It’s hard to imagine, but the spring classics are finally upon us with Saturday’s running of Milan-San Remo, the first monument of the season. Much has been written about the type of rider perfectly suited to the year’s longest one-day event. Is Milan-San Remo a race for sprinters or attackers? Will the Cipressa and Poggio succeed in shattering the field, or will they simply prime the legs of the strongmen before an all-out bunch sprint?
In the end, La Classicissima is perhaps one of the sport’s biggest crapshoots as crashes, weather, and bad luck all play a role in destroying or elevating the chances of many pre-race favorites. Here’s a rundown of who to watch this Saturday:
Peter Sagan – Similar to last year’s edition, I expect we’ll see a select group hit the line together in San Remo Saturday. That makes a sprinter able to handle the Cipressa, the Poggio, and their descents while possessing a better finishing kick than his rivals—such as Liquigas’ Peter Sagan—the top favorite for Saturday. Sagan’s progressed steadily since his first season as a professional (2010), a season when he was head-scratchingly left off his team’s roster for Milan-San Remo after two stage wins in Paris-Nice. Taking the line for the first time last season, Sagan finished 17th, I suspect due to Milan-San Remo’s whopping 290-kilometers of distance.
The Slovakian returns this year with a grand tour in his legs (an important detail not to be discounted) and a tough week of racing in Tirreno-Adriatico. His stage win in Chieti showed his ability to survive selective courses and he has the added benefit of riding alongside Vincenzo Nibali, a trendy race favorite himself his overall victory in Tirreno. Look for Sagan to win the race in a fashion similar to Goss last year. He’ll take a backseat to Nibali for much of the finale, calmly following wheels and taking risks on the descent of the Poggio to keep himself in contention. If all goes as planned, the youngster will take his first classic at the tender age of 22.
Fabian Cancellara – Cancellara won Milan-San Remo in 2008 and finished second last year after making the lead group, but coming up short in the sprint. Interestingly, Cancellara’s 2008 victory came two weeks after he won L’Eroica and days after his time trial win (and overall title) at Tirreno-Adriatico. Sound familiar? After his impressive victory in L’Eroica two weeks ago and a near perfect build-up at Tirreno, only a true field sprint finish could definitively prevent Spartacus from taking his second victory in La Classicissima. Then again, given the form he’s displayed, even that might not defeat him.
Edvald Boasson Hagen – After his Stage 3 victory in Tirreno, EBH looked to have the form of a 5-Kite Favorite. Assuming a small but select group escapes on the Poggio, the Norwegian is—to me—Team Sky’s best bet for the win Saturday as he’s a better climber than Cavendish. But like many in the peloton, Boasson Hagen abandoned the race early, feeling the effects of a crash and wanting to be fully rested for Saturday. Such decisions are common, but it’s enough to cast a bit of doubt over the Norwegian’s chances, knocking him down a rung from the likes of Sagan and Cancellara.
Mark Cavendish – Team Sky’s Mark Cavendish has spent much of the still-young season either winning or sick. After taking his fourth win of the year in Stage 2 of Tirreno-Adriatico, the World Champion abandoned the race a few days later, trying to keep himself fresh while avoiding the effects of a cold that has laid low many of the sport’s biggest names. For Cavendish, the question at Milan-San Remo remains whether or not he will make it over the Cipressa and the Poggio with the front group. If he does, there’s little reason to believe his powerful team won’t deliver the Manxman his second victory in the season’s first monument.
Oscar Freire – Oscar Freire has won Milan-San Remo three times—a fourth would tie him with Gino Bartali and Erik Zabel for third on the all-time behind Eddy Merckx (7 wins) and Costante Girardengo (6 wins). Freire has a knack for winning races when no one really expects him to, forcing everyone to utter “Oh yeah, Freire,” after seemingly coming out of nowhere to take a major victory. Freire’s won two races for Katusha so far this season and enjoyed a quiet Tirreno-Adriatico where he finished second behind Mark Cavendish on Stage 2. If a large group hits the Lungomare Italo Calvino in the lead, expect to see the Spaniard on the podium Saturday.
Tom Boonen – Every year it seems that Omega Pharma – Quick Step’s Tom Boonen comes to Milan-San Remo in top form only to find himself thwarted by riders more suited to the race’s crapshoot of a finale. Tommeke’s finished second and third here previously, but often lacks the acceleration to cover winning breakaways or the power to emerge victorious in the final sprint. After a terrific start to the season including a stage win in last week’s Paris-Nice, the Belgian appears as ready as he’ll ever be to take what would be his third of the five Monuments. Unfortunately, the Belgian’s chances have already been dealt a blow thanks to the withdrawals of Sylvain Chavanel and Dries Devenyns.
Vincenzo Nibali – Tirreno-winner Vincenzo Nibali would love to add Milan-San Remo to his resume. But with several teams hoping to see the race come down to a sprint and a finale that’s not quite hard enough to sufficiently kill their chances, Nibali might be relegated to the traditional role of “Italian grand tour favorite who attacks on the Cipressa and is caught at the base of the Poggio”. Then again, Nibali could combine his impressive descending skills on the Poggio with the pack’s fear of dragging Peter Sagan back into the lead to give the race its first Italian winner since Pippo Pozzato in 2006.
Alessandro Ballan – Thanks to a roster decimated by illness and injury, Ballan will likely be Team BMC’s best bet on Saturday. Still out to prove that the big wins he enjoyed earlier in his career were no fluke, Ballan finished fourth last year after making the final selection. And with Gilbert, Hushovd, and Van Avermaet bound to heal sometime soon, there might never be a better chance for Ballan to lead his squad in a major spring classic.
Matti Breschel – Rabobank’s Breschel seems to have overcome the injury troubles that dogged him throughout 2011. Critics will point out that he was dropped from the winning breakaway in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad three weeks. But to me, his performance serve as proof that the Dane’s form is headed in the right direction. With a relatively trouble-free Tirreno in his legs, Breschel should perform well in San Remo.
Daniele Bennati – Bennati’s fine start to the season has been overshadowed by Fabian Cancellara’s exploits as of late. After setting-up Spartacus with a late-race move in L’Eroica, the Italian held on to finish 11th in Siena. At Tirreno-Adriatico, he seemed to have grown stronger as the race progressed: he finished second behind Cancellara in the event’s final time trial. Bennati’s biggest obstacle Saturday is certainly his teammate; he’ll rightfully be expected to defer to his Swiss teammate should they both find themselves in the final selection.
Heinrich Haussler – In 2009, Garmin-Barracuda’s Haussler narrowly missed winning Milan-San Remo when he was caught at the line by Mark Cavendish. Haussler has since fallen short of living up to that season, but says he’s back on track and ready to contend this spring. Saturday will be our first chance to see if he means it.
Andre Greipel – Lotto-Belisol’s Greipel is one of the world’s best field sprinters, but there are questions as to whether he can make it over the Cipressa and Poggio with the favorites. If he does, he’s not to be discounted. After all, if Cipollini and Petacchi can do it, why can’t he?
Matthew Goss – GreenEdge’s Goss has done little to show that he has the form necessary to defend his 2011 title. Then again, it’s early in the season and many riders have purposely remained under the radar so as to avoid racing on Saturday with a target on their backs. If Goss has truly recovered from the illness that cut short his Tirreno, a step on the podium is within his grasp—which one remains to be seen.
I went against my gut last year and didn’t pick Matthew Goss. I won’t make the same mistake twice. Sagan takes the win over EBH and Ballan. And then it’s on to Flanders!
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Image: Photoreporter Sirotti