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MILAN–SAN REMO: WHO CAN BEAT PETER SAGAN?

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Harsh conditions, spectacular crashes or brilliant individual performances often define Milan–San Remo—the monument whose 108th edition takes place Saturday. With mild, sunny weather in the forecast, we know that adverse conditions won’t be a factor in the Italian classic this year. But crashes on the twisty roads in the high-speed finale could again take out some of the favorites, and we may well see world champion Peter Sagan, brimming with confidence, make a daring escape to win on San Remo’s Via Roma, just like Eddy Merckx did a record seven times. But whatever the outcome, we know that the 291-kilometer Italian classic won’t be dull.

Words: John Wilcockson | Images: Yuzuru Sunada

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Another defining factor at Milan–San Remo is which of the two major stage races that riders have used in their preparations: Paris–Nice or Tirreno–Adriatico. In recent years, the winner has usually come from the French event where more intense racing has given riders the extra ounce of stamina and tenacity to come through the monument’s hilly finale with enough strength and speed in their legs to take an eventual sprint victory.

This year, Paris–Nice produced perfect racing for potential San Remo winners. There were echelon battles in the fierce winds of the north and ferocious attacks and pursuits over the rugged escarpments of the south. In contrast, Tirreno saw more controlled racing—except on the hectic, hilly stage to Fermo that was won by the indomitable Sagan.

Unless he crashes, Sagan is guaranteed to play a leading role in the finale up, over and down the Poggio, the atypical climb that weaves across a vine- and greenhouse-covered hillside overlooking San Remo. This is where Merckx repeatedly escaped from the lead group in this captivating classic even though everyone knew the Belgian was going to attack. Whereas Merckx always had a formidable team of domestiques to set up his winning moves, Sagan is leading a new WorldTour team that’s untested in major classics.

Last year on the Cypress, world champ Sagan climbed behind Van Avermaet.
Last year on the Cipressa, world champion Peter Sagan climbed behind Greg Van Avermaet.

That X-factor can open the way to other pre-race favorites, including the six former race winners who’ll be on the start line in Milan: Italian Filippo Pozzato (2006), Briton Mark Cavendish (2009), Australian Simon Gerrans (2012), Norwegian Alexander Kristoff (2014), German John Degenkolb (2015) and Frenchman Arnaud Démare (2016). That Sagan has yet to win at San Remo, despite regularly being in contention, is another factor that can inspire the opposition

There are a dozen potential contenders who raced in Paris–¬Nice, including Sagan’s Bora-Hansgrohe teammate, the Irish sprinter Sam Bennett, who won a stage of the French race by out-sprinting Katusha-Alpecin’s Kristoff and Trek-Segafredo’s Degenkolb. Also on good sprint form were the winners of the first two stages: FDJ’s Démare and Bahrain-Merida’s Sonny Colbrelli—who’s won eight Italian semi-classics over the past three years and is now having his first chance to tackle an international classic as the leader of a WorldTour formation.

One sprinter who didn’t survive the Paris–Nice echelons was Frenchman Nacer Bouhanni of Cofidis, who was fourth at San Remo last year. Without the extra kilometers in his legs, the rapid Bouhanni will likely fade before the Poggio this year. Two fast finishers who did battle to the end of Paris–Nice, Michael Matthews and Ben Swift, have better chances Saturday. Team Sunweb’s Aussie star Matthews was robbed of a winning chance at San Remo in 2016 by a crash before the race’s penultimate climb, the Cipressa, while UAE-Emirates British sprinter Swift was second to Démare last year.

Should the Cipressa and Poggio eliminate the sprinters and open up the race for men capable of sustaining a winning breakaway then the likely contenders to emerge from Paris–Nice are the Quick-Step Floors’ pair, French hope Julian Alaphilippe and Belgian champion Philippe Gilbert—though they might have to first lend support to their teammates, Fernando Gaviria of Colombia and Tom Boonen of Belgium, who competed in Tirreno–Adriatico. But Boonen has yet to find his best form in his retirement season while Gaviria was injured in a training crash on Friday.

Of the other sprinters who raced Tirreno, Dimension Data’s Cavendish, Orica-Scott’s Caleb Ewan, UAE’s Sacha Modolo and Team Sky’s Elia Viviani had mixed results in the Italian stage race. In the first stage that favored them, Vivian was second and Modolo fourth, beaten by the ubiquitous Sagan; and in the other, Gaviria took the win from Sagan, with Viviani in sixth.

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In 2006 on the Via Roma, Quick-Step’s Filippo Pozzato won Milan–San Remo ahead of a frustrated Alessandro Petacchi and celebrating Tom Boonen, Pozzato’s teammate.

Riders who showed strong form in Tirreno were Team Sky’s Michal Kwiatkowski and BMC Racing’s Greg Van Avermaet—who placed first and second respectively at the emerging classic, Strade Bianche, three weeks ago. Finally, one man who could stay with these attackers is former winner Pozzato, whose Wilier Triestina team didn’t receive an invitation to either of the two WorldTour stage races and has prepared for Saturday’s race with a week of intense training in the Canary Islands.

Sagan is universally tipped to win Milan–San Remo for the first time—but these days the race the Italians call La Primavera or the Classicisima nearly always springs a surprise.