Pure power: Why Jonathan Milan is a sprinter like no other

How the Lidl-Trek rider won a breathless sprint on stage four of the Giro d'Italia

Mark Cavendish has described sprinting as “chess on wheels”. A high-speed, high-stakes game of strategy where seeing several moves ahead could be the deciding factor between winning and losing.

The nuances of executing a winning sprint are vast and ever-changing from stage to stage. No matter how powerful a rider is, failing to position correctly or launching too early, or too late, is almost impossible to overcome.

Sometimes though, everything can go perfectly; the bulk of the stage passes with little incident or intensity, the lead-out is impeccably assembled, and the final drop-off is at the centre of the road with 200m, or less, to go to the line. That is seemingly the sequence of events which occurred for Olav Kooij on stage four of the Giro d’Italia. The Dutchman was the last man with a lead-out rider on the run-in to Andora, able to launch his final acceleration for the line from the wheel of his Visma-Lease a bike team-mate, European champion Christophe Laporte.

Yet, unlike chess, in sprinting brute force can still win out. While Kooij – 22 and already one of the peloton’s most impressive sprinters thanks to his collection of wins this year – played all his pieces as he’d have wanted, there were very few calculations he could have made to counter the raw power of Jonathan Milan.

That’s not to say Milan suffered from a disorganised approach to his sprint. In fact, he had his team-mate and track partner Simone Consonni leave him just before Laporte did the same for Kooij. But that is equally what made Milan’s sprint so impressive. Unable to fully take the wheel of Laporte or Kooij, the Italian was seemingly almost at full sprint over Kooij’s shoulder before Visma had finished their lead-out.

It’s not uncommon to see a sprinter in this position, but the outcome in most cases is a late surge from a rival further back who uses the slingshot effect to pip them to the line as their effort fades.

Milan simply never faded, however. With his jerky, head-bobbing style, far from a show of sprinting finesse, it was a display of sheer power, power that seemed not to diminish and gave Kooij simply no chance of matching. That force, combined with good positioning, is an almost unbeatable combination.

There were examples of that combination lacking behind Milan. Tim Merlier (Soudal–Quick-Step), the winner against Milan on stage three, came from the doldrums of the leading pack, clad in the maglia ciclamino to finish fifth. A sensational display of power, but bereft of the starting position to utilise it effectively. Likewise Phil Bauhaus (Bahrain Victorious) and Kaden Groves (Alpecin-Deceuninck) – who will both be pleased with a markedly better performance compared to stage three – came from deep to claim third and second respectively, but far too late to overcome the sustained sprint of Milan.

It was a sprint reminiscent of Marcel Kittel in his heyday. But while Milan seemingly boasts the straight-line, flat road speed you’d associate with Kittel, he cuts the figure of a more versatile rider, one born on the track and unafraid of a tricky climb between him and the bunch finish. A look at his improving Classics results from this year will tell you that, and now with the backing of an improving Lidl-Trek squad, the potential of the 23-year-old seems ever higher.

The next step is to turn that exciting ability into dominance, a ruthlessness that takes sprinters from successful to supreme, just as Kittel, Cavendish, or more recently Jasper Philipsen have done at Grand Tours. This Giro might just be the start of that.

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