Milan-San Remo preview

Sunday’s Milan-San Remo is one of the oldest races on the calendar and the first of the five ‘monuments’ of European cycling to be raced each year. A marathon lasting close to seven hours, it provides a unique test of speed and endurance far beyond what its seemingly innocuous profile might suggest.

What kind of race is it?

At 298km, this is longest professional race of all – the sole exception to the UCI’s 250km race limit. It is also the one most coveted by sprinters. However, there are enough awkward climbs – Le Manie mid-race, Cipressa and Poggio late on – to give the strong-man Classics and GC riders an equally good chance. The final two climbs are generally tackled close to flat-out, taxing already tired legs.

Unsurprisingly, Italian riders have historically dominated the race, netting 50 wins – although you have to go back to 2006 for the last ‘home’ winner, Filippo PozzatoEddy Merckx was victorious here a record seven times. The most recent winners of the race are:

2008: Fabian Cancellara (CSC)

2009: Mark Cavendish (Columbia-Highroad)

2010: Oscar Freire (Rabobank)

2011: Matt Goss (HTC-Highroad)

2012: Simon Gerrans (GreenEDGE)

What happened last year?

GreenEDGE’s Simon Gerrans made it two Australian winners in succession as he outsprinted Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) and Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) in a tense three-up finish. The trio broke clear approaching the summit of the Poggio after Nibali had initiated the decisive attack following great pace-work by Liquigas on both Poggio and the Cipressa. Cancellara found himself forced to pull the other two to the finish as a chase group breathed down their necks. Peter Sagan (Liquigas) took the honour of beating John Degenkolb (1t4i) to fourth spot, two seconds behind.

1. Simon Gerrans (GreenEDGE) 6:59:24

2. Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) same time

3. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) s/t

4. Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) +0:02

5.  John Degenkolb (1t4i) s/t

6.  Filippo Pozzato (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia) s/t

7. Oscar Freire (Katusha) s/t

8. Alessandro Ballan (BMC) s/t

9. Daniel Oss (Liquigas-Cannondale) s/t

10. Daniele Bennati (RadioShack-Nissan) s/t

You can read our full 2012 race review here.

This year’s race

All 19 ProTeams plus six wild-cards (Androni Giocattoli, Bardiani Valvole-CSF Inox, IAM, MTN-Qhubeka, Europcar and Vini Fantini) will line up with eight-man teams. The undulating parcours presents many opportunities for field-splitting attacks on the climbs and a distinct possibility of crashes on the descents.

Milan-San Remo 2013 profile

The first major selection is likely to occur on the race’s newest climb, Le Manie, which was introduced in 2008 and summits 94km from the finish. Last year a concerted effort by Liquigas and others on the 4.7km, 6.7% climb eliminated Mark Cavendish from contention, while in 2011 a 44-man group split decisively away after a crash on the descent.

The final 30km is where the race will be won and lost

The final 30km is where the race will be won and lost

However, it is often the Cipressa and Poggio which prove decisive because of their proximity to the finish. Neither looks particularly daunting, but because they are both taken at a high tempo it is common for splits to occur. The Cipressa, 22km from the finish, is the longer and steeper of the two, averaging 4.1% over 5.7km.

After the descent and a short flat section comes the Poggio. Again, this is not individually a difficult climb – it is ‘only’ 3.7% – but with its summit just 6km from the line any split can prove decisive. A small group can escape on either side of the peak, but if a large enough peloton survives the competition among the sprinters’ teams will be intense.

Who to watch

The outcome of Milan-San Remo is notoriously difficult to predict, although the recent Tirreno-Adriatico and Paris-Nice both provide helpful pointers.

Will clear favourite be victorious? (image courtesy of Cannondale)

Will clear favourite Sagan be victorious? (image courtesy of Cannondale)

Teams with multiple contenders who can cover the full range of tactical outcomes are best positioned. In Peter Sagan, fourth last year and a double stage winner at Tirreno, Cannondale possess the overwhelming race favourite, with Strade Bianche winner Moreno Moser and sprinter Elia Viviani representing viable alternatives if the Slovak is marked out.

