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MILANO - SANREMO

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22.03.2015 @ 14:15 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was an early teaser but the real classics season will kick off this coming Sunday when Milan-Sanremo takes place. As one of only five monuments and the longest race on the cycling calendar, it is one of the most prestigious races and with its unique course, it has always been one of the few big races that both sprinters and classics specialists can vie for. After big plans to significantly alter the nature of the race have been abandoned, the race is now back to its traditional format and a return to the historical finish on the Via Roma will only make a win in La Primavera even more coveted as everybody dreams about raising their arms on the scene where Eddy Merckx took seven wins in the classic that is probably the most difficult to win.

 

Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico signaled the arrival of spring but stage races are not what characterizes this part of the year. Spring is intimately connected to one-day racing and while the two opening European WorldTour races are both part of an intriguing and fascinating stage race schedule for the first part of the season, the early months of the season are mainly about the classics. Only a few stage race specialists have their major highlights in this part of the season but for the one-day riders, this is the most important part of the year.

 

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne offered the first real chance for the riders to test their form in a race that really mattered but they were still mainly part of the preparation. On Sunday, the warm-up phase has come to an end. There are no longer any excuses: the classics specialists need to be firing on all cylinders in the first big race of the year, Milan-Sanremo.

 

The spring classics season may mostly be taking place in Northern Europe but it all kicks off under - usually - warmer conditions in what is one of the two Italian monuments. The Italian one-day scene is extremely rich, with several prestigious, legendary races, but at the top of the pinnacle, Milan-Sanremo and Il Lombardia play a special role. As the only truly international one-day races in the country, the pair of races are part of cycling's five monuments and have the honour of opening and ending the classics year respectively (even though a recent calendar change means that Il Lombardia is no longer the final big one-day race on the calendar).

 

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 106th, 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.

 

Right from the beginning, the race was not just an Italian affair as the first winner was Frenchman Lucien Petit-Breton and it wasn't until 1909 that an Italian finally conquered the race, with Luigi Ganna having the honour of being the first home winner. Nonetheless, the early years were dominated by Italians, with Costante Girardengo winning 6 times, Gino Bartali taking 4 wins, and Fausto Coppi reaching Sanremo first on three occasions.

 

The dominant figure in the race's history, however, is Eddy Merckx who took no less than 7 wins from 1966 to 1976 as part of a 30-yar run where Italians only won three editions. In recent years, the Italians have again managed to play a more prominent role in what is arguably their biggest one-day race but since Filippo Pozzato's 2006 win, the home country has left the race empty-handed.

 

The names of many classics are linked to their history as they are made up of the names of the start and finishing cities. Due to the shorter distances of modern-day cycling, however, most races no longer live up to their names as the point of departure has often been moved closer to the finish.

 

Milan-Sanremo is one of the very few exceptions that still honour tradition by actually travelling between the two cities that make up its name. The race still follows its traditional route from Milan and its flat terrain over the Passo del Turchino to the rugged Mediterranean coast that brings the riders  all the way to Sanremo. Several small digressions from the direct route send the riders up the many climbs along the coast, making for some hard challenges amidst the beautiful scenery. This keeping with tradition means that the race is the longest on the cycling calendar, with this year's edition being 293km long.

 

This traditional design makes the race a unique affair. With the race being mostly flat, it is no wonder that the race suits the sprinters. The many late climbs, however, offer the classics specialists and the puncheurs the perfect launch pads for attacks and the final challenges, the legendary Cipressa and Poggio, are sufficiently close to the finish for escapees to make it all the way to the end.

 

No other major classic has that kind of appeal to those two types of riders. While Il Lombardia and Liege-Bastogne-Liege are heavily loaded with climbs, the cobbles in the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix make those races way too hard for the traditional sprinters. The selective nature of those four monuments make the list of potential winners a very small one but in Sanremo, unpredictability rules and a lot more riders can realistically vie for success. The nature of the race is perfectly reflected in its traditional end scenario when the reduced bunch tries to peg back the break that usually goes clear on Poggio in time to set up a bunch sprint. On the list of classics for the sprinters, the race is only joined by Gent-Wevelgem, Scheldeprijs, Paris-Tours, and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and among those it is by far the biggest one.

