Watch a flower, it never grows. And so that proved on Saturday, when the world had their eyes fixed on three of the brightest specimens, expecting them to come into bloom – if not on the Poggio, then on the via Roma – only for them to be put in the shade by an unfancied Belgian who outgrew them all in San Remo.
Jasper Stuyven admitted as much in his post-victory interview, the 28-year-old winner of the opening Monument of the season saying: “There were three guys who were really strong and who everyone talked about but that didn't mean we weren't going to race for the win.”
As is so often the case when a race features stand-out favourites of such class, the very strength of the riders we all expected to see compete for the win combined to cancel all of them out.
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For so long during what, at times, seemed like an interminable affair – even if it was being raced at record speeds – Julian Alaphilippe’s Deceuninck Quick-Step team looked like they had firm control of proceedings. Defending champion Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and the Dutch champion Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) may have had men on the front of the podium in the form of team-mates Paul Martens and Senne Leysen respectively, but QuickStep had their entire squad camped out behind the imposing figure of Tim Declercq, the infamous breakaway killer.

'He was the deserved winner' - Van der Poel praises Stuyven

Stuyven, tellingly, had no team-mates near the front. After all, with a rider in the break, Nicola Conci, Trek-Segafredo had no obligation to help with pacing and chasing. This was why we didn’t see Stuyven until the race finally blew apart on the Poggio inside the final 9km.
A puncture to QuickStep’s Plan B, the Irish sprinter Sam Bennett, upset the Belgian team’s approach to the Cipressa-Poggio double test, the team forced to split in two during the “Tre Capi” climbs as Bennett battled back. Once the break was neutralised, the expected attacks never came on the Cipressa, with Ineos Grenadiers wresting control of things with four men – including the sprightly debutant, Tom Pidcock – on the front.
Filippo Ganna joined the party for the Poggio, the Italian powerhouse drilling out such a fierce tempo on the climb that the prospect of a sprint on the via Roma looked more and more likely, with none of the three celebrated puncheurs of the moment – Van der Poel, Van Aert and Alaphilippe – looking capable of opening up a gap. When the rainbow jersey came to the front and made his move with 6.5km remaining, a selection was finally made – but it was a selection that didn’t just include the so-called Big Three but the fast finisher Caleb Ewan.

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The Australian pocket rocket, not overly renowned for his climbing, rode the Poggio as if it were multiple instalments of the Hatta Dam – the uphill ramp in the UAE Tour where he won so convincingly in 2019. And with the likes of Sonny Colbrelli, Michael Matthews, Peter Sagan (remember him?) and Matteo Trentin rejoining the leaders on the descent of the Poggio, and fast finishers in Giacomo Nizzolo, Nacer Bouhanni, Pascal Ackermann and Arnaud Demare all closing in, the prospect of the first bunch sprint finale on the via Roma since French champion Demare's win in 2016 looked very much on the cards.
And didn’t Stuyven know it.
“The final was going really well,” he said, reflecting on his winning move. “I was there on the Poggio with some fast guys so I knew that I had to try all or nothing. Which I did - because if I go to the line, I maybe finish around fifth to tenth place. And I prefer to go all in and take the biggest victory of my career.”
In other words: there was no way Stuyven was going to go to the line with a sprinter like Ewan in the mix. And the others. To be fair, the Belgian was being generous when he predicted himself a “fifth to tenth” place finish in that scenario. Such was the calibre of sprinter in contention, he would have been hard pressed on improving on his previous career best tenth from 2018.
So he went for it – expecting to be caught, but also knowing it was his only chance. Go big or go home.
And this was where the race was not only won but lost. Lost by the big favourites, none of whom were prepared to make the move which would have helped drag a rival to the line. Instead it was left to Team DSM's Soren Kragh Andersen to do the dirty work – a rider with a huge engine and extreme class (as his brace from last year’s Tour de France shows) but the one rider who would not be able to outsprint Stuyven should it come to that. Another rider who had nothing to lose.
The Dane did so much work chasing down the lone leader on his own that he had nothing left in the tank when the final sprint was launched.

Highlights: Stuyven's late attack shocks the big boys at Milan-San Remo

Ewan must be kicking himself. For the second time in his career, the Australian finished fastest on the via Roma – but ended up with nothing. In 2018 he led the pack home as Vincenzo Nibali held on by a whisker; three years on, the 26-year-old proved to be a match for the three riders on the tip of everyone’s tongue. But it still wasn’t enough to pass Stuyven.
The Belgian’s audacious nothing-to-lose gamble paid off. It is he, and not Ewan, who is now a winner of one of cycling’s Monuments. It is he who is basking in glory on the Ligurian coast and not one of Van der Poel, Van Aert or Alaphilippe – the sublime but stubborn trio who did so much to stop each other from winning that they allowed someone else to swipe it from under their noses. That's bike racing. And that's the beauty of Milan-San Remo: the easiest Monument to finish, but the hardest to win.
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