The easiest race to finish, the hardest to win. Milan-Sanremo is also the most elusive race, where victory can often feel within reach, a tempting mirage.
Cast yourself back to 2010 and in the sprint for Milan-Sanremo Sacha Modolo finished fourth riding for the Colnago-CSF team, Bardiani today. “More than a hope” wrote La Gazzetta the next day about this future prospect. Only it was Modolo’s best result in La Primavera and the closest he got was eighth in 2014.
Modolo might just have got lucky in 2010 when the wheels of fortune spun his way but many other riders have come close in Sanremo and looked to have the race within reach only to never make it. Take Peter Sagan who seemed made for the race, able to win bunch sprints, a daredevil descender or just powerful enough to barge clear on the Poggio, it feels like he should have won it many times over. Only he’s had two second places, five fourth places and a sixth place yet never won.
In recent years Ben Swift has been on the podium twice. Michael Matthews has been in the top-10 five times, Sonny Colbrelli four times, Nacer Bouhanni, Greg Van Avermaet three times. Caleb Ewan has twice finished second. Now by definition many riders have to be the runners-up. A top-10 in Flanders, Roubaix or Liège, or a grand tour, and every rider will be wondering what to do to improve. It’s just that in Sanremo things are so close.
The winning margin is so fine and the race is open to all that it all leads to feeling that if things had turned out a just little differently then the big win would arrive. A sprinter can think this, a grand tour contender too, and everyone in between gets to dream and plan. It’s this that seems to tempt so many into this race.
If it’s back to the drawing board for someone close to the win, they’ll feel it only takes the tiniest of pen strokes to get them that win when it comes to Sanremo. That’s the devilish part. It’s almost as if there’s an optical illusion at work. Losing out by a few millimetres or a bike length after 300km looks like nothing, so a tiny bit more work over winter and in the build-up and basta, the top step of the podium awaits. Only it’s not so simple, the race could be very different next time, maybe the weather is worse or the dreaming rider just gets out of bed on the wrong side. But that disappointment comes on the day itself, perhaps in the final minutes. Until then it’s the hope.
If you have a rider in mind when it comes to finishing close, imagine how that particular rider must feel? It’s no secret to say that over the years riders like Michael Matthews, Matej Mohorič and Caleb Ewan have tackled the Poggio in training. To the point that local residents might look out the window, or workers in the hothouses producing flowers look up, and think “oh, him again” as the same rider comes past again. And again.
The lesson from all this is that a rider might get to start Milan-Sanremo many times over but maybe they’ll only ever get one real shot at winning. Who’ll seize it this Saturday?