Caleb Ewan has said that strength in numbers will be the key to Milan-San Remo success for him and his Lotto-Dstny team on Saturday.
The Australian has twice finished second at La Primavera, two years ago leading home the chasing pack just meters behind Jasper Stuyven, and he’ll be joined as co-leader of the Belgian squad by rising star Arnaud De Lie.
In an era where late attacks and riders shedding the sprinters on the Poggio are the order of the day, bringing two sprinters to lead a team at Milan-San Remo almost seems anachronistic.
But Lotto’s pairing are a versatile duo, both able to cope with the hills and strong enough to live with the strongest over the decisive final climb.
“Numbers are key,” Ewan told the media at the team presentation in Abbiategrasso on Friday. “It’s often a lottery if you survive the Poggio. People can jump away at any moment on the descent or at the bottom.
“In that scenario, I can’t bring everyone back and also be good enough to win the sprint. Hopefully, Arnaud De Lie and I can survive, and we have one more teammate. That way, we can reduce the risk of a late break. But that’s easier said than done.”
Ewan has a win at the non-UCI Schwalbe Classic criterium this season, and controversially missed out on the victory in a photo finish at the recent GP Monseré. De Lie, meanwhile, has started his sophomore pro season with three wins plus a second place at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
Both men are among the major contenders for the 294km race, even if the likes of Tadej Pogačar, Wout van Aert, and Mathieu van der Poel enjoy shorter betting odds. For Ewan and De Lie to succeed, they’ll have to work together if they find themselves among the leaders heading down into San Remo.
“I think we are the two sprinters who have the biggest chance of surviving the Poggio,” Ewan said. “The most important thing is that we can communicate openly with each other. We have the advantage of having two. But I don’t want to reveal too much about our tactics.”
Team directeur sportif Allan Davis agreed that having the two sprinters in the line-up is a boon for the Belgian squad.
“Caleb has the experience with five participations and two podium spots. In two editions he was the fastest of the bunch, so hopefully, we can sprint for victory this year,” he said. “For Arnaud De Lie, it will be a first and it will all be about gathering as much experience as possible. But it is true that his presence gives us more opportunities.
“Within the team we have gone over lots of possible race scenarios, but we need to see how the race unfolds and choose the right tactic from there. In any case, we have a solid team at the start which is able to protect Caleb and Arnaud really well. We go for the best possible result.”
Once known as ‘the sprinter’s Classic’ Milan-San Remo has seen fewer and fewer pure sprinters and smaller and smaller groups battle it out for wins at the end of the usual seven hours of racing.
Arnaud Démare’s win seven years ago was the last time a group of over 30 riders contested the finish. That doesn’t look likely to change on Saturday, with the likes of Pogačar and his UAE Team Emirates squad hoping to make things hard for the fastmen, as they did last year with an acceleration on the Cipressa.
Ewan, however, said that the move was a mistake, leaving fewer riders on the Poggio to make it harder for the sprinters. He said he’d do it differently if he were in Pogačar’s shoes.
“For me, he used the wrong tactics there,” Ewan said. “They neutralized the race by going full throttle on the Cipressa. That’s why the run-in to the Poggio was much calmer.
“Everyone who was still there at the bottom also got over the top. If you don’t attack on the Cipressa, you go to the Poggio with a bigger group at a much higher intensity, and you can make the selection there. If I was in his shoes, I’d wait until the Poggio before attacking.”
And as for potential attacks on the technical descent into San Remo, which Matej Mohorič used to great effect last year? Well, Ewan is confident that he’d be able to follow the Slovenian – or anyone else – who decides to take off over the top.
“In that case, I will have to try to follow him and take those corners with no fear,” Ewan said. “I’m a good descender, I think. Good enough to follow, but not to make the difference myself.