Some cycling enthusiasts might argue that spring can only be considered well and truly underway when the Monuments begin, and there’s something pleasing about how the weather almost always obliges in Italy at this time of year. Fast forward to May, and the Giro is so often beset by horrendous weather conditions, and the country itself has suffered in recent years from the changing climate and shifting conditions.

Yet the middle weekend in March somehow finds itself almost always blessed with a bubble of perfect weather, as the nascent season blossoms into life and we are treated to stunning vistas of bright blue skies and sweeping helicopter shots of the Ligurian coast, or rolling hills of Lombardy.

The stunning Ligurian coast provides the backdrop to 'La Primavera'

Two races, both steeped in history, take place across this weekend, and while we’ve come to appreciate the symmetry of Paris-Roubaix weekend, where the women’s race occupies its space on the Saturday and the men’s its traditional Sunday, or the rollercoaster of De Ronde, with two races - men’s, then women’s - taking place concurrently, the drama unfolding at a stagger, with barely time to catch our breath between them, this Italian Monument weekend is something different.

It retains the unique sense of place but without acquiescing to the demands from some corners of the cycling world to homogenise racing between genders. While it’s easy to be lured into the desire for a women’s Milano-Sanremo – picture the biggest hitters in the women’s peloton exploding up the Poggio and I defy you not to wish for just such an outcome – it’s just as interesting to consider that no men’s version of the Trofeo Alfredo Binda exists. While it doesn’t boast the century-long history of Milano-Sanremo, by women’s cycling standards it’s a relative methuselah, established in 1974, and like Milano-Sanremo, it’s as unpredictable as races get.

There’s a beautiful symmetry about the two races, despite their uniqueness, as both present the opportunity for a day of racing unlike any other, gilt-edged with opportunity, the whisper of possibility, the sense that anything could happen – and it so often does.

It’s the ultimate irony, in the case of Milano-Sanremo, as the first 280km or so are almost always exactly the same. But it’s this long, reliable wearing down process that lends the final portion of the race its breath-taking intensity; a slow gathering of tension, a gradual build towards a dramatic crescendo which in itself is predictable: someone, or more likely multiple someones – will attack on the Poggio – but like snowballs rolling downhill, it’s impossible to tell who will gather the most pace, and in which way the race will be won.

Heading into the unknown: Milano-Sanremo is one of the cycling calendar's most unpredictable races

MSR’s Greatest Hits

This year’s edition was no different – and different in every way, as each edition surely must be. While once again much of the pre-race hype centred around UAE Team Emirates, and the sense of increasing frustration surrounding Tadej Pogačar and a race which he has no way of controlling.

While the team's sports directors suggested an attack on the Cipressa might actually come to pass, years after it was first suggested as a possibility for the irrepressible Slovenian and his entourage, the actuality was once again wrought in underwhelm. The attack did come, or rather an increase in pressure, which served to thin out the bunch, drop some of the purer sprinters, and tire the legs of those without the form on the day, but it was never going to be enough with that quality of peloton and the increased expectation seemed to add to the inevitability of its failure, by contrast to that at Strade Bianche, where Pogačar's announcement of his tactics was not taken seriously, to the detriment of everyone else.

In the end, the true attacks were reserved for the most hallowed of tarmac, that infamous slope of the Poggio, almost ridiculous in its nominal similarity to the man who would try to claim the race for his palmares. He did indeed strike, first on the 8% slope with 1km of the climb remaining, dropped off by a charging Tim Wellens, but his strike was met with resistance, as first Mathieu van der Poel, then Italian duo Alberto Bettiol and Filippo Ganna proved equal to the challenge.

Aided by a big effort from Mads Pedersen, a marauding bunch of hopefuls made it back into contention, a swift rejoinder to Pogačar’s hopes of dismissing them outright. He struck again with just a couple of hundred metres remaining on the Poggio and this time the gap held for longer, but once again van der Poel was the first man back to his wheel – proving once more that the climb just isn’t tough enough for Pog to be able to deploy his arsenal to fullest effect.

UAE lead the charge flanked by an elite selection of riders

So an assembly of past winners, race favourites and other elite hopefuls crested the climb and began the technical descent, and just as Pogačar and MVDP had unloaded the watts on the way up the climb, so the demon descenders used the downhill to their advantage. Tom Pidcock was first to close in, and with a slimmed down group of 12 others trailing behind. Shortly after, 2021 winner Matej Mohorič divebombed past them all heading into the end of the descent and found some breathing space. With such a big group still in contention, the Alpecin game plan became clear, as van der Poel once again expended energy, dragging the whole group back to Mohorič. Philipsen, it seemed, was the chosen one.

