Hindsight is always easy, of course, but Filippo Ganna didn’t quite know how to process his second-place finish at Milan-San Remo against the most elite opposition imaginable. As ever, this race of almost 300km was ultimately distilled to a sequence of split-second decisions.
“Angry or satisfied? I’m still a bit in limbo,” Ganna said when asked to put words on his feelings in the mixed zone. “We haven’t analysed it yet.”
The Ineos Grenadiers racer looked to have done the hardest part by resisting Tadej Pogacar’s anticipated onslaught on the Poggio, only for Mathieu van der Poel to sprint clear of the four-man front group just as the gradient eased near the summit.
The Ineos rider had locked himself confidently to Pogacar’s wheel on the steepest ramps, but now he hesitated as Van der Poel surged clear. Ganna preferred to leave the business of closing the gap to the Slovenian or to Wout van Aert. Neither man could, and the moment was gone.
Van der Poel swooped into the descent clutching a slender lead, but he eked out that advantage by sprinting out of every hairpin bend on the drop into San Remo. He would reach the Via Roma with a buffer of 15 seconds, while Ganna overpowered Van Aert and Pogacar to take second place.
“With the head I wanted to follow, but with the legs, I didn’t know if I was ready or not,” Ganna said of his response to Van der Poel’s race-winning attack. “I preferred not to follow and maybe to see what happened on the downhill or the flat. Maybe if I had a magic 8 ball to look inside… Maybe next time I’ll try to follow.”
The hesitation seemed even more understandable when it emerged that Van der Poel’s time up the Poggio – unofficially clocked by La Gazzetta dello Sport at 5:38 – was a new record, beating the mark of 5:46 set by Giorgio Furlan in 1994. “If I can come back and rewind, I could have tried,” Ganna said.
Mindful of his limitations as a descender, Ganna preferred to leave the pace-making to Van Aert on the drop into San Remo, and on occasion, the Italian even risked losing the wheel in front of him. By the time the road flattened out inside the final 2km, it already seemed clear that only a late mishap could deny Van der Poel the third Monument victory of his career.
Beforehand, Ganna had hoped to reach that point in the front group and then look to replicate Fabian Cancellara’s race-winning effort of 2008. “If we arrived in a little group after the downhill, the idea was to attack a bit like Cancellara, but not every year is the same,” he said.
Instead, Ganna stuck with Van Aert and Pogačar onto the Via Roma, where he then perhaps even surprised himself with the turn of speed that carried him to second place. “It was three big riders [chasing], but in the end the collaboration on the downhill did not work,” he said.
Ganna was lifted into the role of outright leader for Ineos after a concussion forced Tom Pidcock to withdraw from Milan-San Remo. The Italian paid tribute to the efforts of his teammates on the final 60km run along the coast. “I didn’t see anything apart from Luke Rowe’s back wheel and my teammates,” he said. “They carried me a in a kind of bubble from Imperia to the Poggio.”
On the climb itself, meanwhile, Ganna lived up to his end of the bargain by being one of only three riders to resist Pogacar’s inevitable acceleration. Directeur sportif Matteo Tosatto suggested that Ganna was not the only man to be blindsided by the ferocity of Van der Poel’s subsequent attack.
“I had said to watch out for Pogacar’s acceleration and then Van der Poel went… Filippo was on Pogacar’s wheel, so it was up to Pogacar to close there, but I think everybody had the same legs by then,” Tosatto said. “We were afraid of the descent because Filippo isn’t a great descender, but he showed enormous quality today.”
Tosatto was reluctant to suggest that Ganna ought to have tried to follow Van der Poel – “Let’s not forget it was the first time Pippo was at the front on the Poggio, I can only applaud him today” – but he confessed to mild regrets when his rider proved stronger than both Pogacar and Van Aert in the dash for the line.
“When I saw the sprint Pippo did at the end, and the legs he had, maybe there’s a small regret,” Tosatto said. “But we’ll celebrate this second place, because it should be celebrated, then we’ll go to Belgium with a lot of confidence.”
Ganna has already placed second at the Vuelta a San Juan and the Volta ao Algarve in 2023, squeezing in a European title in the team pursuit for good measure, and the centrepiece of his Spring is still to come at Paris-Roubaix in three weeks’ time. Small details proved decisive on Saturday, but the big picture looks encouraging indeed.