By the numbers: What it takes to win Milan-San Remo

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When Peter Sagan (Bora-hansgrohe) attacked on the Poggio in Saturday’s Milan-San Remo, just two riders could follow him. One of them, Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky), went on to win the race, beating Sagan with a bike throw in a thrilling three-up sprint.

So what exactly did it take for Kwiatkowski to follow Sagan’s move then beat him in the sprint? What sort of power was he producing? And how does that compare to Simon Gerrans’ effort when he won the 2012 edition in very similar circumstances?

In this article former pro and Dig Deep Coaching co-founder Stephen Gallagher analyses the power data of Michal Kwiatkowski and other riders in the race to answer the question: what does it take to win Milan-San Remo?

This post refers to the power outputs and power-to-weight ratios of the pros. To put these into context and see where the pros fit in relation to everyday riders, check out this table from Andy Coggan at the Training Peaks website.

The opening kilometres

The initial kilometres of Milan-San Remo unfolded in a similar fashion to previous editions with a flurry of attacks showing which riders were keen enough to spend the next 200-250km in a breakaway. One of the riders to make the 10-man break in the first 10km was the ever-aggressive William Clarke (Cannondale-Drapac). Clarke and his companions were in for long day in the saddle, eventually spending 260km out front.

Here’s what Clarke’s stats looked like for his time in the break:

Distance: 260km
Time: 6 hours 35 minutes
Average speed: 40km/h

Average power: 260W
Normalised power*: 295W
Power-to-weight ratio: 3.61W/kg

Average heartrate: 143bpm

If we take a more detailed look at the first 10km in which the breakaway was formed, we can see big differences between the data of the guys fighting to get into the main break of the day, and those sitting back in the peloton:

Will Clarke Jos van Emden
Position: Fighting for break Easy in peloton
Time for 10km: 12:27 16:54
Average power: 347W 138W
Power-to-weight: 4.28 W/kg 1.86 W/kg
Average speed: 48.7 km/h 35.8 km/h

This comparison makes it easy to see the difference between those determined to get up the road, and those wanting to conserve energy for the closing kilometres of the race. Looking at these stats it is also clear how a breakaway can gain so much time on the peloton in a short space of time.

The gap went out to five minutes shortly after the break was formed but a quick reaction by FDJ ensured the lead stayed at around four to five minutes. The first leg of the race towards the coast also featured a strong headwind which made it even harder for the breakaway riders to push their lead out further.

The Passo del Turchino was the first climb of the day, at 143km, before the riders hit the Ligurian coast. From the comparison below it is plain to see that the peloton kept the pressure on, to keep the break within reach and to start pulling it back:

Will Clarke Nuno Bico
Position: In the break In the peloton
Time for the climb: 5:46 4:56
Average power: 372W 376W
Power-to-weight: 4.54 W/kg 5.37 W/kg

With the bunch bringing back the break, it was clear the main contenders would be at the front for the final two climbs: the Cipressa and Poggio. The nervous racing which is associated with the Milan-San Remo and the approach to these iconic climbs is something which can bring down even the best riders in the word. The key to this section is team cohesion and being able to stay out of trouble, out of the wind and near the front of the peloton.

What makes this period nervous is that 180 other riders want to do exactly the same thing for their team and team leader. This is what leads to the rising tempo as the race approaches these climbs.

The fight for position

We can see how this fight for position can affect the speed of the peloton by looking at the data of eventual winner Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) as he approached the Cipressa. In the 3.8km leading to the foot of the climb he averaged a crazy 57.1 km/h maxing out at 77.6 km/h for the 4:03 he took to complete this section. During this time, he averaged 291W (4.28 W/kg), which shows his team did an excellent job of keeping him in the wheels and keeping him close to the front without expending a lot of energy.

It is these key sections that make the difference when trying to preserve enough energy for the big efforts needed later in the race. Simply put, if a rider like Kwiatkowski has to fight for his own position and waste valuable energy in these parts of the race, his ability to win a three-up sprint (like he did) would be drastically compromised.

The Cipressa

Looking at rider data from the Cipressa, we can see that it took around 6 to 6.2 W/kg for 9:45 to stay with the peloton all the way up the Cipressa. Philippe Gilbert (QuickStep Floors) averaged 435W (6.04 W/kg) to stay on the heels of Tom Dumoulin and Simon Geschke who were stringing out the bunch for Team Sunweb. This pace was too high for many of the top sprinters, including Mark Cavendish who lost contact with the main group at this time.

