For observers, Milan-San Remo is as much a ritual as a bike race, with the passage over the Turchino doubling as a metaphor for the changing of the seasons. For participants, the reality of the long haul from the chill air of Lombardy to the warm embrace of the Riviera can be rather more prosaic.
“The first part is pretty boring,” Mathieu van der Poel confessed to reporters at Tirreno-Adriatico last weekend, adding that he had no particular method for relieving the tedium of the early hours of the longest day of the cycling calendar.
“Nothing special, I just try to get through those first hundreds of kilometres unscathed. But you don’t have to be focused during those first 200 kilometres. It’s mainly the last kilometres, actually as soon as you start riding on the coast, that the race really starts. That’s when the concentration has to be there.”
Just as the intensity suddenly increases once the peloton hits the coast at Voltri, Van der Poel will hope his road season can ignite as the race trips along the headlands towards San Remo. His first outing of the year at Strade Bianche two weeks ago was unexpectedly subdued, after all, his lone flash of inspiration at Tirreno-Adriatico came when he piloted Alpecin-Deceuninck teammate Jasper Philipsen to victory in Foligno.
“Not very good, but not dramatically bad either,” was Van der Poel’s own assessment of his feelings across the week at Tirreno-Adriatico. “Sometimes it was good, sometimes it was bad, but it certainly wasn’t as I expected. Still, I don’t worry that easily. I had only a short preparation before Tirreno, and I know that I needed a stage race like this to take another step forward.
“This was a week I needed. You can’t train like this at home. It was good to be at Tirreno and now with a few days’ rest, I assume I will be a lot better next weekend.”
Van der Poel doesn’t have to look back very far for an encouraging precedent. While his rival Wout van Aert was illuminating the cyclocross circuit over the Christmas period, the Dutchman complained of feeling limited by his long-standing back injury, but he would hit his stride at the tail end of the season on the back of a training camp on the road in Spain. After beating Van Aert to the World Cup in Benidorm, Van der Poel went on to land his fifth rainbow jersey by winning their head-to-head contest at the World Championships in Hoogerheide.
The relative travails of Van der Poel’s first road outings of 2023, meanwhile, pale…
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