Four big names still hunting for first Sanremo win

What do Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet, Philippe Gilbert, and Tom Boonen have in common? Great riders, but none have won Milano-Sanremo.

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For as “easy” and “boring” as some detractors might view Milano-Sanremo, you can be assured that many top riders wish that were the case.

The chaos and intensity of the last hour of racing make Milano-Sanremo one of the trickier monuments to master despite a parcours that is otherwise straightforward. Timing is everything in Sanremo, and more than a few big names over the decades have misfired and missed out.

The victors list is impressive by any measure, and recent former winners such as John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo), Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), and Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin) are among the lineup for the season’s first monument Saturday.

For some, however, Sanremo remains the race that got away. Many top riders never win, and others spend an entire career chasing the victory, including the likes of Mario Cipollini, who finally got the win in 2002, or Alessandro Petacchi in 2005. Others, like Greg LeMond or Moreno Argentin, were never first across the line.

Here are four of Sanremo’s not-quite winners, and their chances this year:

Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe)

Stats: Six starts, second in 2013
Record: Time is on Sagan’s side, and it’s hard to imagine that he won’t win Sanremo at least once as he enters the best years of his career. In fact, the reigning double world champion lines up Saturday as the man to beat. Yet Sanremo has proven tricky for Sagan so far. In his 2011 debut, he was 17th, and he’s never been worse. Two years later, he rode into the winning, seven-man group that stayed clear down the Poggio, but was pipped at the line by the now-retired Gerald Ciolek in a stunner. Three ensuing bunch sprints have revealed Sagan’s vulnerability against pure sprinters down the Via Roma.

Chances Saturday: Very good. After his impressive opening to 2017, with three wins, including Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, second at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and five other top-threes, Sagan looks to be ready to check Sanremo off his to-do list. He has the legs to follow attacks over the crest of the Poggio, and the punch to challenge the sprinters if it comes down to a sprint. The long distance (nearly 300km) and requisite positioning are important keys in his favor.

Tom Boonen (Quick-Step)

Stats: 12 starts, second in 2010, third in 2007
Record: Time is literally running out for Boonen, who’s won seven monuments on the cobbles of France and Belgium, but could never tame the “capi” of the Italian Riviera. Back in the “aughts,” when Boonen could still challenge the sprinters, Tommeke believed a Sanremo win was realistic. Over the last half-decade or so, he’s lost some of that top-end speed to compete against the peloton’s. But he came close, second to Oscar Freire’s third and final Sanremo win in 2010, and third in 2007, behind Freire’s second win and Aussie Allan Davis.

Chances Saturday: Not good. Boonen has already said he’ll be racing for teammate and emerging superstar Fernando Gaviria, and is using the long distance of Sanremo to hone his form ahead of his last rumble across the pavé over the next few weeks. He deserves kudos for starting, and wants to race what will be his career 40th classic with a good showing, but his main concern will be helping to usher Gaviria to the line, and avoiding a crash.

Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step)

Stats: 12 starts, third in 2008, 2011
Record: The Belgian press contingent should be going bonkers as Boonen and Gilbert line up together for their first (and likely second-to-last) monument as teammates. Like Boonen, Gilbert has struggled to conquer Sanremo, twice reaching the podium. The first came in 2008, behind the solo-flier from Fabian Cancellara and second to Filippo Pozzato in the bunch sprint. Three years later, just weeks ahead of sweeping the Ardennes, he was third behind Matt Goss.

Chances Saturday: Based on his early season results, not great. Like Boonen, Gilbert is prepping for his major targets next month, and though the saying goes you can win Sanremo less than 100 percent, there is little to suggest that Gilbert is going to blow the doors off anyone. And also like Boonen, he will likely be riding to support Gaviria and the on-form Julian Alaphilippe, who is making his Sanremo debut.

Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing)

Stats: Nine starts, fifth in 2016
Record: After his first Sanremo in 2008, his best came a year ago, just months before his miracle victory in Rio de Janeiro. In the previous decade, Sanremo was hardly Van Avermaet’s priority as he turned his focus toward Ronde van Vlaanderen. With ninth in 2011, and fifth last year, Van Avermaet seems to be slowly working closer to the podium.

Chances Saturday: Wildcard. There’s little to suggest that Van Avermaet could win Sanremo. Its punchy finale and frenetic charge to the line contrast to his old school, grinder style of racing. Yet like a fine wine (does Belgium have wine?!), Van Avermaet is clearly getting better with age. Despite breaking his ankle last fall, he’s clearly in top form, winning Omloop for the second year in a row and finishing second in a hard-fought Strade Bianche two weeks ago. Watch for him to try to sneak away over the top of the Poggio, perhaps along with Sagan. This might be his best chance ever to win Sanremo.

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