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It is hard - almost impossible - to see anyone put Sagan into trouble on Cipressa or Poggio, and with his sprinting ability none of the strongest classics contenders have any chance to defeat the Cannondale captain in a final dash to the line.

Photo: Sirotti














16.03.2013 @ 14:18 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was an early teaser, but the real classics season kicks off this coming Sunday when Milan-Sanremo takes place. As one of only five monuments on the cycling calendar, it is one of the most prestigious races all year and with its unique course has the reputation of being the most unpredictable of the big spring races.


Known also as La Primavera and La Classicissima, Milan-Sanremo has a special place in the history of cycling. First held in 1907, this year's edition will be the 104th, and the long travel from the city of Milan to the sea and all the way along the Mediterranean coast has been conquered by most of cycling's biggest names.


The race is unique among the classics and usually has a much longer list of potential winners than its fellow monuments. With the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix appealing to the strong men and Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Il Lombardia suited to the smaller, punchy climbers, Milan-Sanremo is the only of cycling's biggest one-day races in which sprinters may fancy their chances, and the race usually comes down to a thrilling battle between classics specialists on the attack and the sport's fastest finishers.


After a number of races won by sprinters, last year's edition broke the trend when Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge), Fabian Cancellara (Radioshack) and Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) broke away from the peloton on the final Poggio climb and held off a fast finishing Peter Sagan (Liquigas) to take the podium places. Having profited from the strong pulls of Cancellara, the then Australian champion benefitted from his superior sprint to become the second consecutive Australian winner after teammate Matt Goss' triumph in 2011.


The course

At 298 km, Milan-Sanremo is the longest one-day race on the cycling calendar, and being unchanged from last year's edition it follows its traditional pattern. Starting in the city of Milan in the dead-flat Po Valley, the first 134 km are without any topographical challenges and mostly serve to accumulate kilometers and tire the rider's legs. It will be the setting for the launch of the day's early breakaway where smaller teams look to gain some valuable attention on the biggest cycling scene.


The race enters a new phase when riders climbs the Passo del Turchino to reach the highest point at 532 meter above sea level at just around the halfway mark. This will be the first time for the attackers to show their intentions, and we will see riders wishing a hard race use their teams to set a hard tempo to tire the sprinters.


After the descent, the peloton reaches the Mediterranean coast, and for the remainder of the race the riders travel along the seafront to reach the seaside town of Sanremo. After two smaller climbs, the race reaches its first crucial point at the climb of Le Manie with 94 km to go. The climb was introduced in 2008 in an attempt to make the race harder and avoid the sprinters' domination. At 4,7 km with an average gradient of 6,7% and with 11% pitches, it is by far the hardest challenge of the race. The climb has been the setting for some of the most dramatic episodes in recent editions when teams try to exploit the climb's potential fully by setting a furious pace on the ascent and on the technical descent. Last year it was the scene for Cavendish' undoing as the Manxman was dropped, and in 2011 the hard tempo made it impossible for defending champion Oscar Freire to return to the front after a mechanical failure on the descent.


Usually the race is split into multiple groups and completely strung out when it again returns to the plains of the seafront. From here there will be no possibility to rest as the pace will be kept high on the three short climbs Capo Mele, Capo Cervo and Capo Berta while riders dropped on Le Manie try to get back in contention.


The race enters its climax with the first of its two most well-known climbs, the Cipressa which tops out with 22 km to go. At 5,6 km and with an average gradient of 4,1% (maximum 9%), it is not the most difficult challenge, but after 275 km the gradients can be felt by even the strongest cyclist. The days where lasting attacks go on this penultimate difficulty are probably gone, but we will certainly see some of the lieutenants put in strong attacks - either on the ascent or in the technical descent - to force the sprinter's teams on the defensive.


With 10 km remaining, the race hits its most crucial point, the Poggio climb. The 3,7 km rise with an average gradient of 3,7% (maximum 8%) is the place for the big classics specialists to put in their attack. While some of the world's most talented one-day riders slip off the front, the sprinters try to remain in contention and keep domestiques at their side for the final frantic chase on an extremely technical descent and the final 2,9 km of flat racing towards the finish line on Lungomare Italo Calvino.


