Tadej Pogacar could be again the man to beat as the peloton rolls towards Milano-Sanremo wondering whether anyone can topple the Slovenian.
The first ‘Monument’ race of the season provides a typically ravishing backdrop on the Italian Riviera on which the double Tour de France champion is expected to again show why he is the most complete rider in the sport.
Capable of winning on almost all terrain, the 23-year-old has already collected three major victories this season, with two of those coming in Italy.
Milano-Sanremo is known as the sprinters classic but Pogacar’s incredible triumph at the Strade Bianche highlighted how he could cut them out before the race comes to the end of its 293 kilometres.
Pushing out with over 50 kilometres to go in Tuscany, Pogacar held off a strong field which included world champion Julian Alaphilippe, and followed that up last weekend by winning Tirreno-Adriatico while bagging two stages in the process.
The way he took the crucial sixth stage on Saturday led to observers wondering whether he was unbeatable in his current form, an idea which was batted aside in typically understated manner by Pogacar.
“I never think I’m unbeatable, even when I’m first. I always think someone can come back, pick me up and attack. I’m always careful. I never underestimate anyone,” he said.
Pogacar’s ability to seemingly re-write the rules of cycling mean this year’s Milano-Sanremo could be the most exciting in years, a different type of race to the one which often sees riders jostling over nearly 300 kilometres before sprinters burst through in the final metres.
His main rival looks to be Wout van Aert, the 2020 winner having the precise combination of sprinter speed and puncheur power to follow any attack before taking the honours.
Fresh from having helped Primoz Roglic to Paris-Nice victory, Van Aert will be flanked by an intimidating line-up of teammates which includes the Slovenian.
Having such a high-profile domestique, and one that owes you a favour, will make him one to watch, especially with Alaphilippe out of the race with bronchitis.
Jasper Stuyven will not defend his title because of illness, with the Trek-Segafredo rider replaced by Dane Mads Pedersen, the 2019 world champion and winner of a stage in the Paris-Nice last week.
Also in the mix are Ineos and highly-rated Tom Pidcock and Filippo Ganna, the team pursuit Olympic champion one of the leading riders in last year’s race as a domestique.
Pogacar has hinted at an early attack on the Cipressa climb around 30km from the finish, where the gradient maxes out a reasonable nine percent and gives him a chance to build a lead that keeps the sprinters at bay.
That would be a break from tradition as it is usually the final Poggio climb which serves as a springboard for the punchers towards a tense finale.