With the race heading for the Poggio is was again up to the domestiques to help their leaders maintain good position so they could unleash their attacks on the twisting road of the Poggio.

If we take Kwiatkowski’s data for this section, we can see a similar effort to that made before the Cipressa. In the 8.5km from the bottom of the Cipressa descent to the start of the Poggio, Kwiatkowski averaged 276W (4.06 W/kg), at an average speed of 53.4 km/h.

The Poggio Attack

The main favourites came to the fore on the Poggio, the twisting turns on changing gradients making it perfect for a late attack. That’s exactly what pre-race favourite Peter Sagan did on the last half of the climb. Only two riders were able to follow and make contact: Kwiatkowski and Julian Alaphilippe.

For Kwiatkowski to complete the climb at the front he had to do the following:

Distance: 3.5km
Time: 5:57
Average speed: 37.6 km/h
Average power: 443W
Power-to-weight: 6.51 W/kg

If we break it down further, we can see the effort “Kwiato” needed to make to jump onto Sagan’s wheel and hold it over the top.

Distance: 800m (last section of climb)
Time: 1:06
Average power: 619W
Power-to-weight: 9.1 W/kg

What is most impressive about this hard anaerobic effort is that he had to ride at an average of 400W (5.88 W/kg) for 4:30 for the first 2.6km of the climb, before he unleashed a 9 W/kg effort to follow Sagan. And don’t forget he already had more than seven hours of racing in his legs before he started the climb!

The Finish

With the finish in sight, and Kwiatkowski and Alaphilippe doing their best to follow Sagan, it was clear that a three-man sprint was going to decide the winner. Most would have bet on a Sagan victory from this point, and it was going to take an extraordinary effort to beat him. This is exactly what Kwiatkowski did.

Sagan took up the sprint early with an effort 225m from the line. Kwiatkowski was quick to react, producing 925W (13.6 W/kg) for 15 seconds, averaging 61.5 km/h and maxing out at an incredible 64.1 km/h. Breaking this down further we can see he actually did five seconds at 1,149W average (16.9 W/kg) as he got alongside Sagan before the final throw to the line.

This effort of close to 17 W/kg was what sealed his victory after a long day on the saddle. It was a fantastic finish to an epic battle on the roads of Italy.

This table shows a comparison of the efforts of various riders in the peloton throughout the race.

Kwiatkowski of 2017 vs Gerrans of 2012

The final kilometres of this year’s edition unfolded in a very similar fashion to those in the 2012 edition, a race that was won by Simon Gerrans over Fabian Cancellara and Vincenzo Nibali. Just as Kwiatkowski held on to Sagan’s wheel on Saturday, Gerrans held on as Cancellara attacked on the Poggio in 2012 before sprinting past the pre-race favourite to take the win.

While we don’t have a full breakdown of Gerrans’ data from that year, we do have snapshots of the critical moments, allowing us to compare Gerrans’ win with Kwiatkowski’s.

Gerrans’ effort on the Poggio saw him average 559W (9.02 W/kg) for 1:30, hitting a max of 1,188W (19.1 W/kg) in the process. Compare this to Kwiatkowski’s peak 1:30 effort and it is strangely similar: he also averaged 559W (with a peak of 934W), but had a different power-to-weight ratio of 8.22 W/kg.

The similarities don’t end there. In 2012, Gerrans had to produce 1,043W (16.8 W/kg) for 10 seconds (1,300W max) to pass Cancellara in the sprint. Kwiatkowski had to produce a similar 10-second effort: 1072W (15.76 W/kg) with a max power of 1,220W. The tailwind finish in this year’s race was conducive to a faster speed with Kwiatkowski averaging 61.5 km/h for the duration as opposed 59.5 km/h for Gerrans’ final sprint.

From the data of these two champions we can clearly see the power and effort needed to win Milan-San Remo after more than seven hours in the saddle.

*To understand what normalised power is and how it differs from average power, this explanation at Training Peaks is worth reading. In short: normalised power “is an attempt to better quantify the physiological ‘cost’ of the harder ‘feel’ of the variable effort.”
The graphics in this post appear courtesy of VeloViewer and Philipp Diegner.


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