it that many times. It has a great history and a nice finale with a long build-up towards it. I remember a lot of discussions around which type of rider is best suited to win. Many people say it’s a sprinters’ classic, but I disagree. It’s simply a classic.

In the past, maybe yes, it was more for the sprinters, but now we have seen in the last years that it’s going more and more towards puncheurs and power sprinters, or guys that can stay away but with the sprinters just two seconds behind. It’s all so close to play for. In the past, before I was racing, I feel like that it was more of a certainty that it would be a sprint. Now, it’s really in the balance between the outcomes.

The distance is another key factor of Milano-Sanremo. I like that the historical races keep their distance as well, and of course it also adds maybe a boring factor for the people who watch on TV and even for us it’s a really long day with a long build-up. But, for me personally, the Monuments are the historical races. I think it’s nice to keep them as they were. Nowadays, the length is a point of discussion because if we would do only 150km on the coast and then still do the Cipressa and Poggio, perhaps we would see a more aggressive race, although maybe in the end, with the same winner.

I have always been interested to see the tactical aspects in the key moments – teams choosing which rider will be their leader or who is their option B, and how they tackle the race. Or how you see guys dropping where you don’t expect them to get dropped, and the other way around. There are a lot of scenarios and it’s all about positioning as well. It’s everything.

Since a few years we see punchy climbers coming to do the Classic races more and more. That also changes the way of racing because if they’re good at positioning they can win those races. It’s interesting to see how they go, where they go, and how big the attack is – and how many guys can follow and the organization behind. Of course, the guys like Alaphilippe doing these races adds something extra.

I was top 10 in 2018, although I think I could have done better that year. I like the positioning, the stress going into that final. I like how you can feel the peloton shift from being super relaxed to being more in the front, concentrated, and then to the point where it’s really full-on. From then, it’s about the legs and getting into a good position coming into the Poggio. Then, you just have to see how it goes!

Quinn Simmons: The rookie

MSR will be the first Monument of my life and, for a Classic lover like I am, it’s a milestone. However, I don’t find it useful to think too much about this. I want to approach it with respect but with as little stress as possible. At the end of the day, whether you’re a leader, domestique or rookie, what we have to do is racing, as usual. And I want to do it while having fun.

My love for the Classics comes from afar. Like many American cycling fans, Classics season was a must. Our passion, despite the time difference and distance, is equal to that of European fans. I always got up early in the morning to watch Milano-Sanremo and the other Classics on TV. That’s how my infatuation for these races was born and, now that I’m a pro rider, why I want to fight for the win.

My dream for Milano-Sanremo would be to drop everyone on the Poggio, going full speed on the descent, resisting the chasers and crossing the line solo with my arms raised. I think that’s the coolest way to win MSR… just like Vincenzo did, the most vivid memory I have of the race.

From Strade Bianche onwards, with Tirreno-Adriatico and now MSR, it’s been a dip in cycling history as well as the first real confrontation with cycling’s elite. And in a few weeks, I’ll be racing the Ronde (van Vlaanderen) and Paris-Roubaix.  This is what I am looking for; I can’t wait!

Kim Andersen: The team director

If you aim to win la Classicissima, you don’t have to be “only” strong and in top condition, but you need to be terribly skilled in handling the bike. The nature of MSR, in essence, has remained the same over the years. What has changed is how teams prepare for the race.

MSR is a reflection of the level we have in modern cycling, with similar values among key riders and the so-called domestiques sometimes as strong as captains. Riders are stronger and more complete. More powerful climbers who can withstand the impact of explosive forcing from puncheurs, or sprinters who have improved their resistance and come to play the sprint in increasingly small groups. And teams are more well-equipped, with many able to handle a tough race for much longer than in the past.

In talking about the route, the Cipressa keeps its importance, but by now we see an increasingly large group arriving at its foot. Maybe it’s more the descent than the climb that makes a discrete selection. The Poggio is the key point of the race. As soon as you approach it, there’s a sort of natural selection, both on the climb and on the descent. Year after year, the growing level of the performances has moved the bar higher, or further really: the closer you get to the finish line, the more you see the real differences.

In normal weather conditions, the mileage is still a notable factor, but not the one that makes the difference among riders. The team must pay attention to get through the first part without any problems. Then, of course, it depends on what goals you have as a team. If I think back to the past editions, our best strategy will be to race smartly, without wasting unnecessary energy, and preserving the strength of our leaders, Vincenzo and Jasper, while waiting for the last climb.

There are teams with riders that are big favorites for MSR and they will be the ones that will manage the race. It’s up to us to be in the right place at the right time to disrupt their plans. We have two valid alternatives to play with, and this must be our strong point.