Matteo Sobrero was the next, and arguably most unlikely candidate to have a shot, but faint heart never won fair Monument and if ever there’s a time to shoot your shot, it’s 800m from the finish line of La Primavera. Pidcock pedalled like a man possessed to catch and pass Sobrero and from there, 600m remained and his gap hung almost suspended in time as it felt as though he had it, he could actually win his first Monument, but no – the combined power of the lead-out engines of van der Poel and Stuyven and the sheer will of Michael Matthews and Tadej Pogačar crushed the gap and so it would be a sprint.

Suddenly, for a few seconds as the pieces tumbled into place like a jigsaw being assembled in fast-forward, the outcome was inevitable. Of course it was Jasper Philipsen, delivered once again into the perfect position from which to win a race by the ultimate lead-out man. Michael Matthews hanging on to force a photo finish, his closest ever result at the race, was just one of the stand-out performances of the day, on a race that makes men brave, gives them hope, then all too often dashes it against the rough-hewn stones of the Sanremo city walls, but so many positives can be taken:

  • Filippo Ganna apparently setting the fastest time on the Poggio, according to the Strava KOM rankings, despite the resulting mechanical that took him out of contention as the race tipped over into the descent.
  • The sheer ‘superheroes all getting to show their powers’ sense of the final of the race, a ‘Greatest Hits’ of the past few years, with the mega-watt attacks of Pogačar and van der Poel, the daredevil descending of Pidcock and Mohorič, the valiant efforts and tight teamwork of Lidl-Trek’s Pedersen and Stuyven, and even the presence of Julian Alaphilippe, seemingly rejuvenated and up for the fight.
  • A special mention to those riding their first Monument especially Maxim van Gils who finished in a remarkable 8th place surrounded by legends of the sport, Casper Pedersen in 13th, Olav Kooij in 14th and Laurence Pithie in 15th.

But the day belonged to Jasper Philipsen. On a podium of friends, he was the most dominant, and the first-time winner adds his first Monument to his already impressive palmares, ahead of a season in which he will look to prove himself as the fastest man on two wheels. He’s made a damn good start.

The usual suspects: the biggest names in cycling surround Pogacar on the Cipressa

She who dares

The next day, the Trofeo Alfredo Binda offered the women a completely different prospect, and yet a notably similar opportunity: one of the most open races on the calendar, in stark contrast with Milano-Sanremo, Binda offers multiple punchy climbs from which to launch an attack, and as such it’s often a rolling, chaotic affair, with attacks going out and being reeled back in again, and the tantalising possibility that anything could happen. It’s interesting, if not notable, that 280km of seemingly relaxed riding precedes the men’s opportunity to have a crack at the most wide open and intense 10km of racing of the season, yet the women’s race, 50% less in terms of distance, feels just as open and unpredictable.

Coming into the race, Lidl-Trek were the team to beat, with three consecutive years of success prior to this edition, and just as is always the case with women’s racing, we were deposited directly into the thick of the action, landing on the race in media res with 48km to go (by contrast to the 288km of broadcast coverage the men’s Monument received). The scene: Lotte Kopecky and Mavi Garcia, tracking an attack from AG Insurance-Soudal’s Mireia Benito and once again, as is characteristic of women’s racing broadcasts, there was a sense of being late to the party.

Dialled in and ready to roll, we picked up the threads of the action, the peloton still mostly together though it quickly spread out as the women hit yet another climb; the periods of rest and recovery relatively short as yet another pitch confronted them. There were riders who were determined to make an impact, and Mireia Benito was one of them, pushing clear again as settled back in to watch the action unfold.

Jade Wiel of FDJ-SUEZ was the first rider to sustain a gap outside of the early, doomed, one-woman break, and with the young French woman out front and a flatter section of road, the bunch were allowed to regroup before the attacks began again, with Fenix-Deceuninck’s Yara Kastelijn leading the charge and stretching out the peloton once more through the winding roads of Cittiglio.