Omega Pharma-Quick Step also possess an embarrassment of riches. 2009 winner Mark Cavendish will be hoping to make up for last year’s disappointment. But OPQS can also look towards the in-form Sylvain Chavanel and the returning-to-form Tom Boonen to provide a strenuous one-two punch, with Michal Kwiatkowski (second at Volta ao Algarve, fourth at Tirreno) and Niki Terpstra offering both support and attacking options.

Can Goss repeat his 2011 win? (image courtesy of Orica-GreenEDGE)

Can Goss repeat his 2011 win? (image courtesy of Orica-GreenEDGE)

Orica-GreenEDGE can boast the last two winners of the race in Simon Gerrans and Matt Goss. Gerrans pulled out of Paris-Nice ill and is more likely to ride in support of his compatriot, who won his first stage in ten months at Tirreno last week.

As he did last year, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) arrives as the winner of Tirreno. Third last year after he was unable to shake off Gerrans and Fabian Cancellara, he will look to exploit his descending skills.

Other key contenders include last year’s second and fifth-placed riders, 2008 winner Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) and John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano), although the latter is carrying a minor thigh injury. As outside bets, it’s also worth considering 2006 winner Filippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida), second at Roma Maxima two weeks ago, 2009 runner-up Heinrich Haussler (IAM), the in-form Greg van Avermaet (BMC), Andrey Amador (Movistar), Tour Down Under winner Tom-Jelte Slagter (Blanco), Daniele Bennati (Saxo-Tinkoff) and Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky).

Alternatively, one of the Lotto-Belisol pairing of Jurgen Roelandts and sprinter Andre Greipel could profit if the big favourites spend too much time watching each other. And don’t forget the man who will be sporting the rainbow jersey, Philippe Gilbert (BMC), who will be chomping at the bit on the Poggio.

The fact that I have covered so many possible winners – and it could easily be someone else beyond this list – is an indication of how wide open Milan-San Remo always is. It will be fast – the forecast is for a tailwind which will encourage attackers – it will be furious and it will be unpredictable.

Milan-San Remo takes place starts on Sunday 17th March. Live coverage will be shown in the UK by Eurosport. For other options check cyclingfans.com.

Link: Official website

Tirreno-Adriatico review: Nibali doubles up in torrential Tirreno

Tirreno-Adriatico logoTirreno-Adriatico started in heavy rain but was no damp squib, providing explosive excitement aplenty. Reprising their Tour of Oman hostilities, defending champion Vincenzo Nibali emerged triumphant from a tough battle with Chris Froome, Alberto Contador and Joaquim Rodriguez.

Race summary

In a sodden opening team time trial, world champions Omega Pharma-Quick Step found the best balance between speed and safety to clock 19:24 and put Mark Cavendish into the maglia azzurra. Vuelta TTT winners Movistar had earlier set a benchmark of 19:35, which remained as the second-fastest time.

Cadel Evans‘ BMC were third, 16 seconds down, with Cannondale and Vincenzo Nibali‘s Astana rounding out the top five. 2012 winners Orica-GreenEDGE finished only sixth-best.

Stage two to Indicatore – the longest of the race at 232km – was not so much wet as torrential, resulting in a chaotic sprint in which OPQS were crowded out after they spending much of the day leading the chase. Lotto-Belisol appeared to have set up the best lead-out but Andre Greipel fell away and with Cavendish struggling to fight through the field it was Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEDGE) who came over the top of Manuel Belletti (Ag2r La Mondiale) to win.

The following day was also wet and this time it was Peter Sagan who won another disorganised sprint. Attacks in the closing 20km by Juan Antonio Flecha (Vacansoleil-DCM) and Lars Boom (Blanco) strung out the peloton and in the ensuing dash, Cavendish overshot a tricky right-hand bend, losing valuable road position. Then a late attack by Sergey Lagutin (Vacansoleil) further disrupted the sprint trains. Sagan jumped Greipel and was able to hold off Cavendish, who had burned too many matches recovering ground.

