The win of the season? Matej Mohorič reflects on how he won Milan-Sanremo
The Slovenian on pre-race injury, near-crashes and that dropper seat-post.
The Slovenian on pre-race injury, near-crashes and that dropper seat-post.
Matej Mohorič won the first Monument of his career with a meticulously prepared daredevil descent of the Poggio, outwitting the likes of Tadej Pogačar, Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel. In an exclusive extract from the 5th edition of The Road Book, Mohorič talks about his less than ideal preparation for the race, how the dropper seat-post innovation came about, and talks us through the final kilometres that saw him emerge victorious.
I watched Milan–Sanremo when I started to follow pro cycling, maybe a year or two before I became a professional myself. I wasn’t following the sport closely when I started to race bikes – it was more of a free-time activity for me than dreaming of one day becoming a professional cyclist. I didn’t even know that was a thing when I was 12 years old. My first [Milan-Sanremo] race was, I think, in 2017 and I really liked it, and I figured I could do well in the future. In 2018, I basically led out Vincenzo Nibali and he won the race that year. I felt that I was a part of it, and it was a good feeling. I only started to dream about winning a Monument when I became a professional. Only really when I signed my first contract was it my ambition to be a professional cyclist. I was enjoying going to school and it was my ambition to go to university. I wanted to become an engineer and go and study that. Only when I became successful as a junior did I start to think about that option.
With the new talent coming up, I don’t think I’m ever going to be good enough to climb with the best. I’m a decent climber, but for races like Liège–Bastogne–Liège or maybe even Giro di Lombardia, I could maybe do a top 10 if I’m in top shape, but it would be very ambitious to say I could win those races. Whereas Milan–Sanremo is really a five-minute effort and that is the one thing I excel at, so it’s probably the one that suits me best.
I was super-confident before Strade Bianche, after the first races of the season in February. I did the final bit of preparation and then I was supposed to do Strade Bianche, Tirreno–Adriatico and Milan–Sanremo before the Classics in Belgium. I felt I was in excellent shape before Strade Bianche and I felt I could get even better during Tirreno–Adriatico. And then of course I crashed in Strade Bianche and hurt my knee really badly so I had to skip Tirreno–Adriatico and I was actually not able to train or ride my bike for five or six days. I could barely get in a couple of proper training rides before I went to Milan–Sanremo.
Normally I would just take the weekend of Milan–Sanremo as an extra weekend off and try to get ready for the Classics but, because I knew how much preparation went into it, I really wanted to give it a try even though I wasn’t physically 100 per cent, I was still feeling the knee a little bit. But the thing that was most disturbing was that I was not able to train properly for the two weeks before Milan–Sanremo, I was only able to train maybe five days before. I didn’t really know what to expect. I knew I had the punch for the last climb – the five-minute power, the VO2 max was still there – but I didn’t know if I had the ability or the endurance to get through the race. Fortunately, Milan–Sanremo is only really hard in the last hour of racing, but that hour is probably the most intense hour of racing in the whole season. It’s not ideal to be injured, but in the actual race it didn’t affect me a lot. I felt good and I was able to do a very good performance.
The dropper seat-post was not my idea. It was the head mechanic of our team, Filip Tišma, who came up with it ahead of the race at our training camp, more or less in November. He said he would get the bike ready in the Christmas/NewYear period. On paper I didn’t think it would make that much of a difference, I was a little bit sceptical, but then when I tried it I was completely sold and fully into it. We tested the first version just after New Year and I really liked it in training. We improved it a bit and then I trained with it a little on the bike, then it was fully ready for the actual race. I knew it would make a huge difference. I guess some guys are still not convinced, but I used it in the Tour de France in the mountain stages as well. I still think it makes a difference. It makes the bike more stable and safe, it’s easier to correct mistakes, and it feels more secure. I don’t know if it makes you faster but it’s easier to descend if you have it than if you don’t.