It was the move nobody expected and yet, given her current form, we all should have expected: with 32km remaining, Fenix-Deceuninck's off-road queen Puck Pieterse detonated on the short, punchy Casale climb, shattering the peloton into a disconnected snake as they chased the light blue jersey of the WWT's current best young rider. Pieterse wrought havoc on the best-laid race plans and upheld the notion that anything can and will happen, in this race.

She held the lead solo for a time, until Team SD Worx-Protime's Niamh Fisher-Black closed her down, using the Orino climb to the her advantage. The two remained at the head of the race until a charging peloton closed them down and Fisher-Black passed the baton to teammate Marlen Reusser, who engaged time trial mode and pushed away, hoping the bunch would be slow on the uptake and she could mount one of her unassailable solo attacks. It was not to be – with the tempo and tensions too high, Reusser’s attempt was neutralised and a far less controlled effort ensued, with another Swiss, Canyon//SRAM’s Elise Chabbey, taking the bull by the horns and powering ahead, with a selection of riders dogging her heel.

It was a who’s who of the women’s peloton’ current generation of talent, with Grand Tour stage winners, Classics winners and young hopefuls all taking their turns to try and launch the attack that would stick. And the beauty of this race is that it’s a mysterious art trying to figure out which one will. Last year Shirin van Anrooij’s attack wasn’t an explosion of power but a subtle strike; she crept out of the peloton and whether the rest underestimated her, or were caught up in mind games, by the time they reacted it was too late.

2023 winner Shirin van Anrooij chases down an attack by Niamh Fisher-Black

It seemed this year, they had got the memo. With her teammate Pieterse stashed back in the bunch, Yara Kastelijn tried her luck again, then Canyon//SRAM went for it, this time through Neve Bradbury. Movistar’s Mareille Meijering was able to stay with her, and Fisher-Black tried her luck again, moving across to the pair and passing them on the longer Orino climb, the final significant ascent of the race. Yet again though, the attack would come to nothing. Last year’s winner van Anrooij turned herself inside out to close the gap, suggesting that she was on team duty rather than being the team's favoured rider, finding herself at the front alongside her cyclocross compatriot Pieterse with 7.5km to go, this time in the lead of a major road race – how far they have both come in such a short time.

Mareille Meijering was a woman on a mission: with 5.5km to go she launched a solo, distancing herself and riding clear, her ponytail whipping out behind her as she ducked her head to try and drive into the lead. Despite holding a slender four-second lead for a spell, her attack had an air of the doomed about it. She was reeled back in by a reduced bunch powered by Lidl-Trek and pushing for a sprint.

And so it unfolded. With just 1km remaining the 24-strong bunch closed in and pushed on, and where it had been a late sprint that decided Milano-Sanremo, the women’s peloton, or what was left of it, were content to settle for the bunch sprint outcome despite the presence of 2022 winner Elisa Balsamo, set to make it four in a row for Lidl-Trek.

Kim Le Court (Fenix-Deceuninck), representing the diminutive nation of Mauritius, was bravely the first to launch her sprint, but Balsamo and Kopecky surged through, the Italian proving her dominance, taking her second win at the race, with Kopecky second and Puck Pieterse improbably coming through in third position in a field of fast women – her second WWT podium this season.

Speed queens: the sprinters surge for the line at Trofeo Alfredo Binda

As you were

So what of the debate about the need for parity – does it extend to having an edition for both genders of every major race? Imagine the women’s peloton tearing up the Poggio and back down again, the chaos and beauty of that incomparable stretch of competitive riding – does it need to be the same as the men’s race, albeit a shortened version? It’s arbitrary, to me. I would simply love to see the women’s peloton attack those roads. They can come from a different direction and call it something else for all I care. Who wouldn’t want to race the Poggio?

With the women’s calendar packed and teams struggling to fulfil their responsibilities to send squads to races, adding another feels unnecessary on balance, given the individuality of the race they have on the very same weekend.

And what about the men taking on Alfredo Binda? With ample races filling out the schedule for the men’s peloton, this reversal is much less called for, but playing out the possibilities in the imagination is pleasing – it's the kind of rolling course that you can’t help but wish to see racing play out on – however with so few races unique to women’s cycling, it provokes a more defensive response. Maybe everything really is just fine the way it is, and that's OK.

Whichever way you slice it, it was a weekend to remember, and despite the contrasts between the two races, the winners can both be defined as the fastest in the bunch at this present moment. With the fastest edition of Milano-Sanremo ever raced, and two sprint finishes, it quite literally flew by. Let’s do it all over again next year?

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