This Saturday sees the first classic of the season, the Milan-San Remo, and while that venerable race may now be in its 102nd edition, the weekend also sees the launch of our first-ever season-long Fantasy Cycling game. What’s more, we’ve brought Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas on board to bring you expert tips to help with your team selection.
Like the rest of us, Thomas had been due to watch the race on TV – live coverage starts at 1345hrs UK time on Eurosport – but having been called up to the Team Sky squad this week, the British Champion will have one of the best views of all, hopefully at the front of the peloton.
The 24-year-old joins his teammates after a strong showing in last week’s Paris-Nice, and we’d be surprised if his inclusion in the Team Sky line-up doesn’t cause one or two of you to rethink your selection.
This is a race where it’s not just studying the form that counts, indeed as the horseracing fraternity would put it, course and distance can matter a great deal too, demonstrated by the fact that the roll of honour contains a number of multiple winners.
Studying the form (LaPresse/RCS Media)
The only man currently riding to have done so is three-time winner and last tyear’s victor, Oscar Freire, but you certainly can’t rule out Mark Cavendish, Fabian Cancellera or the Italian pair, Filippo Pozzato or Alessandro Petacchi, from joining the select group to have won the La Classicissima more than once.
On top of that, there are a host of other riders who also have pretensions to the prize, with most bookies making Heinrich Haussler favourite ahead of Philippe Gilbert, with Cavendish next. You may not agree with their opinion, but it’s interesting to see how they rate various riders’ chances.
Geraint Thomas singles out Fabian Cancellara as one of the leading contenders to take the honours in the coming Classics season, but adds that “from the races I’ve done, I think that Liquigas are looking pretty strong, and they were going well in the Tirreno.”
Fabian Cancellara (La Presse/RCS Media)
The Italian team’s young Slovakian rider Peter Sagan is one of the Team Sky man's tips, the Welshman saying “he was looking pretty strong” when taking the overall win in last month’s Giro di Sardegna.
The 21-year-old, like many others, abandoned Paris-Nice a day early on Saturday’s brutal stage, but whether that’s a sign of a problem or just wanting to remain fresh for Milan-San Remo is your call, but as Thomas says, “I’m sure he’ll get over the climbs and he’ll be there” to contest the finale.
Many a young Italian boy grows up dreaming of one day winning the Milan-San Remo of course – as Thomas puts it, “Liquigas will go hard, the Italians consider it ‘their race’.”
One home rider from the team definitely to watch then is Vincenzo Nibali, winner of last year’s Vuelta." While Nibali’s main focus this year is the Giro d’Italia, he is a past top ten finisher in Liege-Bastogne-Liege so knows what it takes to be up there in a Classic, and given that you have to select a Team Leader, you could do a lot worse.
Thomas believes that Garmin-Cervelo too are a team to watch, but the question here is who to select? Heinrich Haussler, Tyler Farrar or Thor Hushovd could all win, depending on how the race pans out, while Roger Hammond too has some great one-day experience, with podiums in Paris-Roubaix and Gent-Wevelgem.
Who might emerge as the team’s key rider for the race won’t be known until Saturday afternoon as the race heads towards its conclusion, especially if there’s been some kind of split in the field with the out-and-out speed merchants such as Farrar and Cavendish left behind inside the closing kilometres.
Thor Hushovd (LaPresse/RCS Media)
If so, then Hushovd, as he demonstrated last year in the Tour de France, Vuelta and, of course, the World Championships, may be the man to power his way to the win.
Of course, the team selection system means that it’s not just about the star names, but also choosing domestiques who might be able to earn you points. Those could come by virtue of the fact that they support the eventual winner, but a top 20 finish or being in a break at halfway could also boost your total.
Here again, Thomas recommends going local, with riders from teams such as Farnese Vini-Neri Sottili keen to get the sponsors’ names in front of the cameras, not that you’d miss those dayglo yellow jerseys. Their bikes have Milan-San Remo pedigree too, bearing the Mario Cipollini name, and the team also boasts current Italian national champion, Giovanni Visconti.
Giovanni Visconti in the Italian champion's jersey (LaPresse/RCS Sport)
Of course, there’s also Thomas’s own Team Sky to contend with. No word on team tactics – he’ll learn those when he joins his team mates in Italy.
However, with Greg Henderson winning a Paris-Nice stage in that race last week and Bradley Wiggins securing third overall, plus Thomas Lovkvist securing tenth overall in Tirreno-Adriatico, not to mention the Welshman’s own great form, the team is looking strong at the moment.
Add to those names the likes of Kurt-Asle Arvesen, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Juan Antonio Flecha, Michael Rogers and Ian Stannard, and Team Sky could well help you get among the points on Saturday.
As we’ve mentioned before, Tirreno-Adriatico in particular is a great form guide, and you’ll find links to results of that race, together with last week’s Paris-Nice, here to make sure you’re selecting riders who are in top form.
As for the course, the odd break apart, the first quarter of the race should be relatively uneventful as the peloton passes along the flat roads of the great plain of the River Po, past Pavia and its surrounding rice fields and vineyards. Then, after Tortona, the westernmost peaks of the Apennine mountains, which separate Lombardy from Liguria, rear up.
At 532 metres, the Passo del Turchino marks the highest point of the race; get dropped here, and that could be your race over even before the halfway point. The tunnel the riders pass through here is often taken symbolically to mark the passage from Northern Italian winter into Mediterranean spring, but as well as sunshine, there’s every chance of cold downpours in Liguria at this time of year.
From here, the route plummets into the western suburbs of Genoa, the Ligurian region’s capital, before heading west along the coast towards San Remo.
On the way, of course, there are three more climbs to be negotiated that will sap some riders’ legs ahead of the finale; the 130 metre Capo Berta, the 239 metre Cipressa, and the 160-metre Poggio, just six kilometres from the finish.
Crest the latter in the leading group and, if you’ve still got a decent pair of sprint legs left, the race could be yours. But as shown by Mark Cavendish and Heinrich Haussler two years ago, even after 298 kilometres of riding, the margin between success and failure can be thinner than the blue line on the back of a Team Sky jersey.
You can check the detailed itinerary and timings, as well as full details of the route, on the English version of the website of Italian sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport, which is owned by race organisers RCS Group. You’ll also find all those details in the official guide to the race (text mainly in Italian), which you can download here.
After Milan-Sanremo, our Fantasy Cycling game heads off to Belgium the following weekend for Gent-Wevelgem, and we’ll bring you a preview of that plus more tips from Geraint Thomas next week.
And don't forget that following Saturday's race, you'll only have a limited number of transfers to make going onwards, so it's worth planning ahead to make sure you'll have a plenty of options going forward rather than putting everything into Milan-San Remo.
We hope you’re as excited as we are about the competition, and with well over 1,000 teams signed up it’s sure to be a cracking contest throughout the 2011 season, with some great prizes up for grabs courtesy of our friends at Evans Cycles.
All that remains to say is make your selections wisely and good luck for what promises to be a thrilling season of racing, both in the real world and the virtual one.
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.