Stuyven divides and conquers in San Remo
When Jasper Stuyven attacked with 2.5km to go in the 2021 Milan-San Remo, he’d chosen his moment perfectly. He was still on the descent of the Poggio, the last couple of hundred metres or so, and this gave him an easier acceleration than if he’d done it on the flat. And his chasers, who dithered very briefly in following, had less descent to work with, so any acceleration they made would be more physically expensive. Moreover they’d momentarily slowed, as Tom Pidcock’s surge down the descent tailed off.
Whether Stuyven’s brain was processing this or not, almost 297km and six-and-a-half hours into the race, or whether he just saw an opening, is unsure, though he did say after the race that he had planned to attack. However, his success was down less to the small relative advantage of accelerating just off the descent than to the composition of the group which he was rapidly leaving behind.
Cycling is a physical sport, but strong legs and lungs are just the entry criteria. At this level, cycling is primarily political and tactical, and the success of Stuyven’s attack hinged entirely on the fact that the group behind him was disparate, consisting of 15 riders from 13 different teams. Bora-Hansgrohe and Bahrain Victorious had put two men each up there, but mostly it was every man for himself. What’s more, those 15 riders included some of the best sprinters and classics finishers in the world: nobody wanted to take any of Caleb Ewan, Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel, Peter Sagan or Michael Matthews to the line. The group did close on Stuyven, and DSM’s Søren Kragh Andersen bridged the gap, but when the group fanned across the road with a few hundred metres to go, it lost just enough impetus that Stuyven could stay away. Ewan closed to a bike length behind, just as he did in 2018 against lone escapee Vincenzo Nibali, but the Belgian had done enough. In the great battle between Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel, the winner had been Jasper Stuyven.
Even by the standards of MilanSan Remo, the 2021 edition had been a slow burner. The race stayed together into and over the three capi and up and over the Cipressa. The Ineos Grenadiers’ Filippo Ganna set a searing pace into and up the Poggio, and it discouraged attacks until Julian Alaphiliippe and Wout van Aert both tried towards the top of the climb. Attacking a group which is already riding uphill at high speed is difficult (and effectively the opposite of what Stuyven would do on the other side of the climb) and neither rider could get away alone, although they did whittle the lead group down to the final 16, who were still very spread out as they crossed the summit.
Before it was even clear who had made the final selection, however, Stuyven was off the descent and away. And the group did everything necessary not to catch him. Bora’s Schachmann made an attack with Greg Van Avermaet - by that point,
Bora’s only real chance of victory was Sagan in the sprint, so spending energy on a futile attack arguably killed both their chances. Kragh Andersen bridged. Pidcock tried, but was chased by Van Aert, and even as they closed to within 50 metres of Stuyven, the Brit and the Jumbo rider relented and the gap opened again. Andersen went to the front with Stuyven sitting in; the group behind started freewheeling.
The interesting thing is that Stuyven probably rode those final 2.5km at exactly the same effort and speed, lifting himself slightly to sprint past Kragh Andersen. The group behind had achieved higher peaks of speed, especially in the finishing straight, but they’d also freewheeled and decelerated. The winner is not always the fastest rider at the finish, it’s the rider who crosses the finish line first.