 

In 2008, the organizers introduced the new Le Manie climb and even though it was located far from the finish, it tipped the balance away from the sprinters. As it is far tougher than the climbs that have traditionally been on the course, it became a much tougher affair for the sprinters and this is reflected in the winner's list. In the years with Le Manie, only the 2009 and 2010 editions were decided by a larger bunch while Fabian Cancellara, Matthew Goss, Simon Gerrans, and Gerald Ciolek all took wins from small groups or solo victories.

 

Le Manie was not enough for the organizers who wanted to make the race more attractive to the climbers. For the 2014 edition, they planned to introduce the new Pompeiana climb in between Cipressa and Poggio. This was expected to rule out the fast finishers and Mark Cavendish and André Greipel were some of the sprinters who decided against doing the revamped race. Instead, climbers like Vincenzo Nibali, Chris Froome, and Alejandro Valverde planned to make the race one of their early-season targets.

 

Landslides saved the sprinters as local authorities deemed the descent from the Pompeiana unsafe, meaning that RCS had to make the late decision to remove the climb. This prompted Cavendish and Greipel to change their minds while Valverde and Froome decided against doing the race. As it had always been the plan to remove Le Manie, last year's course suddenly changed from being the hardest ever to becoming the easiest since 2007.

 

RCS have insisted that the Pompeiana will be included in future editions and last year’s race was expected to be the final chance for the sprinters. However, the climb is still not deemed safe enough to include in the race and so it won’t be present in 2015. As Le Manie is not back on the course either, the race will again follow its historical format where the Turchino pass, the three small capi climbs, Cipressa and Poggio are the main challenges.

 

The main novelty is the fact that the race will return to its historical finish on Via Roma which means that the overall distance will be shortened from 294km to 293km. The distances from the top of the Poggio to the finish has been reduced by 1km and this should make it easier for later attackers to stay away. Nonetheless, the change has been praised by the sprinters who all dream about winning the race on the site that has historically characterized the race.

 

Last year’s edition was not as cold as the dramatic 2013 race but with torrential rain falling for most of the race, it became a race for the hard men. Surprisingly, the only big attack came from Vincenzo Nibali who took off already on the Cipressa but was reeled in at the bottom of the Poggio. Here the classics specialists never launched the expected attacks and it was a relatively big group that crested the summit to decide the race in a sprint. After fantastic work by teammate Luca Paolini, Alexander Kristoff proved that he is very hard to beat in sprints at the end of long, hard races when he took a hugely dominant breakthrough victory by relegating Fabian Cancellara and Ben Swift to the minor podium spots. All three riders will be back in action in 2015 and are all among the favourites for the 106th edition of the race.

 

The course

As said, Milan-Sanremo is one of the few races to live up to its name, in the sense that it actually starts in Milan and ends in Sanremo. With both the Pompeiana and Le Manie out, the race is back to the very traditional format that it has had in most of its recent history and there won't be any surprises on the 293km stretch from the Po Valley to Sanremo on the Cote d'Azur. The race can be expected to follow the traditional script that has made Sanremo a treasured part of cycling history and offered some very exciting racing in the past.

 

What will be the easiest race since 2007 will have its usual point of departure on Piazza Sempione in the centre of Milan and from there, the riders head in a southeastern direction towards the Mediterranean coast. Milan is located in the Po Valley where the roads are all dead flat. The first 139km consist of a long flat run that will only serve to accumulate fatigue in the riders' legs and allow the early break to take off.

 

Due to the distance, the early escapees have virtually no chance of making it to the end and they are often allowed to get a huge gap that easily exceeds the 10-minute mark.  The race starts to get serious when the peloton reaches the hills that run along the Mediterranean coast and the riders will have to tackle the Passo del Turchino before they can catch their first glimpse of the sea. That ascent leads to the highest point of the race at 532m above sea level but is not overly difficult. However, it is now time for the teams that want to rid themselves of the sprinters, to ride tempo to make the race as tough as possible.

