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By Andrew Hood
The place to be about 4 p.m. Saturday afternoon will be right behind the wheel of Mario Cipollini. The world champion enters the 94th Milan-San Remo race as the favorite to repeat and the only way to beat the Domina Vacanze rider will be to be on his wheel and come around him.
Of course, that’s assuming the 297km World Cup opener comes down to a sprint… and that most of Cipollini’s powerful train makes it with him over the Poggio climb just 5.5 kilometers from the finish on the famed Via Roma in San Remo.
And, that’s assuming, Cipollini’s threat not to start Milan-San Remo due to poor form was nothing more than a pre-race stunt. Cipollini won two stages at Tirreno-Adriatico and should have won three, but he let Rabobank’s Oscar Freire squeak around him in the final stage.
Cipollini will start and Cipollini will be doing everything he can to win.
Top rivals to steal the Lion King’s roar are four-time Milan-San Remo champion Erik Zabel (Telekom) and Freire. Zabel, however, has only won once this year while Freire enters the race as the only man who’s beaten Cipo this year.
The list of other would-be usurpers to Cipollini’s throne include about a half-dozen Italian riders, with up-and-comer Filippo Pozzato (Fassa Bortolo), Danilo Di Luca (Saeco) and Paolo Bettini (Quick Step) topping the list.
American Fred Rodriguez, second here last year, and Sidermec teammate Romans Vainsteins will be trying to mix things up against the Italians.
Peter Van Petegem (Lotto-Domo), Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole) and Johan Museeuw (Quick Step) were late scratches from the start-list and American George Hincapie (U.S. Postal Service) won’t be starting in any of the spring classics due to a lingering virus.
Quick Step team officials said Bettini is feeling down with a stomach bug while Robbie McEwen (Lotto-Domo) also said he’s not 100-percent, plagued this year with knee problems at Tour Down Under and a cold in early March.
All eyes will be on attacks on Poggio and the Cipressa climb, 22km from the finish. Last year, several riders crashed out of contention on Cipressa, including Di Luca and Rabobank’s Erik Dekker, who broke his hip.
The Milan-San Remo has finished with a sprint in the last five out of six years, and it was in 1999 that Andrei Tchmil attacked with 600 meters to go for the win to break up Zabel’s four wins in five years.
Even with the war underway in Iraq, riders feel the show must go on. There is a threat of an anti-war protest interfering with the start of the race in Milan, but otherwise the event is expected not have other difficulties.
“Sure, we are sponsored by an American sponsor, but we are here to race bikes,” said U.S. Postal Service’s sport director Johan Bruyneel. “You think about those things, but once the race begins, that’s what we have to worry about.”
With the absence of George Hincapie, who is back in the United States to conduct yet more tests to determine the cause of his virus, Postal will lead with Max Van Heeswijk, second at Het Volk last month.
“Without George, we have to reconsider everything for the classics. We have Max here and he’s fast in the sprint, so our plan will be to get him over Cipressa and the Poggio and see what he can do,” Bruyneel said.
The Postal lineup also includes Tony Cruz, Viatcheslav Ekimov, Steffen Kjaergaard, Benoit Joachim, Guennadi Mikhailov, Victor Hugo Pena and Matthew White.
Before the arrival of the men’s race, the women race over the final 121km of the course for the 5th Primavera Rosa, the second stop of the women’s 2003 World Cup. Mirjam Melchors (Farm Frites) will be the favorite to repeat her victory here from last year. There are no Americans at the start line.