As the first Monument of the season, Milan-San Remo is one of the most eagerly anticipated races of the season – doubly so now that it features for the second time in our season-long Fantasy Cycling competition. Geraint Thomas, after a spell on the road in Paris-Nice, is now back on the track as he continues his London 2012 preparations, but as usual the Team Sky star, who raced La Classicissima di Primavera for the first time last year, also has some tips for the race.
At 298km, Milan-San Remo is the longest one day race in the calendar and while generally thought of as a race for the sprinters, that distance and the attrition caused by main climbs, with the organisers periodically introducing a new one to toughen up the route, mean that Classics specialists plus strong stage race riders are likely to be in the mix come the finish.
Indeed, until the sprinters’ current dominance began in earnest in the late 1990s, all-round attackers capable of winning Classics as well as a Grand Tour regularly featured in the list of Milan-San Remo winners – including, in the past few decades, Eddy Merckx, Giuseppe Saronni, Laurent Fignon, Gianni Bugno and Laurent Jalabert.
The most recent addition to the route, the climb up to Le Manie, which made its debut in 2008 – the Passo del Turchino has been a permanent fixture since the first edition in 1909, while the Poggio and the Cipressa were introduced in 1960 and 1982 respectively – proved decisive last year, crashes causing a split in the field with a group of 40 or so riders able to get away.
That group was further whittled down by the Cipressa and the Poggio, including HTC-Highroad’s Matt Goss, now with GreenEdge, who managed to turn on the pace when it mattered to beat 2008 winner Fabian Cancellara and, in a rare Classics defeat last year, Philippe Gilbert to the line.
While a sprinter may have won yet again last year – albeit not the one from HTC-Highroad that most would have expected prior to the race – it does highlight one of the dilemmas when it comes to Fantasy Cycling team selection for the race; often, the top 20 is as likely to comprise strong one-day specialists as it is the sprinters you’d see fighting it out on a flat Tour de France stage.
Geraint is in no doubt, however, as to who the first name on your virtual team sheet should be – 2009 Milan-San Remo winner, current World Champion and, of course, his team mate at Team Sky, Mark Cavendish. He cautions, however, that the inclusion of that latest climb does introduce a new unpredictability into the race.
“I think with Le Manie, that definitely mixes things up a bit, teams will definitely look to put Cav on the back foot there, it’s always a fight at the bottom of the climb and people will want to be at the front there to miss any potential crashes," says Geraint.
“Even on the big wide road in the kilometres leading up to it, it’s still a nightmare to stay together as a team and try and position yourselves, a mass of cyclists, it’s San Remo, everyone wants to do well, so it’s a big fight there.
“I think Cav will ideally want to be in the top ten coming into the bottom of that climb, you just want to be as well positioned as possible and stay out of trouble.
“If he can get over that nicely and not have to chase, even if there’s attacks or a crash, if he’s with a team mate or two and it comes back together, I think he’ll be in a great position for the final.
“It’s such a long race that any effort you don’t have to expend early on is all the better, really,” he adds.
Certainly, if Cavendish arrives in San Remo in the lead group, it would take a brave man to bet against him, even if there’s no-one else there from Team Sky – he’s proved time and again that not only is he the quickest man around in a sprint to the line, but he also has a knack of choosing the right wheel to follow when his own leadout has been disrupted.
But if it isn’t to be his year, who else is in the frame to win it? Well, Team Sky’s own Plan B seems to be Edvald Boasson Hagen, who got the nod to sprint – and win – last Saturday in Tirreno-Adriatico when Cavendish wasn’t feeling 100 per cent.
If it’s true that Tirreno provides the best form guide – and the fact that the winner of Milan-San Remo tends to have raced it underscores its value as a form guide – then we could be in for a treat on Saturday with several riders looking strong these past few days.
Besides Cavendish and Boasson Hagen, this year’s Tirreno stage winners during the past few days include Fabian Cancellara, who took today’s closing time trial, and Vincenzi Nibali, who also took the overall – respectively second and eighth across the line in San Remo last year.
