For the first time on a Sunday, this weekend will see the first Monument of the year in the 298km Milan-sanremo. Sanremo is always a great spectacle, often beginning in a dull, drizzly Milan and finding its way over 7 or so hours to the glittering Mediterranean coast. On the sporting side, its exciting for its shear unpredictability – unlike the other four classics, there is no model rider type who can win the race: it is open to sprinters, escape merchants, and aggressive Grand Tour contenders all the same. This openness is extenuated by the fact that it is so early in the season, so that no one, fans included, really knows what a riders form is, which in the longest race on the calender is evidently important.
Whilst like most cycle races, the course is always seemingly set in stone, Milan-sanremo has changed quite a lot over its history, let alone in the last few years. The Turchino used to be the major climb, but now serves mainly symbolic purposes – riders emerge from its tunnel into the seaside sunshine. The famed Cipressia and Poggio climbs were added in 1982 and 1960 respectively, and the Capo Berta and so on have followed. La Manie, the climb that has arguably been decisive the last two years, having cut off half the sprinters in 2011 after a crash and being the death knell for Mark Cavendish in 2012, was first introduced in 2009, and there is constant speculation over whether the race should be made harder to prevent a sprint finish by adding more hills or moving the finish to bottom of the Cipressa etc.
Sprinters havent really had much luck in recent years however, in more ways then one. First, their iconic finish, the Via Roma, was dropped for the 2009 edition because of road works, and has not returned since. But the last 10 editions have been split 50/50 between attacking riders and sprinters, and the duel between them is the real attraction of Sanremo. The hard men obviously want to drop the sprinters and so venomously attack the climbs, whilst the sprinters hang on for dear life hoping to bridge the gaps that form on the descents and short run in. It is always captivating and nerve wracking, dealing with slopes, sinuous descents and flats that make the race a maelstrom of cycling terrain. It is, they say, the easiest classic to ride, but the hardest to win. You need the triumvirate of strength, tactics and luck on your side to triumph and join the illustrious list of former winners, including Freire, Cipollini, Zabel, Kelly, Fignon, Moser, De Vlaemenick, Merckx, Bartali, Coppi, Binda and Giradengo
So who is going to do so? The race will start with six former victors, Mark Cavendish (2009), Fabian Cancellara (2008), Alessandro Petacchi (2005), Fillipo Pozzato (2006), Matt Goss (2011) and Simon Gerrans (2012) as well as Vincenzo Nibali, Phillipe Gilbert, Tom Boonen, Heinrich Haussler, Thor Hushovd, Luca Paolini, Danilo Hondo and Stuart O’Grady, all of whom have stood on the podium. Add to that mix the likes of young guns Peter Sagan, who is the overwhelming favourite, John Deglenkob and Edvald Boassen Hagen and you get the idea as to why the race is so hard to win – it is so difficult to control not only due to its length but also the number of men you have to mark. The first year without Oscar Freire for some time also marks a new era for the race – the Cat can no longer pounce out of the shadows…
None the less, I’ve put together a list of those likely to be up there for the win, grouped into categories: Pure Sprinters, The Inbetweeners, Small Group Winners and Solo Artists. Of course, there is huge amounts of overlap in this, but it’s just for a bit of structure.
These are the men banking on it all coming together for a big bunch gallop at the finale.
Now that Oscar Freire has retired, Cavendish and Petacchi are the only Tour green jersey winners who have a Sanremo on their palmares. Cavendish has spent the last few weeks writing himself off for Sanremo, telling everyone that he can’t win it whilst also saying this is his ‘last chance.’ This mixed message makes him an enigma going into the race, especially given that before he won in 2009, he similarly wrote himself off, saying he wasn’t climbing well and the like to trick his rivals. But its his actual form that maybe the problem – the post-Olympics model Cavendish is certainly better at climbing then the 2009 one, which should seem him get over La Manie, the graveyard of his ambition the last two years, without a struggle, but is his sprint as strong as it used to be? Cavendish doesn’t win by the big margins he used to, if he wins at all – he was locked out at Tirenno, although he was probably right in blaming his team for that. The OPQS train hasn’t really got on the rails yet this year, although the prospect of Cavendish being led out by Tom Boonen is surely enough to raise goosebumps for fans. Whether he wins depends on if his team can sort themselves out, and then if he can get past Peter Sagan – because if Cavendish gets to the finish, Sagan will be there as well.