 

The Turchino Pass is followed by a fast descent that leads directly to the coastline a few kilometres west of Genova. As soon as the riders have reached the coastal road, they turn right and the rest of the race is made up of a long travel along the sea, interspersed by small digressions that send the riders up some smaller climbs.

 

In recent years, the riders have done Le Manie in the first part of this long run but as said, that climb has now been taken out. Hence, the first 80km of the seaside trip is almost completely flat and there won't be any climbing until the riders reach the 240km mark. Nonetheless, it will be important for many teams to make sure that the pace is high as they cannot allow the sprinters to arrive too fresh at the bottom of the final ascents.

 

The first tests are the three shorts Capi, Capo Mele, Capo Cervo, and Capo Berta that come in quick succession and are located at the 241.3, 246.4, and 254.2km marks respectively. It is usually around this time that the early break gets caught while more teams start to ride tempo on the front.

 

From the top of the Capo Berta, 39.3km remain. The first part is the short descent which precedes a flat run to the bottom of the Cipressa climb. This is where the real finale starts and positioning is of utmost importance for this short ascent. Hence, it will be a true war as the riders speed towards the bottom of the climb and from now on, there will be no chance to recover.

 

At 5.6km and with an average gradient of 4.1% and maximum of 9%, the Cipressa is an easy climb. The first 3.85km have a rather constant gradient of 4-5% but the final part is even easier with a 2.1% gradient. What makes the climb tough is the fact that it comes after 272km of racing. A small group usually gets clear on its slopes and they may use the technical descent to extend their advantage.

 

At the bottom of the descent, 19.8km remain. The first 9.1km follow flat roads along the coast and at this point, the pace will still be fierce. It is very hard for any escapees to stay clear and things are usually back together by the time, they reach the bottom of the Poggio 9.7km from the finish.

 

The race's landmark climb is 3.7km long and has an average gradient of 3.7% and a maximum of 8%. The first 2.06km has a gradient of 4.3% and is followed by the most difficult 5.6% section. Like the Cipressa, it gets easier at the top, with the final 700m averaging just 2.0%. This is the scene of the final attacks from the puncheurs, with a small group usually going clear over the top. The sprinters just have to hang on for dear life as they try to stay in contention.

 

The top comes 5.55km from the finish and is followed by an extremely technical descent, with several hairpin bends and many twists and turns. This is no place for the peloton to make an organized chase and any strong descenders in the front group may use this section to gain further ground.

 

The riders reach the coastal road 2.3km from the finish and from there the roads are flat all the way to the line. The urban roads are long and straight.  850m from the finish line there is a left-hand bend on a roundabout. The last bend, leading into the home straight, is 750m from the finish line. This final part is often a fierce pursuit between the peloton and the front group where it will be all about going full gas for the escapees while also taking care of the tactical game that has often spoiled the party for the attackers.

 

 

 

 

The weather

It is a well-known fact that the weather plays a huge role in the classics. Sunny and calm conditions usually make it much easier for the riders while wind and rain turn it into a survival game. Traditionally, Milan-Sanremo has had much better weather than the Northern classics but for some reason, the 2013 and 2014 editions have been some of the hardest yet. In 2013, the cold was unbearable and the riders had to get over the Turchino Pass in busses while it was raining all day in 2014.

 

This year the riders have had some pretty tough conditions for the final part of both Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico and for some reason it seems that there is simply no luck for the riders. At the moment, it seems that they will again have to ride in some pretty tough conditions. At the start in Milan, rain is forecasted and the riders can expect a temperature of around 8 degrees. It won’t be very windy though as there will only be a light wind from a northerly direction.

 

When the riders reach the Ligurian coast, the rain is likely to have intensified but the temperature should have increased to 12 degrees. It will be a bit windier with a moderate wind blowing from a northerly direction. When they get to Sanremo, the rain will probably not be as heavy and the temperature will be around 13 degrees. At this point, however, it will be pretty windy as there will be a strong wind from a northerly direction.

 

The riders will enjoy a tailwind for the first part before the turn into a cross-tailwind for the final section along the coast. In the finale, there will be a crosswind on the Poggio and the subsequent descent and the riders will also have a crosswind for the final flat section.

