The year's first Monument has come and gone. Milano-Sanremo served up one of the most thrilling editions in recent memory with a top five that reads like some dream team: Matt Goss, Fabian Cancellara, Philippe Gilbert, Alessandro Ballan, Filippo Pozzato. In a sensational final hour, which saw the cream rise to the very top, the favorites all took turns lashing each other, driving the pace, leaving nothing behind. Unfortunately, for all the aggressive racing, they couldn't rid themselves of the one rider they absolutely had to: Matt Goss. One of the year's most prolific winners, further padded his 2011 total and suddenly, we seem to have forgotten that other sprinter's name, what was it? Ah yes, Mark Cavendish.
Quick Cav note: of course, Cavendish will come good soon enough. His name is Mark Cavendish after all. I wouldn't want to be the journalist that writes him off. I hear he gets off on that stuff.
Back to the task at hand: In the grand scheme of the racing season, Milano-Sanremo isn't the biggest fish in the spring sea. The big fish races loom, just two and three weeks distant, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix respectively. With the cobbled classics in mind, the top five at Milano-Sanremo should make every race fan's mouth water. When was the last time that four absolute race favorites in Flanders populated the top five in Sanremo? With that said, perhaps we can say the entire top five are favorites on the cobbles. Is it possible to consider Goss as a contender on the cobbles in a few weeks? He has already finished second at Gent-Wevelgem - who's to say he's not up to the task over the next three weekends with Gent-Wevelgem, Flanders, and Roubaix? Not me.
Not everyone came out happy and high-fiving though...
A Less Than Ideal Day For Garmin
Garmin-Cervelo came into Saturday's La Primavera as the commanding favorite, but were particularly absent from the final proceedings. Had Garmin experienced even a so-so day, two more favorites would have easily placed in the top slots: Heinrich Haussler and Thor Hushovd. Hushovd crashed on the Manie climb and never made it back into the front group, whilst Haussler just didn't quite have it when the Poggio bombardment climaxed in the final kilometer of the ascent. One shiny bright point for Garmin-Cervelo was certainly the performance of Andreas Klier. The man nicknamed, GPS, was the only other rider to make the front selection of 44 with Haussler. An in form Klier is a massive asset to Vaughters's boys when the racing gets bumpy next weekend.
Sanremo: Playground For The Cobbled Favorites
It has been said numerous times by many of the favorites, but Philippe Gilbert said it best: Sanremo isn't a goal. A result would be nice, but if it doesn't come, no big deal. Considering that Gilbert's sentiment was shared by the entire top five, anyone off the pace in Sanremo might consider being just a wee bit nervous with one of the season's high points less than two weeks away in Flanders. Sure, there's improvement to be made over the next 14 days, but if your rivals are still improving as well, and you're already behind - that's a scary place to be.
Of course, Milano-Sanremo is NOT Flanders or Roubaix, not even in the same galaxy. The only thing Sanremo and the cobbled classics have in common is their status as Monuments. However, when riders like Gilbert, Cancellara, Ballan, and Pozzato are all doing just fine, no, better put, killing it, on a course that is NOT cobble based, then things start to get a bit stern when you look over to a rider like Tom Boonen.
Sure, Boonen was sick at Tirreno-Adriatico, and he's getting better everyday, but the fact remains - he was well off the pace of his main rivals that he'll do battle with in Flanders on April 3rd. If anyone can make that last leap to the top level of fitness though, there's no question that it would be a rider like Boonen. It's too early to count him out, the same goes with Edvald Boasson Hagen.
BMC's Good Day
BMC has to be a happy red and black camp this Monday. Ballan's return to his best fitness continued on Saturday with a hard fought fourth place finish. The former Flanders winner has to be pleased with his progress and ready for action in Belgium. That's great, for sure, but the rest of his team was immaculate as well. Recent underachiever, Greg Van Avermaet, defined the climb of the Poggio with his audacious solo exploit. Sure, he didn't win, but it's apparent: he's returning to his best form. George Hincapie was also his usual dependable self - always there, always ready. Ballan, Van Avermaet, Hincapie, Burghardt, Quinziato, Kroon, Murphy, and hopefully Phinney - that's a disturbingly strong line-up.
In Belgium: Who Can Come To Terms With Cancellara? Gilbert?
When it comes down to it, all that matters is if you can go with the strongest rider when the race deciding move is made. As was apparent last year, the best team in the universe or ever created wasn't going to be able to do a thing against Fabian Cancellara. Does BMC have a rider that can withstand an attack from an obviously in form Cancellara? The same question goes for Garmin-Cervelo. They're the other super team with Haussler, Hushovd, Farrar, Van Summeren, Vanmarcke, Klier, and more. Will they be able to answer the call to arms from the likes of Gilbert and Cancellara? I think so.
The non-prognosticated answer to that question will start to reveal itself starting next weekend with the E3 Prijs Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem. After that, it's into the meat of the Spring: Flanders on the 3rd, Roubaix on the 10th.
Looking Further Ahead
The possibilities looming at this year's Giro d'Italy continue to delight, and the three week lap of Italy is still over a month away. Lampre-ISD's Michele Scarponi had the ride of the day in my opinion - going across the nearly one minute gap from the chasing group to the leading group on the climb and descent of the Cipressa. That is something special. Is it a sign of the times that the first thing out of most people's mouths was: doper? It's true that Scarponi has served time for doping in the past. It's true that he is Italian and races for an Italian team. We gotta at least hope though, right? If he's clean, and I might as well just stop caring if I automatically assume he's not, then that was the kind of performance that should set alarm bells ringing for this year's Giro. He's a climber in the purest sense, and the upcoming Giro is for the climbers, the purists only need apply.
Another Italian that made waves was last year's Vuelta winner, Vincenzo Nibali. The Sicilian was strong all day and did everything he could to get free on the Poggio. Unfortunately, he had something akin to a nuclear power plant chasing him from behind in the form of Gilbert, Scarponi, Cancellara, Ballan, Pozzato, et al. Everything looks good for the Shark though - he'll likely head into May's Giro as the major favorite when the race kicks off with a team time trial in Torino.
A Tip Of The Hat To...
FDJ. Who would have thought that they'd be a major player in the finale? Steve Chainel and Yoann Offredo's driving in the small break heading into the Poggio was fantastic.
It's a shame that France's hands down top racer didn't get a chance to show himself on Saturday in Italy though. Can you imagine what Thomas Voeckler would have done? Oh the possibilities. If Offredo and Chainel were excellent, take a moment and imagine what Voeckler could have done. Take into account that the French champion is on the form of his life right now and already has five race wins to his credit this year, including his most recent only yesterday at the GP Cholet-Pays De Loire