Greipel has gone almost unmentioned in the Sagan-dominated Sanremo discussion, which is arguably understandable – he has only ridden the race twice, having been prevented from having done so earlier by his HTC team after being blocked out by Cavendish. Having transplanted the Columbia B-team to Lott0-Belisol, Greipel is now up for Sanremo, and should be underestimated at your peril – remember how he rode over that steep 2nd Category climb at the Tour to win where everyone else was dropped, or those Titanic efforts he put in to string the bunch out for Vandenbroucke? It’s a cliche, but Greipel is more than a sprinter – he can climb reasonably well and has good stamina. With a bit of a run on besting Cavendish recently, its worth betting on a German heir to Erik Zabel if Greipel gets to the finish in the front.
Also known as ‘the other FDJ sprinter’ after Nacer Bouhanni, who has been attracting attention with his wins and glorious French champion skinsuit. Demare was the man who beat him to the U23 Worlds title though, and has a few big name scalps after winning the Vattenfall Cyclassics last year. 2013 will most likely be too early for him, but he’ll want some experience to tackle the event in the future and aim to be the first Frenchman since Laurent Jalabert to win the race.
Petacchi has spent most of the year with a perma-sulk on his face, and its no wonder given the Italian Stallion is being forced to ride a Merida bike, as well as have their awful pea green colouring enforced on the fuschia of the Lampre colours. I’m no fashion expert but I know when colours dont go. Petacchi is getting a bit long in the tooth now, and it’s easy to forget that when he won this race in 2005, he was 31-near the end of the career at that time. Now he’s 39 (39! Where does the time go…) he still seems capable of winning bunch sprints, but the days he can do so are getting fewer and fewer. Still, with stages in all grand tours, as well as all in the same year, a Milan Sanremo and a Paris-Tours, he’s done pretty damn well, and it will be a shame to see the Gentleman sprinter go.
To be honest, I only include Farrar because he’d win if I didn’t. Farrar hasn’t won a race in Europe since stage 3 of the 2011 Tour de France (not including team time trials) and only two races since then – it’ll be 620 days since he won in Europe by Sunday, and given he hasn’t shown much hope of triumphing since, it’ll probably extend beyond that. Farrar is still young though – perhaps he will be reborn later in the year. You’ll get excellent odds on him winning – but it’s probably not worth it.
These guys wouldnt mind a sprint, as they can hold their own against, as well as defeat, the pure sprinters, but would probably prefer to have burnt them off of get away into a smaller group from which they can sprint from for the victory.
It is odd that there is such an overwhelming favourite for Milan-sanremo, but if any rider was made for it, its Sagan. Everyone thought he would struggle with the distance last year, yet he still came 4th, winning the bunch sprint. He has all the weapons capable to win – a devastating, Cavendish beating sprint and a Gilbert-jumping acceleration on the hills. He also has a team that can put the pain into others, but this will be the key for him – if he gets isolated, there will eventually be an attack he wont follow, and with everyone looking at him as favourite, there’s going to be many. Cannondale need to ride very hard over the hills to try and get him away with say, Cancellara and Gilbert, then hope he still has the kick in his legs, as whilst you wouldn’t bet against him, his chances fall away more against Cavendish and Greipel. If he’s within the first 5-6 riders with 200m to go, its hard to see past him though.
Just behind Sagan last year was John Deglenkob, who has the entirety of Argos Shimano behind him, as oddly, Marcel Kittel isn’t coming. Deglenkob is a powerhouse who can just unleash hell on everyone, but has the speed to get past them in the finale as well after battering himself over the hills. Certainly a decent bet for the podium, if not the top step, especially given the open nature of sprints after 300km.
Goss has been very quiet since he won this race in 2011, although a stage win in Tirrenno will have done him good. He needs a scenario like 2011 though, with a small group, as it will be tricky to best Sagan and Cavendish in a straight sprint. Smugness alert: I correctly predicted his 2011 success the day before the race. Yes. Every other race I get wrong, but that was a great call. So there.