Moreover, the team that won last Thursday’s opening time trial in Tirreno, GreenEdge, was led over the line by defending Milan-San Remo champion Matt Goss.
Bucking the trend, the Australian last year used Paris Nice to prepare for Milan-San Remo, where in any event he was meant to be working for Cavendish before the race plan went out of the window due to that split at Le Manie.
Among those riding Paris-Nice this year was one of the form riders in the early season, Tom Boonen – third in Milan-San Remo in 2007, second in 2010, but never a winner. Could this be his year?
Particularly impressive at Tirreno, meanwhile, was Nibali’s team mate at Liquigas Cannondale, Peter Sagan, the 22 year-old looking very strong as he won Stage 4 in Chieti after a tough ride of 251 kilometres.
It seems more a case of ‘when’ the Slovak will win a Classic, not ‘if,’ a fact not lost on the bookies have him as second favourite behind Cavendish for Saturday’s race.
If Sagan does take the victory, he won’t be the youngest winner of Milan-San Remo – it’s unlikely Ugo Agostini, aged 20 when he won in 1914, will ever be displaced from that honour – but he would be the first who was born in the 1990s.
Among other riders at Tirreno were last year’s third placed finisher in Milan-San Remo, Philippe Gilbert, who along with others such as Cavendish and Goss didn’t start yesterday’s penultimate stage – but in the Belgian’s case, it was due to a fever, rather than focusing on preparations for this weeked’s race.
Gilbert’s BMC Racing team certainly has other options, though, including former world champions Thor Hushovd and Alessandro Ballan, but the man who had been expected to spearhead its challenge, Greg Van Avermaet who finished ninth last year, is doubtful of his chances after skipping the closing time trial in Tirreno due to a heel injury.
Among the other riders who might figure in the finale there will as ever be a strong Italian contingent – past winners Pippo Pozzato and Alessandro Petacchi, plus talents such as national champion Giovanni Visconti, Pozzato’s Farnese Vini team mate Andrea Guardini, and RadioShack Nissan’s Daniele Bennati.
Meanwhile, last year’s race saw Michele Scarponi emerge as one of the strongest riders towards the end of the race – he was the only man to bridge across to the front group, using the Cipressa as his springboard – and if he’s up with the leaders, he could well be the man to launch a attack.
There is of course one other rider who cannot be ignored when discussing potential Milan-San Remo winners – three-time victor Oscar Freire. Now with Katusha, the 36-year-old has been plagued by respiratory problems in recent years, but has a couple of wins under his belt this season since moving to Katusha, and knows better than anyone what it takes to triumph here.
Geraint agrees that the Spaniard’s chances can’t be dismissed easily. “Freire won a stage in the Tour Down Under and has bags of experience, he’ll be there or thereabouts.
“Boonen’s going well, Cancellara is always there and I’m sure will attack at some point, he’s strong enough to ride away as everyone knows,” he continues.
“There’ll be the usual attacks, Scarponi will probably have a dig going up the Poggio or the Cipressa, but I think it will come down to a bunch sprint,” Geraint adds.
And if it does, he can’t see beyond Cavendish taking his second victory in Milan-San Remo.
“I think Sky have a super team for the race now, and having someone like Cav on the back of the train gives everyone confidence that you do your job and nine times out of ten he’s going to finish it off,” he explains.
“I’d love to see Cav win, and I think he probably will. He’s super motivated at the minute, it’s all he’s talking about, it’s all he’s thinking about – winning San Remo with the rainbow bands on him.
“When he’s like that, he usually comes up with the goods. He’s that type of guy.”
The Passo del Turchino is the biggest climb of the day but it's too early to have a big effect on the outcome of the race.
The Poggio is only a short climb with a maximum altitude of 160m, but it's right at the end and always a launchpad for attacks
All photos: LaPresse/RCS Sport. Thanks to www.cyclingthealps.com for the flythroughs
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.