By the numbers: What it takes to finish in the lead group at Milan-San Remo

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On Saturday, Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) thundered down the Via Roma to finish sixth at his first Milan-San Remo. The three-time cyclocross world champion was part of an elite lead group that formed over the day’s final and most decisive climb, the Poggio, before racing down to the finish.

While the victory eventually went to Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep), van Aert’s performance showed once again that it’s possible to be competitive at the highest level in both cyclocross and road racing. In the following piece, Dig Deep Coaching director and former pro Stephen Gallagher breaks down van Aert’s power file from Milan-San Remo to show what it takes to finish in the front group of the season’s first Monument.

Note: This article discusses the power outputs and power-to-weight ratios of professional cyclists. For more information on these concepts, and to see where you stack up, click here. This article also mentions normalised power. To read more about this concept, click here.


Cyclocross vs. road racing

Conventional wisdom would have you believe that a focus on one-hour cyclocross racing would be detrimental to performances on the road. Wout van Aert is showing again this season that that’s not the case. The Belgian’s performances on the road are particularly impressive when you consider that Milan-San Remo is usually around seven hours long and that his focus only turned exclusively to the road after the UCI World Cyclocross Championships on February 2.

With some rest required after a long cyclocross season, the Belgian only had about six weeks of focused preparation for his Milan-San Remo performance.

The biggest difference between cyclocross and a long classic such as Milan-San Remo is obviously the duration. But there are some similarities between the two formats. Looking at van Aert’s data from the race and data from previous editions of Milan-San Remo it’s clear the short and explosive efforts required — up the climbs and out of sharp corners downhill — are very similar to what’s required to compete on a cyclocross course.

The muscular strain created by efforts in dirt and mud is different to the speed and high cadence of an Italian descent, but van Aert’s years of building such a tolerance for explosive repetitive efforts will have conditioned him to perform well in the final of Milan-San Remo. Here’s a breakdown of the race, based on the data van Aert made public.

The start

The initial kilometres of Milan-San Remo played out in familiar fashion: with a flurry of attacks from the riders keen to spend the next 250km in a breakaway. In this year’s edition, a group of 10 riders had the opportunity to spend most of the day off the front, and were only caught on the Cipressa with 25km to go.

The race reached its first significant waypoint after 149km: the Passo del Turchino. It was about 3 hours 45 minutes after the start that the peloton crested this first climb of the day and Wout van Aert was able to stick to a moderate pace throughout that time. Much of his focus will have been on fuelling and staying adequately hydrated before the final 50km, where the peloton had to tackle five climbs in quick succession before the run into the finish.

Van Aert’s stats for the opening 149km:

Duration: 3 hours 46 minutes
Average power: 201W (2.61 W/kg)
Normalised power: 250W (3.25 W/kg)
Average heart rate: 119bpm

Stats for the end of Passo del Turchino:

Section length: 1.7km
Average gradient: 6.2%
Time: 4:04
Average power: 441w (5.73w/kg)
Max power: 955w (12.40w/kg)

The last 1.7km of the Turchino required the first intense effort of the race — close to 6 W/kg as some of the big teams increased the pace significantly.

The Passo del Turchino, the highest point of the race from which the riders descended to the Mediterranean coast.

Hitting the climbs

The real excitement of Milan-San Remo starts when the peloton begins the quick succession of small climbs with about 50km to go. Van Aert’s Jumbo-Visma team had a full complement of riders still in the peloton and they were doing their best to protect their leaders on the day: van Aert himself and sprint sensation Dylan Groenewegen.

As the race hit these climbs the tension was visible in the bunch — the fight for position became an ever-increasing priority for the teams. Even this can require a few hard efforts, when other teams fly past and riders have to scramble to regain their previous position.

Stats for the Capo Mele after 237km:

Length: 1.7km
Time: 3:05
Average power: 394W (5.12 W/kg)
Max Power: 784W (10.18 W/kg)

Stats for the Capo Cervo after 242km:

Length: 1.6km
Time: 2:42
Average power: 361W (4.69 W/kg)
Max power: 739W (9.6 W/kg)

While van Aert’s average power was lower on the Capo Cervo, the pace on the climb and the accelerations out of the twisting bends was starting to intensify, as the peloton accelerated out of the corners. In the approach to and on the climb, van Aert had to produce eight short efforts over 500-600W for 3-15 seconds.

These are explosive efforts that van Aert can likely absorb better than many of his counterparts, given his cyclocross conditioning for very high ‘on/off’ efforts.