Fresh from ‘winning’ Roma Maxima, Pozzato has shown he has the form to win again after his late 2006 attack. Problem is, he’s so enigmatic you never know what to expect. He’s been 1st, 2nd,5th and 6th in recent years, so there’s a spot on the podium he hasn’t yet been – it looks the most likely place he’ll be though, as the man they call the Shadow still hasn’t shaken off that nickname, given to him for his disposition to follow other attacks rather than make them himself. Still, he attacked at Flanders last year, where he looked much stronger, and he and teammate Alessandro Petacchi can sort out who they’re working for, then he should be in with a shout.
Everyone had forgotten about the man it is seemingly obligatory to call ‘The Mighty’ before their name until his name popped up as 8th of Tirrenno’s ridiculous stage 6, what with the 30% climbs and riders walking up them etc. This suggests that a lighter looking Hushovd, who had his 2012 wiped out by infection, is a real contender for Flanders, but Milan-sanremo is also a reasonable aim. His sprint will be the problem – the last couple of years he has moved from the top 5 to the bottom 5 of the top 10 on the results sheet, and you can’t see him really getting very far unless its a two or three man group. His descending skills will prove invaluable on the run in to Sanremo though.
Yes, remember him, the man Phil Ligget originally called as having won Mark Cavendish’s first Tour stage back in 2008? Ciolek, a U23 World champion at 19, has been struggling with pressure for some time, having moved between Columbia, Milram and Quickstep before coming to new African team MTN-Quebeka for 2013. He’s been doing well too – picking up a win and some strong placings. A dark horse, maybe.
Lotto-Belisol’s underrated Mr Versatile will probably end up racing for Greipel but if the Gorilla gets dropped, don’t be surprised if Roelandts is still around to get in the top 5.
Edvald Boassen Hagen
Sky’s classics teams’ odd approach of training in Tenerife rather than racing Paris-Nice or Tirrenno (surely the temperature difference is going to kill them?!) has pushed them to the back of everyones minds, but perhaps thats the point. Only Boassen Hagen looks a likely victor though, as much as Geraint Thomas and Eisel are talked up. Boassen Hagen was always talked up to be like what Sagan is now, and he arguably has the same characteristics, just slightly less explosive – he time trials better, but can still climb and sprint with the best for a classics man. Small groups are what he needs though, or to go for a trademark long burst to try and drop everyone.
Bennati hasn’t done much this year, and has been on the decline for a while, but seeing as he’s on the team of career rebirth, Saxo-Tinkoff, then its worth including him given Bjarne Riis always seems capable of working some magic.
Lets be honest, Boonen probably wont contest the finish of this, and may well retire from the race. His elbow and intestinal problems have put him behind where he should be for April, so it will be a suprise if he is in good enough form to compete here. Still, he was better than expected at Het Niewsblad, and on his day, can win any race he wants. Somehow though, it seems unlikely Sunday will be such an occasion.
Small Group Winners
If it comes down to a sprint, these guys probably wont bother, with the exception of Haussler and VanAvermaet, but it would be more for pride then glory. Instead, these guys want to attack the Capi – small hills – that litter the coastline, drop the sprinters, then kick each other to bits with attacks to win a sprint between two or three guys on the final straight.
Gilbert must be unsure whether to be annoyed or happy. He’s been favourite for Milan-sanremo for about the last 5 years, then suddenly, the year he gets the rainbow jersey, no one even mentions him. It’s an odd turn for the man who was so dominant in 2011, but perhaps highlights that BMC aren’t quite that brilliant at getting the best out of people. If Gilbert is in his 2011 vintage, he’ll probably win, and he’s been strong this year, with some solid podiums that suggests he’s getting very good very early in the year. It will be a suprise if he doesnt animate the race, and anywhere outside the top 5 will be disappointing. Hopefully the rainbow jersey will propel him to victory in what would be a rare win for the world champion in San remo. He will have to find a way to deal with his Mr Hyde in Sagan if he wants to win though. And get rid of that stupid helmet, or at the very least, get a white one.