Saturday’s queen stage up to the snow-lined ski station Prati di Tivo saw Sky’s formidable mountain train shred the field to leave an elite group of 11. Just past the 3km banner, Alberto Contador launched a stinging attack. Nibali and Vini Fantini’s Mauro Santambrogio were able to bridge and then continue over the top of the Vuelta champion, with Chris Froome apparently labouring some way behind. Under the flamme rouge Nibali kicked again only for Froome to appear out of nowhere and fly straight past him – classic rope-a-dope. The British rider surged over the line six seconds clear of Santambrogio, with Nibali a further five seconds back. Michal Kwiatkowski (OPQS) was fourth, taking the race lead from teammate Cavendish.

Stage five’s finish in Chieti came at the end of a 1.2km hill averaging 10.2%. If you look that up in the VeloVoices Big Book of Cycling (Junior Edition) you will find the name Joaquim Rodriguez double-underlined next to it. Sure enough, the Spaniard took off at the base of the climb and shot off into the distance. He finished eight seconds clear of a five-man group led by Bauke Mollema (Blanco) and including Contador and Froome, with Nibali a further nine seconds adrift as the Sky man moved into pole position.

However, it was the penultimate stage which ultimately blew the race apart. A lumpy 209km circuit, the parcours featured three ascents of the 3km Sant’Elpidio a Mare, the final 300 metres of which averages 20% with a maximum of 27%. To make matters worse, the cut-up road surface started damp and got wetter, making traction increasingly difficult. How tough was it? Riders abandoned by the dozen during the stage – among them Andy Schleck – with many ‘paperboying’ to and fro across the road at walking pace, and in some cases having to climb off and push to get restarted.

The major action took place on the third and final tour. Froome lost contact near the top of the climb, with about 16km remaining. Nibali crowbarred the gap wide open with a committed attack on the greasy descent, bringing Sagan and Rodriguez with him. The trio worked effectively over the last 10km, Sagan cake-walked the sprint and Nibali secured additional bonuses for second.

Behind them, a four-man group containing Contador and Santambrogio came in 44 seconds down. Meanwhile Froome had to dig deep to latch on to a second set of chasers which ultimately closed to within six seconds of the Contador group.

Nibali moved into the overall lead by 34 seconds, having gained 54 including bonuses on the day. Froome dropped to second, while Rodriguez jumped from seventh to third.

Barring mechanical mishap Nibali, a more than competent time-trialist, was never likely to be troubled on the concluding 9.2km individual time trial. A solid 12th, 26 seconds down on stage winner and world champion Tony Martin (OPQS), confirmed his receipt of a second winner’s trident. Froome was a creditable sixth but was only able to recover 11 of his 34-second deficit. Lampre’s Adriano Malori had the privilege of being best of the rest behind Martin, six seconds down, while Andrey Amador (Movistar) edged out 2012 stage winner Fabian Cancellara for third.

Rodriguez struggled against the clock as he always does, slipping to fifth overall as Contador and Kwiatkowski moved up to third and fourth respectively. The latter pair also claimed the points and young rider classifications respectively, while Lampre’s Damiano Cunego was King of the Mountains.

Analysis & opinion

Tirreno-Adriatico justified its near monopoly of cycling’s biggest stars with a varied and challenging parcours which produced some equally varied and challenging racing. Sure, the sprint stages were livened up by the rain, but a marathon stage two and a lumpy stage three combined to set a useful dress rehearsal for Milan-San Remo. We had a proper summit finish (Prati di Tivo) and a puncheur’s stage (Chieti). And all that was merely the warm-up act for the concluding one-two punch of Sant’Elpidio a Mare and the concluding race against the clock. If any race could claim to be the perfect Grand Tour-in-a-week, this was it.

Image courtesy of BMC

Phinney was eliminated, but in heroic fashion (image courtesy of BMC)

Some complained the penultimate stage was too difficult. 52 riders abandoned. Fabian Cancellara said it was “nothing to do with bike racing”. And BMC’s Taylor Phinney had the most heroically futile story of all. Left alone when the other members of the gruppetto climbed off, he struggled on, finishing 37 minutes down, only to learn he had missed the time cut.