 

The favourites

With the Pompeiana out, the race is back to a very traditional formula and even though many of the riders haven't done the race on this course, it has such a long history that everybody should know what to expect. At the same time, this route is the one that has made the Milan-Sanremo one of the most unpredictable races of the entire year, with a rather long list of possible scenarios and potential winners. The return to the Via Roma will only make the race even more open as the attackers now have a better chance of staying away.

 

Nonetheless, history speaks for itself. While the race used his course in the 90s and 2000s, only Filippo Pozzato (2006), Paolo Bettini (2003), and Gabriele Colombo (1996) managed to take breakaway wins in an era when La Primavera was heavily dominated by bunch sprints. The current course may be long but the lack of climbing tips the balance towards the sprinters.

 

The weather always has a huge impact on the outcome in Sanremo and this year seems to be another wet affair. It won’t be very cold and we should not see the same mass exodus of riders that we saw in 2013 and 2014. However, seven hours in rainy conditions will make the riders very cold and the race shapes up to be another selective affair for the hard men.

 

We should be in for a rather predictable race scenario, with an early break going up the road before being caught back on the coastal road. It will be interesting to see which teams decide to lead the chase but we can expect Tinkoff-Saxo, Trek, Katusha, Etixx-QuickStep and maybe Giant-Alpecin to take the responsibility to bring back the early break. The former three teams all want the race to be pretty hard and they have to make sure that the pace never drops too much. They will be assisted by the tailwind which will make it easier to toughen the race.

 

There are rarely any attacks on the Capis but we can expect those three teams to ride fast up those climbs. Last year Katusha made the race hard at this point. The real battle will start on the Cipressa but we may actually not see any attacks. Last year Peter Sagan asked Alessandro De Marchi to set a brutal pace on the ascent and only Vincenzo Nibali tried to escape. This year Tinkoff-Saxo, Trek and BMC may all try to apply a similar tactic and this will make it very hard for anyone to escape.

 

Last year the riders had a pretty strong headwind on the Poggio and this created a strange race where the attacks on the Poggio came very late and had no real effect. This year the riders will have a crosswind in the finale and as they will have a tailwind for most of the day, the riders will probably be a bit more fatigued at the end. This should set the scene for a more animated finale and as the riders will also be facing rain all day, the race will probably be pretty selective.

 

Riders like Philippe Gilbert, Greg Van Avermaet, Rui Costa, Alejandro Valverde and Fabian Cancellara may all try to attack on Poggio while Zdenek Stybar and Michal Kwiatkowski will be there to cover the bases for Etixx-QuickStep. Sprinters like Peter Sagan and Michael Matthews may also join the action and then we can expect the usual fierce chase back to Sanremo.

 

However, history speaks for itself and it shows that it is very hard for anyone to stay away. If a fast rider like Sagan makes it into the group that escapes, it will be difficult to establish any kind of cooperation. Meanwhile, teams like Katusha, Giant-Alpecin, Orica-GreenEDGE, Sky and Lotto Soudal probably all want it to come down to a bunch sprint. The most likely outcome is definitely a sprint finish even though it may be from a pretty small group.

 

If that is the case, it is hard to argue against the fact that defending champion Alexander Kristoff will be the man to beat. The Norwegian has been in outstanding condition all year and already has 5 wins under his belt. That is very unusual for the Katusha leader who has usually been a pretty slow starter but this year he was flying already in Qatar where he won three stages. He grabbed another win in Oman before he took his first WorldTour win of the year at Paris-Nice.

 

During the winter, Kristoff has worked a lot on his sprinting and this has had a clear effect. In the past, he was usually not fast enough to win the real bunch sprints that come at the end of an easy day but this year he took such wins in Qatar, Oman and Paris-Nice. He has clearly been one of the fastest in 2015 and has definitely improved his top speed.

