Matej Mohoric’s monumental Milan-San Remo victory shows Tadej Pogacar and Primoz Roglic are human after all
Matej Mohoric proved once again that there is more to Slovenian cycling than Tadej Pogacar and Primoz Roglic after a captivating victory in Milan-San Remo. With all eyes on Grand Tour specialists Pogacar and Roglic entering the first Monument of the season, it was the third man of Slovenian cycling who put in a timely reminder of his peerless downhill pedigree to make history on the via Roma.
Highlights: 'Sensational' Mohoric wins Milan-San Remo with daredevil brilliance
Four of the previous seven Monuments have been won by Slovenians. That stat wouldn't be any different had Tadej Pogacar kept up his scintillating run this season and won on the via Roma on Saturday. But it seems all the more impressive with Matej Mohoric becoming the latest Slovenian to win one of cycling's biggest classics following Primoz Roglic's Liege-Bastogne-Liege win in 2019 and Pogacar's Liege-Lombardia double in 2020.
A Pogacar victory in San Remo could have killed cycling. It may sound like a bit of an overstatement but it’s probably true. Already a winner in his previous two Monuments, and already a winner in his first three WorldTour races of the season, Pogacar could have strangled the sport into submission with another display of dominance under the Italian sun on the Ligurian coast.
When his UAE Team Emirates squad decimated the field on the Cipressa, it really did look like the heavy-handed foreplay to yet another Pogacar climax. And where’s the fun in that?
The 23-year-old superstar attacked again and again on the Poggio – just as we knew he would. But it was all bark and no bite. Those informed pundits who predicted that the final climb would prove neither long enough nor steep enough for Pogacar to distance his rivals were proved correct. When Roglic - another rider whose accelerations often sound the death knell for those around him - had a pop at the midway point while his compatriot was catching his breath, it also lacked real penetration.
Fast forward a few weeks and these same two riders will probably carve up their rivals employing such tactics in the Ardennes. The more arduous Mur de Huy, and Cotes de la Redoute and de Saint-Nicolas are more amenable to widespread Pogcineration or Roglafication – and that’s before we shift focus to the long Alpine and Pyrenean grinds of the Tour.
On Saturday, Pogacar discovered that you can be the best climber, the most aggressive rider of your generation, nay the strongest all-round talent on two wheels since Eddy Merckx – and yet you can still struggle to shake off your rivals of a more sprinting persuasion on the Poggio. As it happened, it was the Dane Soren Kragh Andersen – a huge talent, undeniably, but not a rider of the same calibre as Pogacar – who ultimately led the race over the top of the final climb, with the likes of Michael Matthews and even Arnaud Demare still in contention.
'What a win!' - Mohoric clinches stunning Milan-San Remo triumph after late drama
Mohoric was not in the initial chase group of around seven riders but tucked in just behind, having been conspicuous by his inconspicuousness up until that point. His Bahrain-Victorious team had admittedly showed their hand early in the race, coming to the front of the pack ahead of the tre capi series of climbs despite the absence of their planned leader for this race, Sonny Colbrelli. From the sound of things, though, Mohoric always had his eyes on the prize.
“Actually I was thinking about this race the whole winter,” Mohoric said after his win. “I knew that if I trained properly over the winter and managed to stay in touch going over the top [of the Poggio] then I would have a chance if I attacked on the descent.”
Overjoyed Mohoric reacts to historic victory at Milan-San Remo
To help his chances, Mohoric, already one of the peloton's most feted descenders, had a technological trick up his sleeve. “The team came up with the idea of using a dropper post because this race suits me very well and there’s a descent at the end,” Mohoric said. “The team set up a bike for me and had this plan for a long time. At first I didn’t think that it would make a huge difference on the descents but then I tried it in training and the first time I tried it I was amazed.
It gives you way more control of the bike and if you go full gas then you can go a little bit faster. It’s even easier to avoid mistakes or correct them when they happen.