Organizers RCS considered moving the finish closer to the top of Poggio to open the race more up to attackers. In the end, they chose to keep the race as it was, and we should be in for another thrilling pursuit  like last year where the sprinters ended up being foiled.


Weather conditions

The weather usually plays a crucial role in the script of Milan-Sanremo. A tailwind marks a drastic improvement to the chances of the attackers while a headwind lends the race more to the sprinters' hands. Rainy conditions make for a much harder race, and 7 hours in wet conditions can wear down even the hardest riders. Furthermore, rain makes the extremely technical descents along the coast treacherous, and the importance of skills in the downhill sections prove to be of essential importance.


Riders looking for the Italian sun were let down in Tirreno-Adriatico which turned out to be one of the hardest editions ever seen. Three opening days in pouring rain were followed by the wet, epic sixth stage where more than 60 riders abandoned. Riders opting for Paris-Nice were not favoured by much better weather.


The climatic conditions in Italy will not improve ahead of Sunday's race, and riders are in for another rainy day. With a number of teams looking for a hard race, we could be in for an epic edition favouring only the strongest riders. With a tailwind and treacherous descents, this year's conditions may certainly be fancied by the attackers.


The favourites

La Primavera may be characterized as the most unpredictable classic due to its appeal to a number of different types of riders. This year is, however, vastly different from its recent predecessors, and it is hard to remember any edition during the last two decades with a favourite as obvious as this year's.


Slovakian phenomenon Peter Sagan (Cannondale) proved in the Tour of Oman, GP Citta di Camaiore, Strade Bianche and Tirreno-Adriatico that not even the world's best climbers are able to put him in serious trouble on short climbs. Vincenzo Nibali and Samuel Sanchez had opened up a small gap on an extremely steep pitch in the penultimate stage of Tirreno, but being superior on the descents even to formidable descenders Nibali and Sanchez he was able to return to the front just moments later. With the climbs in Sanremo being much easier, it is hard - almost impossible - to see anyone put the Slovakian champion into trouble on Cipressa or Poggio, and with his sprinting ability none of the strongest classics contenders have any chance to defeat the Cannondale captain in a final dash to the line.


The most serious threat to a Sagan victory is not posed by the attacks in the final. What may prevent Sagan from adding the first monument to his palmares is the presence of one of his faster competitors in a final bunch sprint. Three names spring to mind as the ones with higher a top speed than Sagan: Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma - Quick Step), Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) and Matthew Goss (Orica-GreenEdge).


The latter certainly poses the most realistic threat to Sagan. With his strength on the climbs, Sagan wants a hard race to make sure that most sprinters are left behind before the finish on Lungomare Italo Calvino in Sanremo. Hence, one should expect to see Cannondale - assisted by the likes of Astana, BMC, Radioshack and Sky - put on a fast tempo from the bottom of Le Manie all the way to the finish line. With a tailwind and rain on the cards, this will most probably make for a really hard edition.


Sagan will in all likelihood follow any accelerations on Poggio to avoid getting caught out behind as it was the case last year. Few of his potential breakaway companions will have any desire to arrive at the finish with the Slovak, and he may be in lack of assistance to keep any break going on the final flat run-in to the line. This suggests that we might be in for a sprint from a small group.


As evidenced by his victory in the 2010 edition, Goss is able to handle climbs and long races much better than your typical sprinter. His triumph in stage 2 of Tirreno and statements from the GreenEdge camp indicate that he has timed his form to perfection, and with defending champion Gerrans not nearly as strong as last year he should have the complete team at his disposal. With an in-form Daryl Impey as his most trusted domestique, Goss has all chances to take part in a final sprint. Even if the Australian may be faster than Sagan in a typical bunch sprint, a long, hard race may, however, turn around the tables in favour of the Cannondale captain.