 

Nonetheless, there are still faster riders than Kristoff but a sprint is different at the end of 300km. While most of the sprinters lose some power at the end of such a long and hard race, it doesn’t seem to be the case for the Norwegian. In fact, he is simply the king of the sprints in the monuments and he is very hard to beat at the end of a race of more than 250km. In 2013, he won the sprint for the minor placings in Milan-Sanremo, Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix and last year he was simply in a class of his own in Sanremo while he also won the bunch sprint at the Worlds. There is no doubt that Kristoff is the best sprinter in the world at the end of a long, hard classic. The rain will only make the race harder and that is another advantage for Kristoff who clearly excels in wet, cold conditions.

 

The main challenge for Kristoff will be to make sure that it comes down to a bunch sprint. Even though he is strong, it will probably be a bit too hard for him to go with the attacks on the Poggio. He will be hugely reliant on Luca Paolini who played a key role last year. The Italian seems to be in his usual good condition and it will be his task to make sure that the break is caught and that no one gets away in the final flat section. In the sprint, he may have to fend for himself but he is extremely good at positioning himself and has the power to do the long sprint that allows him not to get boxed in in the finale. This makes Kristoff our favourite to take the win.

 

While Kristoff is the strongest sprinter at the end of a hard race, the fastest rider is Mark Cavendish. The return to Via Roma has been praised by the Brit who is a big fan of the cycling history and loves to win in historic places. There is no doubt that Cavendish will be even more fired up for this year’s race than he was for the 2014 race which he entered on the back of some confusion as he only confirmed his participation very late in the process.

 

This year Milan-Sanremo has been his goal right from the beginning and he has had the same kind of build-up that he had when he won the race in 2009. Everything seemed to be on track until he got ill in South Africa. He still managed to start Tirreno-Adriatico but he was clearly not back at 100% yet. He missed the chance to sprint in stage 2 where he had a mechanical and in stage 6 he was dropped very early and ended up abandoning the race.

 

Cavendish has admitted that the final part of his build-up has not been ideal but it would be a mistake to rule out the Brit. In 2009, he was also far off the pace in Tirreno-Adriatico but when he arrived in Milan for his big goal, he climbed really well. Last year he proved his ability handle the climbs in this race as he never seemed to be in trouble on the many ascents and he has a formidable ability to step up for the biggest races.

 

Cavendish has been sprinting very well this year and in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne he was clearly faster than Kristoff. No one can argue against the fact that the Brit is the fastest rider in the race but things are different at the end of 300km. Last year Cavendish did a pretty poor sprint and even if he survives the climbs, he may not be his usual fast self. On the other hand, he can probably rely on riders like Michal Kwiatkowski and Zdenek Stybar in the finale and unlike many other sprinters, he may actually have a decent lead-out in Sanremo. If he is brought into the perfect position, he will be hard to beat.

 

Kristoff is a great sprinter at the end of long, hard races but another rider aspires to the crown of the fastest rider in the classics. Like the Norwegian, John Degenkolb has proved that he knows how to handle the long distances and that he still has a very powerful sprint at the end of a hard, selective classic. Last year he finished second in Paris-Roubaix and he is a former winner of Paris-Tours, Gent-Wevelgem and Vattenfall Cyclassics.

 

On paper, Degenkolb is a better climber than Kristoff and he should excel in Sunday’s tough conditions. Last year he had a mechanical in the finale and left the race in tears. This year he will be eager to get his revenge and he will fired up at the start in Milan.

 

However, Degenkolb has not had his best season so far. While he has been climbing extremely well and took a hugely impressive win in the Dubai Tour queen stage, he has had a hard time in the sprints. The situation is similar to the one he had in the first half of 2013 where he sprinted terribly. Nothing seems to be wrong with his speed – in fact he did a pretty good sprint on stage 2 of Paris-Nice – but he simply lacks the ability to position himself.

 

That is a clear disadvantage in the big bunch sprints but in a classic like Milan-Sanremo it is different. First of all the bunch is a lot smaller and the lead-outs less organized. Secondly, the positioning is more based on power and freshness and Degenkolb is usually one of the strongest at the end of such a race. Furthermore, he has a strong team at his side and he can expect to have at least Tom Dumoulin and maybe also Koen De Kort and Nikias Arndt at his side in the finale. That is a pretty powerful lead-out and he could start the sprint from the best position. At last year’s Worlds, he was beaten by Kristoff but Degenkolb definitely has the speed to beat the Norwegian.

