Justifying a wildcard invite: youngest rider ‘in seventh heaven’ at aggressive San Remo debut

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You can imagine the emotions. Cycling since he was six years of age, increasingly immersed in the sport since then, Italian rider Umberto Poli got a late call-up to Milan-San Remo last week, started it on Saturday and was in the break for much of the day.

Having heard and read and watched all about the biggest races such as La Primavera, being up the road in front of the fanatical tifosi is an experience that has burned into his memory.

“The team called me three days before the race and let me know I’d be racing,” Poli told CyclingTips. “I was listed as a reserve, so I had that week on hold just in case something happened. So it wasn’t a complete surprise.

“Being so young and having the opportunity to race at one of the most famous races in cycling was already such a thrill. When I received the call from [directeur sportif] Massimo Podenzana that I was going to race San Remo, I was in seventh heaven. I told myself that I had to stay calm but, trust me, that was pretty difficult!

“For us Italians, this race is huge. I knew the importance and weight of the race, and I didn’t want to have a poor showing in front of all of Italy….and, really, the entire world.

“To end up getting into the break at such an iconic Italian race is truly an indescribable feeling.”

The plan was clear: get someone in the break early on, then give it plenty.
Cannondale-Drapac rider Toms Skujins leads the break early on. Poli is in the white and blue kit.

Being part of the day’s long-distance move is important for several reasons. Firstly, Poli is just 20 years old. He was the youngest of all the riders on the start list. Secondly, he’s racing with Type 1 diabetes, having being diagnosed at 16 years of age.

He and others on the Novo Nordisk team know they are role models for many with the condition, and knuckling down in the world’s biggest sporting events is an invaluable example.

Thirdly, for a Pro Continental team relying on wildcards, being visible and aggressive is completely crucial. Getting invites from organisers is dependent on the teams making an impression and, if it’s not possible to win, animating the races is the next best step.

Without that, gaining repeat invites would be difficult.

“To be honest, the tactics were not very difficult or dynamic,” Poli states. “Our goal was to get in the break, and we knew that meant to be on the attack from the very start of the race. From there, our plan was to try to stay with the first group as long as possible as the race hit the climbs.

“Before we left the bus, all of the riders spoke together, and we decided to all get to the front of the peloton from the neutral section and plan for one of us to mark each attack.”

It didn’t take long for the day’s big move to go, with ten riders moving clear almost immediately. Poli made the break, as did Cannondale-Drapac duo Tom Skujins and Will Clarke, Nico Denz (Ag2r La Mondiale), Ivan Rovny (Gazprom-Rusvelo), Mirco Maestri (Bardiani-CSF), Umberto Poli (Novo Nordisk), Alan Marangoni (Nippo-Fantini), Mattia Frapporti (Androni-Sidermec), Julen Amezqueta (Wilier-Selle Italia) and Federico Zurlo (UAE Team Emirates).

These pulled well together and built a lead of over five minutes. For over two hundred kilometres they battled the bunch, dictating the tactics behind and also shaping the day.

Novo Nordisk directeur sportif Vassili Davidenko told Cycling Tips that being in the break was vital.

“Milan-San Remo serves as a unique opportunity. Every year we go into the race aiming to tell the world about our team and its unique mission to inspire, educate and empower people affected by diabetes,” he stated. “These World Tour races have a high visibility with large TV coverage around the globe, and it helps us spread this message.”

Repaying the race organiser’s faith is also important.

Poli and the other riders in the day’s breakaway.

Poli is in his first year as a professional and had previously ridden just one race at this level, the Dubai Tour.

He eventually came under pressure on the climbs inside the final 40 kilometres, slipping backwards. However for one so young and inexperienced to be up the road all day was an encouraging sign.

He eventually rolled in 17 minutes 22 seconds behind the race winner Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky)

“After the breakaway, the second goal was to finish the race, and we all did that,” he states. “This was the first year all eight of Team Novo Nordisk’s riders finished San Remo.

“Overall, I’m satisfied with my performance. I can already see so many places where I can improve, but I know that will slowly come.”

‘My prospects look good, but I still have to work hard’

At 20 years, Poli has much improvement ahead of him. He’s psyched about being in the break in the longest Classic, and has taken considerable encouragement from it.

“According to my Pioneer [power meter], I consumed 5,878 kcal in 7 hours 20 minutes,” he said, giving some statistics about the effort. “As I mentioned, finishing the race was one of my main goals.

“When I crossed the finish line after more than seven hours on the bike, it was really a thrill because not everyone finishes this race, so it was an honour. For me, I wanted to finish at all costs. If nothing else, it ends up serving as great preparation for my next races.”

Davidenko believes in his potential, describes him as a very promising young rider. “He’s got a great personality and is fully dedicated to being a professional cyclist,” he says.

He’s clear that his showing in his second pro race will stand to him and help his development.

“In one day, Umberto made a name for himself. Throughout Italy, his name is now recognizable and the breakaway will bring him confidence that he can carry into the future.”

He believes that much more is to come, although he also underlines the importance of working hard and developing steadily.

“For Umbe to continue succeeding, he needs to stay focused on his training, follow his coach and the direction from the team,” he states. “We want him to grow gradually and definitely don’t want to rush his development.”

Still smiling, over seven hours later

As for Poli, as a 20 year old coming out of a 291 kilometre Classic, he knows how tough the sport is. However he can also see that he can mix it with older, more experienced pros.

He pledges to keep building and believes that in time, he will go on to more significant things.

“This race made me realize my prospects look good. I know I still have to work hard to reach the level of my opponents.

“But if I continue to put in the work, I think we can talk again in two years and I’ll be a completely different rider…”

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