We all knew that I had the bike and that I was supposed to be the main focus, or the leader, for the race, but we all knew about the injury and that I might not be physically fit to do the final. I was one of the protected riders and I had a free role and full support of the team in case I needed it. Already before the final I told my teammates that I’m actually feeling really good and I would like to have a go, so I was given full support and we executed the plan perfectly. But it didn’t feel as special as it might have done if the preparation had gone perfectly.
It’s different to any other Monument because in any other Monument you have a lot to do, it’s not really a waiting game. In Milan–Sanremo you just wait for that last hour of craziness. You have time to talk to the other competitors or to your friends in the peloton. Other riders were coming up to me, asking about the dropper seat-post, so I took advantage of that. I told them it was impossible to follow on a descent and they should take care and just let me go – that sort of talk, which some of them believed and some of them didn’t. In the end it probably worked a little bit and scared them, I guess. I went all in on the descent. I was sliding and skidding and losing traction so it was probably a bit scary if you have the whole Classics season ahead of you – you’d think twice before you took the risk. And also it’s not like I don’t have a history of crashing on the descents badly, so it wasn’t easy for the other guys in my group.
The Cipressa has been by far the fastest climb in the last couple of editions of the race that I’ve done, and because Pogačar wanted to make the group small and limit as many sprinters as possible, he and Formolo were pacing it really fast up the climb and I think there were only 25 or 30 guys left over the top. So the lead into the Poggio was less stressful than in other years, as it was much easier to move up. I was actually a little bit nervous but my teammates calmed me down, and Jan Tratnik did the perfect lead-out into the Poggio. Then Tadej, fortunately for me, started to attack immediately almost from the bottom into the headwind, which is very helpful if you want to hang on!
When I saw that, I was super-focused and didn’t care about the power or pacing or whatever. I just wanted to go all in. I said I was going to hang on until my legs exploded. I didn’t care if I was going too fast or too slow. I just wanted to do my best effort and I didn’t think about how long there was to go to the top of the climb. I just wanted to stay with the rest and be within reach of cresting in a position that would enable me to win the race. When the big attacks came I made the final sprint before the top so I could be at the top just a second or two behind the first guys.
I knew that I had to get back in the slipstream and onto the wheel of the first group as soon as possible and pass them – preferably on the first corner – and then just sprint as though it was the end of the race. I knew from years before that it is a very short descent and you don’t have a lot of time to wait to pick a moment, you need to go as if every corner is the last corner, as there’s really only six points where you need to brake. It was full throttle.
I looked over my shoulder to see if there was a gap and, in doing that, I didn’t look ahead and I basically went off road. It didn’t raise my heart rate at all, I didn’t even blink. I was super-focused and I jumped back on the road and I didn’t care about that error. But then my second error, when I lost traction on both front and rear wheel on the last corner, there my heart sank! I was scared to death because I did it consciously. I took that corner way over the limit because I thought if I did it normally the others would come back. So I took a crazy risk and went in almost without braking, which was a mistake because then I had to brake really hard to save from crashing and I lost all of the speed and some of the gap I’d had in the previous corners. It was a pity, but I still managed to stay away.
A couple of kilometres after the end of the descent, when I looked behind and saw I had a 300-metre gap, I knew it wasn’t going to be possible for the others to come back because I studied the course and knew that it was less than two minutes from the bottom of the descent to the finish line, and the average speed is just under 60km/h. If you want to bridge 300 metres in two minutes at 60km/h, you need maybe 100 watts extra, which is hard.
It felt amazing because it wasn’t just my own effort, it was the belief and the trust of all the team and the staff that were behind it. I felt proud of what we achieved together, and also the execution on the day by my teammates and the way we rode together. It was a very nice moment. Compared to a Tour de France stage win, it’s probably less recognised in some parts of the world, but in Italy it’s a bigger achievement to win Milan–Sanremo than a stage of the Tour de France. From a sporting point of view, from what it takes as an athlete, it’s much harder to win a Monument than a stage in the Tour. It’s nice to do both, though!
This essay is part of the Road Book, Ned Boulting’s cycling anthology. The book is a collector’s item, the year of cycling wrapped up into one volume, with stats, essays and images taking it the whole year. The Road Book 2022 is available for purchase at www.theroadbook.co.uk.