 

In 2013 and 2014, Peter Sagan entered this race as the overwhelming favourite but this year he doesn’t have the same status. In 2014, he never reached the level he had in 2013 and he finished the season very poorly. This year he seems to be at an even lower level and he has had lots of disappointments. His below-par performances were most notable at Strade Bianche where he delivered his poorest result since 2012 when he had a mechanical.

 

Sagan has never been a rider for the big bunch sprints and in fact he has been sprinting decently all year. However, he simply seems to the lack his usual power on the climbs. He was dropped in Strade Bianche and in Tirreno-Adriatico he missed out on the win in Arezzo. It all came down to poor positioning but usually Sagan has always been the first rider through the final corner in such a technical finale. When he failed to move up, it was probably due to bad legs. In the hard stage 4, he did reasonably well but in the past he would definitely have finished with the best in that kind of stage. He managed to win stage 6 but it was more based on his good sprinting than his power on the climbs.

 

Nonetheless, Sagan remains the best climber among the fast riders in this race but he still faces his usual difficult tactical situation. He is probably strong enough to go with the attacks in the finale but if he is there, the break is doomed for failure as no one wants to take him to the line. If he stays in the peloton, there is a risk that the break will stay away and then he has to beat faster riders like Kristoff, Cavendish and Degenkolb in a sprint.

 

This year Sagan will have a better team at his disposal and this make the tactics a bit easier for him to handle. However, it is still hard to imagine that he will be able to win a bunch sprint and he will probably have to go on the attack in the finale to have a real chance of winning the race. An ally could be Fabian Cancellara who has more confidence in his sprinting abilities after he beat some pretty fast riders in both Milan-Sanremo and the Tour of Flanders last year. The Swiss may want to cooperate with Sagan if those two are part of the final break and if both Philippe Gilbert and Greg Van Avermaet are there for BMC, the break may be able to stay away. In that case, Sagan will be the favourite to win and he definitely has cards to play that could see him finally take that elusive monument win.

 

For some reason, André Greipel has never really featured at the pointy end of Milan-Sanremo. The German is a very strong climber who has overcome much harder climbs in the past and on paper, only Cavendish is faster than him. However, he seems to suffer in the very long races and so Brussels Cycling Classic is his biggest one-day win.

 

However, Greipel gets closer and closer to being a contender in Sanremo. Last year he was there in the finale until he suffered from cramps which prevented him from doing the sprint. This year he should have an even better chance. First of all he seems to be better at coping with the long distances. Secondly, he has had a slower start to the season and aims at being fresher at this time of the year. He was climbing really well in Algarve and he was very powerful in the only sprint he did in Paris-Nice.

 

Lotto Soudal know that Greipel may not be there in the finale and so they will also play the cards of Tony Gallopin and Tim Wellens on the final climbs. Greipel will be the back-up plan in case of a sprint and he will do his utmost to hang on. If he is there in the finale, he should be one of the fastest. However, he is usually very reliant on his lead-out train as he is not very good at positioning himself. This is another challenge that he has to overcome but if he manages to do that, he has the speed to win.

 

Last year Juan Jose Lobato finished fourth in his Milan-Sanremo debut and nothing suggests that he can’t do better than that in 2015. In fact, the Spaniard has clearly taken a massive step up and now seems to be one of the very best in uphill sprints. He won the uphill sprint in Stirling in the Tour Down Under and easily distanced John Degenkolb in the two uphill sprints in the Ruta del Sol.

 

Last year Lobato proved that he can handle the long distances and he is a great climber too. He should have no trouble making it to the finish with the peloton and then it will all come down to the sprint. Lobato has proved that he has an incredible top speed and has done amazing sprints all year. However, he is very poor at positioning himself and he needs to overcome that weakness. In this race, he can expect to have Alejandro Valverde and Jose Joaquin Rojas on hand to lead him out and that should give him a bigger chance. Lobato is knocking on the door of an even bigger win and he may take it already on Sunday.

