For the third year in succession, Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) accelerated forcefully on the upper slopes of the Poggio, but this time the world champion was unable to shuffle the deck to his liking at Milan-San Remo.
A dozen or so riders remained in contact at the summit, with more catching back on the sinuous drop back into town. Men who expected Alaphilippe to put the race beyond their reach on the Poggio, including Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), now suddenly realised that they could reach out and grab it for themselves.
Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) grasped the moment firmly, clipping clear with just over two kilometres to go, and took advantage of the confusion in the group behind. Søren Kragh Andersen (Team DSM) bridged across and Stuyven smartly used his slipstream before dispatching him on the Via Roma to win.
In the chasing group, Alaphilippe had already realised that his hand was not a winning one, but he played the cards he was dealt all the same.
He went all-in by opening his sprint with more than 200 metres to go in a doomed attempt to catch Stuyven. Inevitably, he faded long before the finish, rolling across the line in 16th place.
“All day it was very fast. We respected the objective we had set ourselves, to take the race in hand and try everything in the finale,” said Alaphilippe with disappointment.
“The finale was very difficult.”
Sam Bennett, fresh from two stage wins at Paris-Nice, was Alaphilippe’s co-leader, but a puncture ahead of the Cipressa perhaps proved costly to the Irishman’s chances. Although he was still in the front group at the base of the Poggio, he signaled to Alaphilippe that this was unlikely to be his day.
As in 2020, Van Aert was immediately on Alaphilippe’s wheel when he kicked in the final kilometre of the Poggio. Van der Poel, dressed in the Monument-issued white shorts that are fast becoming cycling’s answer to Tiger Woods’ Sunday red and black, made it across shortly afterwards, but he brought a clutch of other riders with him, including the surprising Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal), who would win the sprint for second place on the Via Roma.
“Sam was honest, and he said he didn’t feel super good. I tried to make the difference, but it wasn’t enough to go and win,” Alaphilippe said. “Afterwards, with all the fast guys there, I couldn’t do much more.”
There was, Alaphilippe said, “no dead time” in that breathless finale, with Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) stringing out the front group on the way down the Poggio.
Indeed, the group was so stretched that Alaphilippe admitted that he only learned of Stuyven’s attack after it had happened.
“I didn’t see it,” Alaphilippe said.
“The descent was done very quickly. When Tom Pidcock hit the front, that made everybody a bit nervous. There was no time to recover, and I knew with the regrouping that there would be a lot of attacks in the last 2km on the flat. I couldn’t do much more.”
Alaphilippe had downplayed expectations beforehand, insisting that he had felt no pressure to win Milan-San Remo, having already done so two years ago. On the Via Roma on Saturday afternoon, he evinced no regrets, either.
He now travels to Belgium where he will race Dwars door Vlaanderen in preparation for his second tilt at the Tour of Flanders. Both there, and at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, he will have another chance to emulate countrymen Louison Bobet and Bernard Hinault by winning a Monument in the rainbow jersey.
“I have no regrets,” Alaphilippe insisted. “It was a nice day, it was a fast race and I obviously tried to win, but it doesn’t work out every time.”