Preview: What you should know about the 2020 Milan-San Remo

It’s taken nearly eight and a half months, but the season’s first Monument is finally upon us. Originally scheduled for March 21 then rescheduled for this Saturday August 8 in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Milan-San Remo is the biggest and most prestigious of Italy’s one-day races. Here’s what…

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It’s taken nearly eight and a half months, but the season’s first Monument is finally upon us. Originally scheduled for March 21 then rescheduled for this Saturday August 8 in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Milan-San Remo is the biggest and most prestigious of Italy’s one-day races. Here’s what you need to know about Saturday’s 111th edition of ‘La Classicissima’.

Milan-San Remo is the longest day of racing on the professional calendar.

All told, it’s 299 km from the race start in Milan down to San Remo on the Mediterranean coast (plus a 10 km neutral zone). That’s right: unlike some other big one-day races (looking at you Paris-Roubaix) Milan-San Remo actually starts and finishes where its name suggests.

There’s a new course this year.

For the first time in years, the course has had a shake-up. This is thanks to government officials along the Mediterranean coast who were concerned about the spread of COVID-19 and the impact of road closures on local summer traffic.

The traditional Milan-San Remo route heads south from Milan to the coast via the Passo del Turchino, before swinging south west down towards San Remo. This year the riders will take a more south-westerly tack from the start, staying inland before finally reaching the coast in Imperia, less than 50 km from the finish.

There are a few climbs on approach to the coast — the Niella Belbo, nearly 20 km long at a gentle 3%, and the equally gentle Colle di Nava (3.9 km at 3% towards the top) — but these ascents are likely to have little impact on the race.

Note that the new route skips most of the traditional “capi” climbs on approach to the finish. Not all of them though …

The Cipressa and Poggio remain in the route.

The final 36 km of the race remains unchanged from previous editions, meaning riders will tackle both the Cipressa and Poggio climbs as usual. The Cipressa is 5.7 km long at 4.1% (max 9%) and peaks 21.5 km from the finish line. The Poggio is 3.7 km at 3.7% (max 8%) and tops out 5.4 km from the finish. From the top of the Poggio it’s downhill for 3.2 km then 2.2 km of flat road to the finish in San Remo.

Given the Cipressa and Poggio are the main difficulties in the traditional Milan-San Remo route, it seems likely that this year’s race will play out in a similar fashion to past editions.

Milan-San Remo is normally won from a reduced group.

The Cipressa and Poggio might be the toughest part of the route, but they aren’t terribly difficult climbs. Sure, they tend to shred the peloton, but it’s still usually a decently sized group that arrives at the finish.

To get a feel for how Saturday might play out, we can take a look at recent editions of the race. Of the last 10 editions, one was won solo (Vincenzo Nibali in 2018), five were won from a group of 10 or less, and four were won from a group of between 25 and 31 riders.

Will the course change affect how the race is decided? Possibly. It might be that having slightly less climbing in the final 50 km leaves riders a little fresher than normal for the Cipressa and Poggio. This, in turn, might make it a little more likely for a bigger group to reach the finish.

That said, and as the cliche goes, it’s not the course that makes the race, it’s the riders. How Saturday unfolds will depend on how aggressive those final kilometres are.

Teams are limited to six riders this year.

Race organiser RCS put in a late application to the UCI to invite two more teams to this year’s Milan-San Remo – Italian ProTeams Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec and Bardiani CSF Faizanè. The UCI agreed, on the proviso that all teams would have six riders instead of seven.

The decision wasn’t popular in some quarters — it means the bigger teams have fewer cards to play and a reduced capacity to control the race. In theory it could mean a bigger-group sprint is even less likely, but again, it really depends on how it’s raced in the closing kilometres. Ultimately, there’s a whole host of riders that could win the thing.

The sprinters have a great chance of victory.

Of the sport’s five Monuments, this is the only one pure sprinters have a shot at winning. If they can get over those final climbs in the front group, they’ll be the ones to beat.

Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal): The Australian won the bunch sprint for second in 2018, just metres behind solo winner Nibali. You have to imagine he’ll win this race at some point, and that could well be on Saturday. He was second at Milano-Torino on Wednesday so he’s clearly in good nick.

Caleb Ewan won three stages at his debut Tour de France last year.

Elia Viviani (Cofidis): No one on the startlist will be more desperate for a win at Italy’s biggest race than the country’s best sprinter, Elia Viviani. His best result is ninth, but he’s certainly capable of a win.

Arnaud Demare (Groupama-FDJ): The Frenchman won this race in 2016 and was third in 2018. He won Wednesday’s Milano-Torino in a bunch sprint against the likes of Ewan, Wout van Aert and Peter Sagan, so he brings good form into Saturday’s race.