Chavanel is a lurker – always there or there abouts in every classic, never quite making it to the top. This, in my eyes, might be the year he changes that. He was phenomenal in Paris-Nice, suprisingly winning a sprint whilst also performing above his station on the long climbs . He will almost certainly attack the Cipressa or Poggio, but an affliction to looking behind a-la Andy Schleck might be his downfall – he tends to slow down and metronomically check behind himself if anyone is still nearby. My sneaky tip is him though.
Like Ciolek, Haussler is back after years in the doldrums. With a good sprint, strong climbing skills and a ravenous desire to appease his heart breaking 2009 defeat by 0.000369% of the course distance, could he be the third Australian in as many years to win La Primavera?
Greg Van Avermaet
I like to think of Van Avermaet as the Belgian Chavanel – always the bridesmaid, never the bride. Ironically he moved to BMC to stop racing with Gilbert, who then joined him at the team. He will be aggressive, but in a team packed with stars again in Cadel Evans, Hushovd and Gilbert, he will have to go early to avoid being drawn into working for his own team.
The second head of Cannondale’s young Hydra is Moreno Moser, the machine who won Strade Bianche after Sagan marked everyone to death. The pair could be they key to each other’s success again though, as they can mark one anothers adversaries once the other attacks. Moser doesnt really have a sprint, more a Boassen Hagen esque long range burst, but will want to emulate his dad, albeit without the blood transfusions, in returning La Primavera to Italian hands for the first time since 2006.
Another man who seems to have vanished. But me might be there this year. Probably not though.
The team of last year’s winner have already said they’re all behind Goss, although Gerrans has won the Willunga stage of the Tour down Under to show some form. However, he hasn’t done much since, which suggests he won’t be doing much this year. But then again, we didn’t really think he’d be around last year, yet he crept through to take the win…
Sprinting? Not a good idea for these chaps. They don’t want anyone with them at the finish, and instead hope that they can just ride everyone off their wheel by shear force of will and some technical descending skills.
Is the Fab finally over as a classics winning machine? The trouble is his Swiss metronomic timing – he is way to easy to predict these days, and doesn’t have the same aura of invincibility about him when he burns off the front. People used to be afraid to follow Cancellara for fear that they would be subject to a merciless drubbing and be humiliatingly dropped 500m down the road as he whirled away the pedals, the bike screaming at the pounding being unleashed upon its components, as 80kilos of Swiss elegance simply stormed off to victory. Now though, everyone seems to know that they can get on the wheel, and more importantly, so does Cancellara, which is why he is stuck in a catch-22 – if he stops and complains, as he often does now, then he loses, and if he persists with the rider on his back wheel, trying to burn them off, then they beat him in the sprint. Cancellara needs a new tactic, and personally, I’d recommend using his bike handling ability to attack on the descent, rather than the ascent of the climbs, and then engaging Spartacus mode to arrive solo on the seafront once again.
Coming off fine form in the press room,where he’s been niggling at Sky’s dull science tactics, and on the bike, where he defended Tirrenno-Adriatico with some aggressive assaults on the hills, Nibali is the only grand Tour contender who seems interested in San Remo, or indeed any classic – he was right up there in Sanremo and Liege last year. He’ll need to use the hills and their descents, luckily both his favorite playgrounds, to win though, as as he showed in Tirrenno, he can lose 2 seconds to Peter Sagan in 20om even when the later sat up to celebrate.
The Frenchman banned for whereabouts violations is back to kick some ass this year, and Offredo is good fun. He won’t win, but he’ll grimace and pump the living daylights out of his legs to get up the Poggio first. He’s awesome.
‘Fun’ Milan Sanremo facts
Number of editions as of 2013: 104
Last Italian Winner: Fillipo Pozzato (2006)
Last All-Italian podium: 2006 (Pozzatto, Pettachi, Paolini)
Fastest race: 1990 (6 hours, 25 minutes, 06 seconds, Gianni Bugno)
Most wins by Country: Italy (50)
Most wins by rider: Eddy Merckx (7)
Countries who have won: Italy (50), Belgium (20), France (12), Germany (5), Spain (5), Netherlands, Australia, Ireland, Switzerland, United Kingdom (All 2)