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Milan-San Remo: Not Just a Sprinters’ Classic

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If you believe the odds-makers, a sprinter will win the 105th edition of Milan-San Remo this Sunday. They are making Cannondale’s Peter Sagan the odds-on favorite, just ahead of 2009 winner Mark Cavendish of Omega Pharma-Quick Step and John Degenkolb of Giant-Shimano, with much longer odds given to former winners Fabian Cancellara (2008) of Trek Factory Racing, Simon Gerrans (2012) of Orica-GreenEdge and defending champion Gerald Ciolek of MTN-Qhubeka.

Words: John Wilcockson
Image: Yuzuru Sunada

The reason for the “experts” predicting a sprint finish to the 2014 season’s first monument is due to a weather-enforced course change, back to the one that existed between 1982 and 2008. That’s a course that doesn’t include the steep climb to Le Manie 100 kilometers from the finish, but still has the Cipressa and Poggio climbs in the final 40 kilometers. Those last two difficulties are benign enough that sprinters of the past such as Mario Cipollini, Erik Zabel, and Alessandro Petacchi were all able to stay on the wheels of the leading peloton before unleashing their winning speed in the final straightaway.

It’s an oversimplification to say that the “old” course is made for sprinters. There were many editions of Milan-San Remo that were affected by heavy rain and/or strong crosswinds that favored solo victors—including French “unknown” Marc Gomez in 1982 (the year the Cipressa was first inserted), Dutch all-rounder Hennie Kuiper (1985), and the Italians Claudio Chiappucci (1991) and Gabriele Colombo (1996). And the Italian classic’s record winner Eddy Merckx nearly always managed to get away from the leaders on the technical, switchback descent from the Poggio to take solo wins.

Given that background, the race almost always ends with some sort of sprint, though the Italian classic’s seven-hour, near-300-kilometer challenge never ends in a conventional field sprint. Over the past five editions, for example, the win has been contested by lead groups of 34, 25, eight, three and six riders respectively. And even when Cavendish won five years ago, with a pack of around 40 riders coming over the Poggio together, he had to chase down a late solo charge by Heinrich Haussler to get the verdict by a wheel with a final throw of his bike.

Last year was the year when a snowstorm and freezing temperatures stopped the race midway, with the rider taking their team buses to a restart on the Italian Riviera coast. There was no climb of Le Manie then, and it was the horrid conditions that played a major role in the race splitting until six men broke away from a 30-strong chase group over the Poggio—with Ciolek powering his way to the win from Sagan and Cancellara.

There won’t be a repeat of last year’s weather, with Sunday’s forecast showing temperatures in the 50s, a 70-percent chance of rain showers and a strong wind blowing from the left on the coast road. That generally cross/headwind will likely slow the pace and keep the peloton together, and that could result in mass pileups that often happen in this marathon-distance race when some 200 riders (most of them fatigued) are still together after six to seven hours in the saddle. Those that come through intact will be ready to attack on the Cipressa and Poggio climbs—where they will be encouraged by more favorable wind gusts.

But to win San Remo means more than just being strong and having the ability to attack on a climb. You also need some strong teammates around you—either to make a breakaway stick or have them lead you out for an ultimate sprint—but your greatest asset can be experience. Italian legends Francesco Moser (in 1984) and Mario Cipollini (2002) raced the Classicissima 10 times before winning at the 11th attempt.

Coincidentally, this is the 11th Milan-San Remo for BMC Racing’s Philippe Gilbert, who has twice finished on the podium. The Belgian showed signs of his best form in Tirreno-Adriatico, which finished Tuesday, and he heads a strong team that could also have Thor Hushovd, Taylor Phinney and Greg Van Avermaet at the head of affairs in the finale. And the locals will be hoping Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali can take advantage of any late breakaways.

Although Sagan is the top favorite this weekend, the 24-year-old Slovak has yet to win one of cycling’s five monuments. Over the past two years, he has placed fourth and second at San Remo, and fifth and second at the Tour of Flanders—that second place coming after he’d broken away with Cancellara but couldn’t follow the Swiss powerhouse on the final climb.

Sagan’s best results in any of the UCI WorldTour’s single-day races have come at Ghent-Wevelgem. In 2012, he was runner-up to Boonen in the Belgian classic in a mass-sprint finish. And last year, he took the win by breaking clear of a small lead group in the final kilometers, and not needing his renowned sprint. Perhaps to take the W this Sunday, Sagan will need to do something similar and not rely on a final charge to the line.

If indeed a field sprint does result, Cavendish will be a hard man to beat. The 28-year-old Brit easily took last Monday’s stage win in Tirreno-Adriatico, after a final lead-out from Omega Pharma teammate Petacchi (!) and Mark Renshaw. And in the long stages before that, Cavendish rode on the front of the peloton for hours at a time to defend the overall lead of his Polish teammate Michal Kwiatkowski. Such hard work is another essential ingredient for a San Remo winner.

Other favorable signs for Cavendish include his victory in 2009—and incentive from the fact that this will likely be the last edition of the race on the “old” course before a more selective climb is added between the Cipressa and Poggio next year. Also, Cavendish is best on a flat finish, unlike Sagan and the two Germans Degenkolb and Ciolek, who are all better on uphill finishes. And so if it does come down to a drag race along San Remo’s Lungomare Italo Calvino around 5 p.m. local time on Sunday, Cavendish’s main opposition could come from another German, André Greipel of Lotto-Belisol, from Norway’s Alexander Kristoff of Team Katusha or even French sprinter Arnaud Demare of FDJ.fr.

If you’re someone who bets, and given the unpredictability of this particular race, you’d probably do best by keeping your cash in your pocket.