Preview: Impossible to predict last of the vintage Milano-Sanremo

The season's first major classic is the longest and most unpredictable, and while Sagan is the favorite, no one knows who will win on Sunday

Photo: Tim De Waele

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BOLOGNA, Italy (VN) — To sprint or not to sprint? That is the question, at least for one more year, at Milano-Sanremo, the season’s first and most unpredictable classic, which takes place Sunday in Italy.

Race organizers’ on-off plans to add the Pompeiana climb to the closing 60 minutes of the seven-hour race prompted outrage from many, but the uproar faded when mudslides forced RCS Sport to leave the new ramp off the race route.

Former winner Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) said the new climb was wrong because it “changes the history of the race.”

“I don’t believe they should do it,” Cavendish said of changing the route. “It’s like paving over the cobbles of Roubaix. It’s not the same race anymore. We already have a Lombardy.”

There will be no cobbles paving in 2014 and the Pompeiana is off, at least for this year, meaning that the likes of Cavendish and the other sprinters might have one more shot, perhaps their last, to win arguably the most exciting one-day race of the year.

Like a bottle of champagne

At nearly 300 kilometers, Milano-Sanremo is one of the oldest, and most thrilling, bike races on the entire calendar. Set in late March, it marks the opening of a month of classics racing for the strongmen of the peloton. After more than a month of warm-up races, it’s finally time for the big boys to get serious.

“La Classicissma” has all the trappings of a monument. It’s long, it’s fast, it’s historic, and, being in Italy, glamorous. Not many races start in front of a 14th century castle and end on the Italian Riviera.

But what makes Sanremo so special is that sense of building tension without knowing the outcome. In other classics, the decisive moments unfold earlier, with a clear acceleration or an attack over a climb. At Sanremo, it’s a white-knuckle drag race all the way to the finish line.

Full Milano-Sanremo coverage >>

The Cipressa and Poggio climbs, added in 1982 and 1960, respectively, to slow down the sprinters, are unique hurdles for the peloton. They’re hard, but not so hard to eliminate everyone. A sprinter who can climb has the same chance as a puncheur who can sprint. The daring can dream big. The tension ratchets up on the bends of the Cipressa, tightens on the Poggio, and then explodes on the finish line, often with spectacular results.

“What’s beautiful about Sanremo is that it always comes down to the last kilometer,” said Cavendish as he sat on a stool next to the Omega Pharma team bus this week. “Whether people stay away or not. There’s always a break that gets caught, or doesn’t get caught. It’s a real crescendo.”

The palmares reads like a who’s who, with none other than Eddy Merckx leading the way with an untouchable record seven victories. Sanremo was one of “The Cannibal’s” first big wins, and his last.

Today, a new generation of “clasicomanos” are clamoring for their shot at history. Who will it be this year?

All hail ‘Peter the Great’

The pros know who’s going well and who’s not. An experienced hand like Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) has his radar finely tuned heading into important races such as Sanremo.

“You see everything in the race. You see people suffering, or see people cruising,” Cancellara explained. “Sometimes you see how they pedal, how they finish a stage, or how they go over the climbs. This year, you see many guys who are strong coming into the classics. The list of riders who are competitive for these classics is big, maybe more than any years before.”

There is one name who everyone, including Cancellara, says has made an impression so far this season: Peter Sagan (Cannondale). Cavendish agreed, saying Sagan looks trim and fast. When pressed, the pros say Sagan is hands down the favorite to win. Why? Because he’s been close before, he’s looking crisp coming out of Tirreno-Adriatico, and he’s due for a big one.

And what does Sagan say? Well, he agrees with them.

“Last year’s experience was an important lesson for me,” Sagan said this week. “It showed me how unpredictable and hard this classic can be. I’ll be satisfied at the end of the race if I’ve done whatever is possible to do my best and win.”

Preliminary startlist >>

Behind Sagan, there’s a long list of riders who could win Sunday, from sprinters who scrambled to add Sanremo to their calendars, such as Cavendish and André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol), to cagey veterans like Cancellara and Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge), who both confounded the sprinters in 2012.

“It’s a wide-open race, and without the harder climbs, I will be the first to say it does not favor me,” Gerrans told VeloNews. “That’s the thing with Sanremo — almost anyone starting the race believes they can win.”

Among those believers will be defending champion Gerald Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka), Paris-Nice green jersey John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano), Omloop Het Nieuwsblad runner-up Greg Van Avermaet and BMC Racing teammate Taylor Phinney, Tom-Jelte Slagter (Garmin-Sharp), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), and Omloop winner Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky).

Wild ride to the final strokes

This year’s 294km route reverts to the “sprinters’ course” used between 1982 and 2007. Le Maniè, a climb added along the coast in 2008, won’t be back this year. The Passo del Turchino tops out 145km into the day, after a flat push south of Milano that always produces the day’s main breakaway from the field of 200 starters. Once the route hits Italy’s Mediterranean Coast, the wind and a series of headlands called “capi” become the deciding factors.

Forecasters are calling for rain and brisk wind coming off the Med on Sunday, two factors that could create havoc on the best-laid plans. That will open up the race to more attacks, and put pressure on top teams like Cannondale and Omega Pharma to control the tempo, keeping the breakaway on a short leash while protecting their captains.

Breakaways are typically reeled in just before the Cipressa, which turns inland up a steep ridge with under 25km to go. Non-players are discarded off the back as the first attacks come and the pace quickens.

The race dips back down to the seafront with the peloton typically fracturing into two or three groups. Anyone who cannot manage to chase back to the front often rides straight along the coastal road to the finish line instead of racing over the Poggio.

The Pompeiana would have come after the Cipressa and before the Poggio, dramatically increasing the climbing required to win, but all that comes next year. Maybe.

Then it’s to the Poggio, a short, punchy climb that wouldn’t be more than a speed bump, except that it comes after nearly seven hours of racing, and everyone is on the limit. The peloton strings out as riders surge and fight to break free. The most effective attacks come 500m from the summit, with just 6km to go. The sinuous, technical descent to Sanremo favors the likes of Cancellara and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), both of whom rode away to the finish with Gerrans in 2012.

Then it’s pedal to the metal all the way to the line.

With two days remaining before the race’s 105th edition, everyone is talking sprint, but Milano-Sanremo is almost impossible to predict. Crashes and foul weather will tighten the nerves. Tension and drama are assured until the final pedal strokes. Then the champagne will fly.

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