And happen they did: at one point Mohoric left the road and had to bunny-hop back from the gutter. The dropper post allowed him to lower his centre of gravity and provide more stability on the corners. After seeing his usual modus operandi - the downhill top-tube tuck - banned by the UCI, Mohoric won't be surprised if the same organisation outlaw his new toy.
Anyone who watched last year’s Giro will know what happens when someone as hulking as Mohoric comes a cropper when cycling fast downhill: the 27-year-old’s horrific high-speed over-the-handlebars face plant during Stage 9 had fans the world over wincing at the screen and hoping for the best. So to throw caution to the wind on the backside of the Poggio underlined admirable mental strength - or borderline stupidity.
‘Awful crash’ – Mohoric taken to hospital after bike snaps in two
That acrobatic tumble ended Mohoric’s Giro last May – although he was soon back on the bike as he soloed to glory over a field containing Pogacar to win the Slovenian national championships road race on the eve of the Tour de France. And at the Tour, while all eyes were on specialists Pogacar and Roglic as one crashed out and the other rode towards a second successive maillot jaune, Mohoric soloed to two of the finest individual stage wins you’ll ever see. His nearest challenger on the first of those two victories? Belgium’s Jasper Stuyven, the man whose San Remo crown he took on Saturday.
By winning La Classicissima, Mohoric proved that the first Monument of the season is a long battle of attrition where fortune favours the brave, and where it’s not always the most attacking rider who wins, but the rider who attacks at the right moment and with the most cunning.
If we all expected Pogacar and Roglic to light the torch paper on the Poggio, then we should have all expected Mohoric to do the same on the descent. It’s his trademark. It’s what he did last year on his way to finishing 11th, the year before that for his 10th, and the year before that for his previous highest finish, fifth.
Watch hugely dramatic moment Mohoric has mechanical fault near finish
The fact that he dropped a chain with 250m remaining and yet still prevailed added another luscious layer to Mohoric’s legend. The immense nature of what he managed to do in that pulsating run down to San Remo was corroborated by the scenes at the finish, where pretty much all those left in his wake quickly came to congratulate him - most notably Pogagar, brought to earth with a fifth place. He, above all, was aware of the magnificence of his compatriot's ride.
It was a win of the kind few, if any, riders could have pulled off. To descend with the same control, poise, bravery and - at times - carelessness as Mohoric displayed on Saturday is something arguably more impressive than any uphill attack or time trial scalp you’ll see from his illustrious compatriots. The blend of disbelief and delayed fear etched across his face at the finish said it all: before the celebrations came the hard-hitting realisation that he probably could have killed himself along the way.
'It is monumental' - Blythe and Lloyd react to Mohoric triumph at Milan-San Remo
Cycling’s power nation has been propped up by Pogacar’s dual Tour and Monument wins and Roglic’s Vuelta hat-trick. They deservedly take the lion’s share of the plaudits and praise. But in Matej Mohoric perhaps lies Slovenia’s most compelling and exciting rider, a talent whose career seems to have already lasted an eternity, a rider who won stages in all three Grand Tours before his 27th birthday, and a rider who repeatedly reminds us that there’s more to his small but utterly dominating cycling nation than a former ski-jumper and a freak of nature with perpetual tuft of hair poking through his helmet.
A Pogacar victory in Milan-San Remo would have been an astonishing yet logical feat, one which would have perhaps contributed to a gradual waning of interest in top tier cycling. For no one likes to see the same person on top of the podium all the time, even in such swashbuckling fashion.
A Roglic win, likewise, would have been cause for celebration; a thrilling redressing of the balance in what is proving to be one of the sport’s great power struggles.
But Mohoric emerging from the shadows over the top of the Poggio to ride off into the sunset via a series of heart-in-mouth corners was a win for those of us who want to witness the unpredictable – even in its glorious predictability. What’s more, it will make Pogacar’s inevitable victory in his debut Tour of Flanders and Roglic’s Fleche Wallonne triumph next month that little bit more bearable.
- - -
Stream top cycling action live and on-demand on discovery+