Saturday sees the 103rd running of the biggest one-day race of the year so far – and, at 298km, the longest on the professional calendar – the ‘sprinters’ classic’ Milan-San Remo. Virtually all the top fast-twitch men will be here looking for their shot at one of cycling’s biggest titles, but one which is as likely to be decided by a late breakaway as it is in a bunch sprint.
What kind of race is it?
Milan-San Remo is one of the oldest races still in existence and remains the most prestigious sprinter-friendly race on the calendar, with the flattest parcours of the spring Classics. The first of the five ‘monuments’ of European cycling – the others being the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Giro di Lombardia – its massive 298km parcours will stretch the riders’ endurance to their limits on a course which usually takes close to seven hours to complete.
As the name suggests, the race runs across the north of Italy, starting in Milan and heading south-west towards the Mediterranean coast to the town of San Remo on the western edge of the country.
Unsurprisingly, Italian riders have historically dominated the race, winning on 50 occasions. The next most successful nation is Belgium with 20 wins, seven of which came courtesy of Eddy Merckx. The most recent winners of the race are:
2007: Oscar Freire (Rabobank)
2008: Fabian Cancellara (CSC)
2009: Mark Cavendish (Columbia-Highroad)
2010: Oscar Freire (Rabobank)
2011: Matt Goss (HTC-Highroad)
What happened last year?
HTC-Highroad’s Matt Goss became the first non-European winner of Milan-San Remo, emerging triumphant from a tense eight-up finale after the race had been animated by a series of dramatic breakaways and attacks in the closing kilometres.
The race began to take shape on the Le Manie hill just under 100km from the finish in San Remo. Several of the pre-race favourites were effectively eliminated from contention after a pair of crashes on the approach to and descent from the climb. These split the peloton and put paid to the chances of several leading contenders, including 2009 and 2010 winners Mark Cavendish and Oscar Freire. A lead group of 44 riders formed with a two-minute lead over the rest of the peloton, including big names such as Philippe Gilbert, Andre Greipel, Fabian Cancellara, Filippo Pozzato, Alessandro Ballan, Vincenzo Nibali, Heinrich Haussler, Tom Boonen and Goss.
A four-man attack went clear on the descent from the Cipressa, opening up a gap of close to 30 seconds as they attacked the final Poggio climb. BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet launched a solo attack but was caught with 2.5km to go, at which point a succession of solo attacks began: first FDJ’s Yoann Offredo, then Philippe Gilbert, Nibali and finally, with 200 metres left, Lampre’s Michele Scarponi. However, he was easy meat for the fast-finishing pair of Goss and Cancellara, who swept past on either side, with the Australian prevailing by more than a bike length to ease to victory.
1. Matt Goss (HTC-Highroad) 6:51:10
2. Fabian Cancellara (Leopard-Trek) same time
3. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) s/t
4. Alessandro Ballan (BMC) s/t
5. Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) s/t
This year’s race
It’s not just the length of the race which will concern a top-class field that is likely to include the winners of seven of the previous eight editions: Oscar Freire (2004, 2007 and 2010), Alessandro Petacchi (2005), Fabian Cancellara (2008), Mark Cavendish (2009) and Matt Goss (2011). It is also the manifold opportunities the parcours presents for attacks to split the field, particularly in its final third.
The first 120km or so is flat but starts to drain the legs ahead of a series of tricky hills in the back half of the race. It’s not uncommon for an initial selection to occur on any of these climbs. Last year a 44-man group split decisively away on Le Manie, nearly 100km from the finish, a 4.7km climb averaging 6.7% which peaks at 11% just before the summit.
However, it is often the final pair of climbs – Cipressa and Poggio – which prove decisive because of their proximity to the finish. The Cipressa is the longer and steeper of the two, averaging 4.1% over its 5.7km length – not overly taxing in itself, but after over 270km of racing and with the three smaller ‘Capi’ hills – Mele, Cervo and Berta – immediately preceding it, any sprinters found dawdling at the back can easily find themselves on the wrong side of a split.
The Cipressa’s summit is just 22km from the finish, but after its descent and a short flat section it leads on to the Poggio. Again, this is not individually a difficult climb (it is ‘only’ 3.7km and 3.7%) but with its summit coming just 6km from the finish – and with only a 3km flat section to negotiate after the descent – any small group which is able to detach itself from the peloton over the top stands a good chance of surviving to the finish. And if the pack is still together, the competition among the sprinters and their teams to position themselves in the top 20-25 places will be intense. Lose position over the summit and it will become almost impossible to contest the final sprint as the pack hurtles at top speed towards San Remo.
You can experience the Poggio climb yourself courtesy of Cycling the Alps’ website here.
Who to watch
Several of the favourites for Saturday’s race bring stage-winning form from Tirreno-Adriatico with them. The Sky pairing of 2009 winner Mark Cavendish and Edvald Boasson Hagen won Tirreno’s two sprint stages. Cavendish will hope his team can keep the peloton together for a bunch sprint, while Boasson Hagen will be ready to jump into any late breaks or if Cav can’t keep in touch on the closing hills. Liquigas’ Vincenzo Nibali (the overall winner at Tirreno) and RadioShack-Nissan’s Fabian Cancellara (winner of the concluding time trial) will favour a small group finish, with the alternative option of launching a final attack from distance on the run-in. Nibali’s teammate his teammate Peter Sagan, who won on the steep climb in Chieti, could also profit in either scenario. Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez may fancy a dig on the Poggio in the hope of staying away to the finish.
Other riders in form likely to feature in a final sprint include Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol), who has already won six races this year, Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), who added a stage at Paris-Nice last week to his overall Tour of Qatar victory, Alessandro Ballan (BMC), who showed well at Strade Binache, and three-time winner Oscar Freire (Katusha).
Longer shots include BMC’s Philippe Gilbert, Filippo Pozzato (Farnese Vini-Serre Italia), Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-ISD), 2009 runner-up Heinrich Haussler and Garmin-Barracuda teammate Tyler Farrar, None of these have shown any real form so far this season. The same goes for defending champion Matt Goss (GreenEDGE) who, despite leading Tirreno-Adriatico for its first three days, has yet to seriously threaten in a sprint.
Absent from the race are a number of potential contenders who have been forced to withdraw with illness. BMC’s Thor Hushovd has a fever and OPQS’ Sylvain Chavanel has bronchitis. Get well soon, fellas.
Here at VeloVoices I’ll be keeping tabs on number 82, Pozzato’s Farnese Vini teammate Oscar Gatto. The 27-year old sprinter won a stage at last year’s Giro and finished an impressive third at Strade Bianche earlier this month. He’s another potential dark horse to win.
Milan-San Remo takes place on Saturday 17th March. Live coverage and highlights will be shown in the UK by Eurosport. For other channels check cyclingfans.com.
Link: Official website