Demare winning the 2016 Milan-San Remo.

Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-QuickStep): The Irishman’s 28th-place finish last year was his best at the race. Like most of the sprinters, his challenge will be getting over the Cipressa and Poggio in contention. If he can, he’s a big chance.

Nacer Bouhanni (Arkea-Samsic): The punchy Frenchman wouldn’t be a popular winner, but a winner he could still be. He’s been fourth, sixth and eighth in the past and shouldn’t be overlooked.

Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe): Yes, he’s more than a pure sprinter but he can certainly win it in a bunch sprint. His record at this race: twice second, three times fourth, and another two top-10s. He hasn’t been in the best of form so far this year though.

Alaphilippe made the winning move in this year's Milan-San Remo and finished third behind Kwiatkowski and Sagan.
The 2017 edition came down to a three-up sprint between Peter Sagan (left), Michal Kwiatkowski (centre) and Julian Alaphilippe (right) after the trio got away on the Poggio.

Alexander Kristoff (UAE-Team Emirates): The Norwegian’s record is even better than Sagan’s: a win, a second, and a total of six top-10s. He isn’t the team’s only option either …

Fernando Gavivia (UAE-Team Emirates): With four sprint victories already this year, Gaviria has been impressive. His best at Milan-San Remo is fifth, but don’t be surprised to see an improvement on that come Saturday.

Gaviria winning stage 2 of the recent Vuelta a Burgos.

Michael Matthews (Sunweb): Matthews hasn’t raced since Paris-Nice in March so it’s not clear where his form’s at. He’s been third (2015) and seventh (2018) here before though, so just keep him in mind.

A fast-finishing all-rounder could also win it.

If the pure sprinters get dropped over the Cipressa and Poggio (or perhaps even if they don’t) some of the all-rounders might be a shot at winning from a smaller group.

Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep): The Frenchman won from a group of 10 last year and could easily do the same again. Don’t read too much into his 24th at Strade Bianche last weekend — the guy had six punctures.

The 2019 edition came down to a select lead group after Alaphilippe helped split the race on the Poggio. The Frenchman won the sprint to continue what was a golden year for the QuickStep rider.

Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma): The Belgian will be riding high after his win at Strade Bianche. He showed there (and at many other races) that he can win solo, but he can also win a bunch sprint. See stage 10 of last year’s Tour de France where he beat Viviani, Ewan, Sagan and many others. Van Aert is dangerous however the race unfolds. He was sixth last year in a reduced bunch kick.

Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix): The Dutchman wasn’t at his ridiculous best at Strade Bianche but that doesn’t mean he won’t feature on Saturday. Can sprint, can ride solo, can do it all.

Philippe Gilbert (Lotto-Soudal): Ewan will be Lotto-Soudal’s man in a bunch sprint, but they’ve also got Gilbert who can try a late flyer. Bear in mind that Milan-San Remo is the only Monument Gilbert hasn’t won, so he’ll be beyond keen to add this to his palmares. He was third in 2008 and 2011 but has been further back in recent years. It will be fascinating to see how Lotto-Soudal handles having both he and Ewan in the mix.

Gilbert winning last year’s Paris-Roubaix. He now “only” needs to win Milan-San Remo to become the fourth rider in history to win all five Monuments.

Greg Van Avermaet (CCC): The Olympic champion has been fifth and ninth here in the past but could easily improve on those results on Saturday. To win, he probably needs it to be a small group at the finish, with the big sprinters distanced.

Oliver Naesen (Ag2r-La Mondiale): The former Belgian champ was second last year in what was just his latest near-miss in a big one-dayer. Expect him to be thereabouts.

Michal Kwiatkowski (Ineos): The Pole won this race in 2017, was third last year, and has shown some good form in the past week. He’s a good chance from a small group.

A solo rider might again come up trumps.

As we’ve discussed, a reduced group is the most likely result at the finish line, but as Nibali showed in 2018, the race can certainly be won solo too.

Realistically though, there aren’t many on the startlist who can get away from the bunch on those final climbs then stay away. Those that can include Van Aert, Nibali (obviously), Gilbert, and perhaps even Alaphilippe.

Van Aert won last Saturday’s Strade Bianche solo, but he will likely find it trickier to do so at Milan-San Remo.

On balance, it’s unlikely that a solo rider will win the race. As mentioned, a small group or reduced peloton is a much more likely outcome.

It’s going to be a lovely, warm day.

The current forecast for San Remo on Saturday is 31ºC with no chance of rain and barely a breath of wind. Lovely conditions for bike racing!

Who’s your tip to win the 2020 Milan-San Remo?

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