 

Fabian Cancellara has an incredible record that has seen him finish on the podium in all the monuments he has completed since he was 17th in the 2010 Milan-Sanremo. That includes four consecutive podiums in Sanremo and that’s a pretty impressive performance by a non-sprinter.

 

However, Cancellara’s skills have definitely changed in the last few years. He doesn’t seem to have the same kind of raw power as he once had and he now has to rely a bit more on tactics and experience. However, he is a very wily rider who knows how to save his energy for the right moment and gauge when to make his moves.

 

At the same time, he has become a lot faster in the sprints and at the end of a hard classic, he is able to beat many sprinters. That was evident when he finished second behind the dominant Kristoff in last year’s race and when he beat faster riders to win the Tour of Flanders. In the past, Cancellara always had to attack to win Sanremo – that’s what he did in 2008 – but now he can rely on his sprint too.

 

This gives him a few cards to play and it will be interesting to see how he handles the tactics. Last year he chose not to attack on the Poggio and saved it all for the sprint. However, it will still be hard for him to beat riders like Kristoff and Degenkolb in this kind of sprint and if really wants to win this race, he probably has to attack. As those two riders are unlikely to be with the best on the Poggio, however, he doesn’t have to fear anyone in a sprint from a small breakaway and we wouldn’t be surprised if he even manages to beat Sagan in that kind of finish. With his win in the Tirreno time trial, he proved that he is in very good condition and he will again be one of the main contenders.

 

This year Nacer Bouhanni makes a belated debut in this race and he arrives at the race on the back of string of disappointments. Nonetheless, it would be a big mistake to rule out another win for the Frenchman who is still one of the fastest riders in the bunch. Bouhanni still hasn’t won a race but in Paris-Nice he proved that he is getting closer and closer to his top speed. Furthermore, he has been climbing really well all year and the climbs in Sanremo should be manageable for him.

 

Last year Bouhanni got his first taste of one of the big one-day races at the Worlds and here he proved that he can handle the long distances. He finished in the group that sprinted for 8th and took a solid 10th in the roads of Ponferrada. As he is very good conditions, we will be pretty surprised if he isn’t there at the end in Sanremo.

 

Bouhanni doesn’t know the race but he is fired up for his debut and already checked the course a long time ago. This year he doesn’t seem to have the speed he had one year ago but his consistent sprinting shows that he is not too far off. Compared to Kristoff and Degenkolb, he may lose a bit more at the end of a long race but if he is there at the end, he is one of the riders who could potentially beat the two big classics sprinters.

 

Michael Matthews goes into a race that really suits him well and he has the full support of the Orica-GreenEDGE team. At last year’s Amstel Gold Race, he proved that he can handle the long distances and among the fast finishers he is one of the very best climbers. He recently put those skills on show in stage 6 of Paris-Nice where he stayed with the GC riders on the climbs for a very long time.

 

Matthews is a very fast rider but in a flat sprint, he is usually not as fast as riders like Kristoff and Degenkolb. Last year he tried to beat the German several times at the Vuelta and he never managed to do so in a real sprint. Furthermore, he doesn’t seem to cope quite as well with the distance as those two riders and he suffered a bit at the Worlds even though he should actually be climbing better than his rivals.

 

On the other hand, Matthews can count on a very strong team and with Daryl Impey at his side, he can expect to have one of the best lead-out men even at the end of a 300km race. Furthermore, he may even be so strong that he can go with the attacks in the finale. That will probably be his best chance to win the race but in a bunch sprint, it will be hard to do better than a minor podium spot.

 

Arnaud Demare has not had much success in this race which should actually suit him very well. He has always done pretty well in the classics and so he can handle the distances. He is a great climber and he is clearly one of the best sprinters in the world.

 

However, he goes into this race on the back of a string of disappointments. He has been far off the pace in most of the sprints he has done so far. In Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, however, he proved that there is nothing wrong with his condition and when he has got a real chance to sprint, he has proved that he also has the speed. When he hasn’t obtained any major results, it is mainly due to poor positioning. In this race, however, he can expect to find himself in a smaller group and that will make it easier for him to handle. There is definitely no doubt that he has the speed to win this classic.

