At nearly 300km, Milano-Sanremo is the longest of cycling’s brutal one day races. La Primavera presents a debilitating challenge to even the strongest riders. The distance may be nearly 50km greater than any other Monument Classic, but the pace is as high. There is no quarter given.
Apart from the distance, it’s easy to underestimate the demands of this course. Strava Pro Michal Kwiatkowski returned an average power of just 202 watts in yesterday’s race. However, average power fails to describe the short, intense, and repeated efforts - at and above a rider’s maximum aerobic power - which are demanded of the strongest riders if they are to emerge from the peloton and chase down the inevitable early break.
The final climbs of the race, the Cipressa and Poggio, regularly inspire decisive moves. This year was no exception: Team Sky and BMC Racing drove the pace on the Cipressa in an effort to force a selection. To produce high power outputs in key moments, large amounts of energy must be quickly converted into usable form through aerobic pathways (with oxygen) which use stored carbohydrates, as well as through anaerobic pathways (without oxygen) through lactate metabolism.
This is only possible through well developed cardio-vascular, carbohydrate metabolism and anaerobic energy systems. In addition, riders are only able to use these capacities after many hours in the saddle thanks to exceptional efficiency, fatigue resistance and musculature. This allows greater reliance on fat stores early in the race, thus preserving high-energy fuel stores and the ability to push hard enough on the pedals for decisive moves.
Kwiatkowski demonstrated these capacities in impressive fashion during the 2014 World Championships, producing 477 watts (7.02 w/kg) for over three minutes, after six hours of racing, in the winning move which secured him the rainbow jersey. In 2015, Kwiatkowski’s early season form (winning the Paris-Nice prologue) demonstrated that his maximum aerobic capacity is already well conditioned, perhaps leading to him being listed as Etixx-Quick Step’s leader for this year’s Primavera.
Kwiatkowski was well placed during the event. Following the Cipressa, with 15km remaining, the World Champion made his way to the front of a peloton rapidly closing on the breakaway of Daniel Oss and Geraint Thomas. Soon, the race reached the Poggio: 3.6km in length, climbing 134m at an average gradient of four per cent. Luca Paolini led the bunch at a high pace. Close to the summit, Philippe Gilbert - another rider well known for his abilty to deliver a tremendous surge of power late on in races - accelerated, but could not escape.
Close behind, Kwiatkowski (weighing around 68kg) produced 392 watts (5.76w.kg) for 6min23sec, reaching the top with a VAM (average ascent speed) of 1256Vm/h; not quite good enough to secure the Strava KOM, which went to Gerald Ciolek. Taller and heavier (around 75kg), the 2013 Milan-Sanremo winner required 448 watts to reach the summit in 6min22sec (5.97w.kg, 1259Vm/h).
Kwiatkowski appeared to ride the climb efficiently, with his effort under control, maintaining a consistent cadence around 99rpm, though he was forced to make surges up to 757 watts to stay in contention - efforts that were only possible thanks to his genetic gifts and adaptations accrued through thousands of hours of specific training.
Unfortunately, Kwiatkowski crashed on the descent along with team-mate Zdenek Stybar, and Ciolek and Gilbert, ruining their chances of a good result. Despite this misfortune, Kwiatkowski’s good form is continuing as he demonstrates his capacity to produce the power required in race-defining moments. He could well be a contender in the Ardennes Classics, which favour riders with the Pole’s high power to weight ratio, endurance and attacking spirit.
James Hewitt is a performance coach at HINTSA Performance, Geneva