The third ‘Capi’ saw the pace increase again with a more sustained effort. At this point the peloton really started to eat into the breakaway’s advantage.

Stats for the Capo Berta after 250km:

Length: 1.8km at 6.4% (the steepest climb of the day)
Time: 4:14
Average power: 491W (6.38 W/kg)
Max power: 917W (11.9 W/kg)

The start of the Capo Berta was especially intense. Van Aert rode the initial 150m of the climb at 600W (7.8 W/kg) — a very strong effort to stay with a thinning-out peloton.

The leading break was eventually caught on approach to the famous Cipressa.

Flare smoke on the Capo Berta wouldn’t have helped make the effort any easier.

Stats from the Cipressa after 262km:

Length: 5.6km
Time: 10:33
Average power: 407W (5.29 W/kg)
Max power: 1,011W (13.13 W/kg)

The Cipressa is the longest of Milan-San Remo’s coastal climbs with 5.6km at a moderate, steady gradient of 4% that even allows some drafting. What appears as a steady effort at first again required van Aert to put out big efforts over short durations. Over the 10:33 minutes of climbing he produced 11 efforts over 600W for up to 15 seconds, closing gaps and overtaking riders that were falling back.

The fight for position is never as important as between the Cipressa and the Poggio. The sector approaching the final climb might be one of the most tense times in the pro peloton all season and the possibility of a crash is very high.

On the 4km leading up to the Poggio, van Aert averaged 375W (4.87 W/kg) and hit a massive peak power of 1,259W (16.4 W/kg) which he produced just to keep position close to the front of the peloton. The build-up of fatigue and a nervous and intense run into the Poggio repeatedly proves too much for a large number of riders as they blow a gasket at the bottom of the last climb.

Fight in the final

Stats from the Poggio after 281km:

Length: 3.7km
Time: 5:42
Average power: 475W (6.03 W/kg)
Maximum power: 1,141W (14.81 W/kg)

The pressure was huge as Deceuninck-QuickStep’s Zdenek Stybar set a ferocious pace on the lower slopes of the climb. Most of the sprinters were dropped early, including van Aert’s teammate Dylan Groenewegen. And that’s not too surprising: it was the fastest Poggio ascent in nearly 25 years.

The first 2km required a hard, sustained effort at 474W (6.16 W/kg) for 3:07 behind the QuickStep train. There was a short reprieve in the bunch between when Stybar swung off the front and when Alberto Bettiol (EF Education First) launched an attack. The main contenders looked at each other to make the first move. During this ease-off van Aert did 45 seconds at a comparatively modest 349W (4.53 W/kg).

The easing of the pace was short-lived as pre-race favourite Julian Alaphilippe made a decisive move to fly past Alberto Bettiol and pull seven riders with him, van Aert among them. Staying at the front on the final part of the Poggio required world-class efforts and saw van Aert produce a massive 681W (8.84 W/kg) for 1:04 with a max power of 1,106W to follow Alaphilippe’s attack. It proved to be the most decisive move of the race.

When Alaphilippe made his move, van Aert (yellow helmet, back of the group) was one of a select few who was able to make contact.

As the leading group hit the flat run into the finish in the last 2km, the flying Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott) tried a similar move to what he attempted in 2018 when he attacked with 2km to go. It was this move that Van Aert was concerned about.

“I thought that Trentin’s attack was the decisive one, but it came a little too early,” he said after the race. Van Aert’s data shows the effort to cover the move and bridge to Trentin was huge. The Belgian rode 800m in 48 seconds at 628W (8.16 W/kg). Unfortunately for him, this move did not cause a split and a compact lead group hit the last two bends with 600m to go.

Van Aert hit a great peak power of 1,395W (18.11 W/kg) as the sprint opened up with 250m to go. He managed to maintain a strong effort, averaging 1,102w (14.3 W/kg) for the 21 seconds of the sprint. Remember, this is after 290km and nearly seven hours of racing.

The effort was enough to see van Aert claim an impressive sixth in the first Monument of 2019. No doubt we will see him get stronger as the spring continues into the cobbled classics.

About Dig Deep Coaching

Dig Deep Coaching is a global coaching company that works with athletes of all levels across the following disciplines: road, track, cyclocross, MTB and triathlon. Whether you are taking part in your first ever gran fondo or aiming to compete in the professional peloton, Dig Deep Coaching can help you out. Get in touch via email or follow Dig Deep Coaching at Facebook and Twitter.

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