Greipel still has to break through as a genuine Sanremo contender. The climbing skills of the big German are mostly underestimated, and he should be able to handle the challenges in La Primavera. What the German lacks seems to be endurance in longer distances, and that has - until now - been his undoing. However, indications from Tirreno are that he has worked on his weakness - maybe at the expense of his top speed - and he was one of very few sprinters to finish the brutal penultimate stage. 2013 could be the year where Greipel finally plays a role in a Sanremo finale.


With his fast finishing speed Cavendish of course has his place in any list of favourites. The Manxman's climbing skills have, however, not impressed at all this season, and it seems highly unlikely that the 2009 winner should get the chance to show off his amazing speed on Sunday. The Brit has been adamant that the inclusion of Le Manie means that the days where he can win in Sanremo are gone, and it is hard to disagree in this assessment.


Other in-form sprinters with the needed endurance include the likes of Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky), Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto-Belisol), John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano), Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre), Daniele Bennati (Team Saxo-Tinkoff), Heinrich Haussler (IAM), Thor Hushovd (BMC), Gerald Ciolek (MTN Qhubeka) and Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), but all of them will struggle in a head-to-head battle with Sagan. Boasson Hagen and Roelandts stand out as even being capable of following attacks on Poggio. The condition of the Norwegian remains, however, an unknown as he has been part of the unprecedented Sky experiment of preparing the classics on a training camp and not by taking part in Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico.


It may be hard to see anyone able to drop Sagan with a final acceleration on Poggio, but it will certainly not be for a lack of trying. Mauro Santambrogio (Vini Fantini), Rinaldo Nocentini (Ag2r), Francesco Reda (Androni Giocattoli), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Filippo Pozzato (Lampre), Enrico Gasparotto (Astana) and Geraint Thomas (Sky) are all  strong right now and will most probably be in the thick of the action when the climbing gets serious inside the final 10 kilometers of the race.


Other notable attackers are world champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC) and last year's runner-up Fabian Cancellara (Radioshack), but their current levels are questionable. At his best, the Belgian may be one of the very few whose blistering attacks may trouble Sagan somewhat. The BMC captain's showing in Paris-Nice did not impress anyone, and even if he battled some kind of illness during the race, he has still not shown any signs of the rider who dominated the 2011 season. Cancellara was clearly the strongest in last year's race, but his performances in Strade Bianche and Tirreno-Adriatico did little to suggest that he is just anywhere near the same level.


Finally, one should notice the role that team tactics may play. Sagan had doubtlessly won last year's race, had it not been for a very strange Liquigas strategy. Cannondale used their strength in numbers to perfection in Strade Bianche where Moreno Moser benefitted from Sagan's superiority to become the first Italian winner of this new classic. To relieve the pressure, Cannondale may choose to put Moser or Damiano Caruso into any breaks going clear on the Cipressa, and a dangerous group containing representatives from the major teams could catch out the favourites in a tactical game. This would open the surprising door for outsiders like Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), Maxim Iglinskiy (Astana), Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Yoann Offredo (FDJ) or Luca Paolini (Katusha) who may struggle to join the strongest accelerations on Poggio, but who certainly have the power to pose a serious threat with an earlier attempt.


The list below shows our favourites to win the race. Since its purpose is not to give a possible top 10, but to list up the most likely winners, and since Sagan may only really be threatened in a group sprint or by team tactics, it is heavily loaded with sprinters at the expense of classics riders.


***** Peter Sagan

**** Matthew Goss

*** Andre Greipel, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Jurgen Roelandts

** Mark Cavendish, John Degenkolb, Alessandro Petacchi, Daniele Bennati, Heinrich Haussler, Thor Hushovd, Gerald Ciolek, Alexander Kristoff, Geraint Thomas

* Philippe Gilbert, Fabian Cancellara, Filippo Pozzato, Mauro Santambrogio, Enrico Gasparotto, Greg Van Avermaet, Luca Paolini, Mark Renshaw, Tyler Farrar, Giacomo Nizzolo


You can follow all the action on Sunday live on starting at 14.30.



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