 

Alejandro Valverde has not done Milan-Sanremo since 2006 but this year he will make his return. While Juan Jose Lobato will be the man for the sprint, Valverde will try to attack on the Poggio and it will be a huge surprise if he is not part of the action. The Spaniard recently rode very strongly in Strade Bianche where he played a bit too much with the muscles and he proved his class in the recent GP Nobili where he attacked with Davide Rebellin and nearly held the peloton at bay.

 

Valverde has the skills to win this race as he is an explosive climber, a great descender and is very fast in a flat sprint. On paper, he is very similar to Fabian Cancellara in this kind of flat sprint and everybody knows that he is still very fast at the end of a long race. Valverde will definitely be part of the small group that is likely to go clear on the Poggio and if they stay away he could add another monument to his palmares.

 

Like Valverde, Michal Kwiatkowski is suited to this race as he has many of the same skills. Due to the cold conditions, he has never managed to finish the race but this year he finally wants to make it to Sanremo. In Paris-Nice he proved that he has hit peak condition after a slow start to the season and he has proved several times that he can handle the long distances.

 

The main challenge for Kwiatkowski will be the tactical battle. It seems pretty clear that Mark Cavendish is the Etixx-QuickStep team and the Belgian team will probably prefer a bunch sprint. Kwiatkowski will be asked to join the attacks but he is unlikely to be allowed to contribute to the pace-setting. In fact, his presence could be what spells the end for a late break. If the group stays away, however, he may have been allowed to sit on and he is very fast in a sprint in that kind of scenario. This makes him one of the favourites to win from a break.

 

His teammate Zdenek Stybar will play a similar role and he has many of the same skills as Kwiatkowski. Like the Pole, he will probably not be allowed to do any work in a late group but he will be a danger man to drag to the finish line. The Czech proved his excellent condition in Strade Bianche and he is very fast in a sprint. He has proved his sprinting skills in the Eneco Tour several times and he could easily win the sprint from a breakaway.

 

BMC are here to ride aggressively with their two captains Greg Van Avermaet and Philippe Gilbert and they will both try to attack on the Poggio. The former has clearly taken another step up and with his stage win in Tirreno-Adriatico he is now even starting to win big races. In Strade Bianche, he showed his great condition and he is one of the most consistent riders in the classics.

 

Van Avermaet’s main problem is that he has a tendency to lose sprints that he should actually win and so he rarely comes away with the victory. However, he seems to be better at gauging his efforts and save energy for the final dash to the line. In a small breakaway, he will be one of the fastest and he clearly has a chance to win.

 

Gilbert has not shown the same kind of condition as his main goals are the Ardennes classics but he still rode strongly in Paris-Nice. He has done nothing to hide that Sanremo is a big objective for him and he will be fired up to improve on his previous podium result. On paper, however, Van Avermaet is faster in this kind of flat sprint and as it was the case in the Worlds road race, Gilbert may have to sacrifice himself for his teammate. With two riders in a late break, however, BMC have cards to play and a late attack could pay off for Philippe Gilbert.

 

***** Alexander Kristoff

**** Mark Cavendish, John Degenkolb

*** Peter Sagan, André Greipel, Juan Jose Lobato, Fabian Cancellara, Nacer Bouhanni

** Michael Matthews, Arnaud Demare, Alejandro Valverde, Michal Kwiatkowski, Zdenek Stybar, Greg Van Avermaet, Philippe Gilbert

* Ben Swift, Davide Cimolai, Giacomo Nizzolo, Niccolo Bonifazio, Ramunas Navardauskas, Heinrich Haussler, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Gerald Ciolek, Matthew, Goss, Tyler Farrar, Tony Gallopin, Filippo Pozzato, Samuel Dumoulin, Rui Costa, Geraint Thomas, Moreno Hofland, Grega Bole, Sonny Colbrelli, Peter Kennaugh, Lars Boom, Borut Bozic, Kris Boeckmans, Jose Joaquin Rojas, Jurgen Roelandts, Sam Bennett

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