Multiple abandons on Tirreno’s penultimate stage are par for the course, but the sheer number this year and the sight of professional cyclists having to push prompted race supremo Michele Acquarone to promise to review matters. Having said that, it made for an incredible spectacle – and, in Phinney’s case, the kind of story from which cycling legends are made – and one which might not have seemed quite so sadistic had the roads stayed dry.

As for those who did finish, the star of the show was Peter Sagan. In winning two stages, the Slovak Fastvak showcased his ability to beat the best in the world both in a bunch sprint and on the toughest of Classics-style stages. A rider of his talent and versatility comes along only once or twice in a generation, and after a stellar 2012 he looks on track to do even better in 2013. A win in one of the Monuments is surely a matter of when rather than if, and his climbing and descending prowess make him the big favourite for Milan-San Remo on Sunday.

A brilliant all-round performance from Nibali (image courtesy of Astana)

A brilliant all-round performance from Nibali (image courtesy of Astana)

What of Vincenzo Nibali? His second Tirreno victory was even more impressive than his first, coming against a tougher field as he defeated Froome, Contador, Rodriguez and Evans. He climbed well, descended brilliantly and in so doing became the first back-to-back Tirreno winner since Tony Rominger in 1990 and the first multiple champion since Rolf Sorensen (1987, 1992). Bradley Wiggins, whose form remains uncertain, will have his hands full – and then some – at the Giro. Bet on Nibali to win that particular battle.

Chris Froome should not be too discouraged with his narrow defeat as he targets peak form in July. Similarly, Alberto Contador will not be unhappy to have been within shouting distance despite visibly lacking a little of his usual zip.

In the sprints there was a welcome return to the winner’s circle for Matt Goss – his first victory since last year’s Giro – ahead of Milan-San Remo. Mark Cavendish can point with some justification to mitigating circumstances for his lack of success – I’ll touch on that in tomorrow’s Talking Tactics column – whereas Andre Grieipel‘s uncompetitive showing was more of a concern given his usual strong early season form.

Elsewhere, second-year pro Michal Kwiatkowski continued to underline his immense promise. Second overall in his home Tour of Poland last year, his fourth place here came off the back of his runner-up spot (behind Tony Martin) at the Volta ao Algarve. An excellent time-trialist and an improving climber, the 22-year old has all the makings of a top stage racer.

General classification

1. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) 28:08:17

2. Chris Froome (Sky) +0:23

3. Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) +0:52

4. Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) +0:53

5. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) +0:54

6. Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard) +1:21

7. Mauro Santambrogio (Vini Fantini-Selle Italia) +2:03

8. Andrey Amador (Movistar) +2:42

9. Przemyslaw Niemiec (Lampre-Merida) +3:19

10. Wouter Poels (Vacansoleil-DCM) +3:35

Links: PreviewOfficial website

Tirreno-Adriatico preview

Tirreno-Adriatico logoThe 48th edition of Tirreno-Adriatico – the ‘Race of the Two Seas’ – kicks off tomorrow (Wednesday), serving as RCS Sport’s pre-Giro taster. It provides a thorough examination of a team’s all-round ability, including a pleasing mix of sprint, mountain and Classics-style rolling stages, as well as both individual and team time trials.

What kind of race is it?

As its name suggests, this week-long race follows a west-to-east route between Italy’s Tyrrhenian and Adriatic coasts, via the Apennine mountains.

The race has evolved over the past decade to become more of a mini-Grand Tour. Classics specialists Filippo Pozzato, Paolo Bettini and Oscar Freire won between 2003 and 2005, but with tougher mountains stages being added to the parcours the race now favours top GC riders.

Italian riders have won nearly half (23) of the 47 previous editions, but Belgian Roger de Vlaeminck holds the record of six wins, claimed consecutively between 1972 and 1977. The race has also seen 22 different champions in the last 22 years. The most recent winners are:

2008: Fabian Cancellara (CSC)

2009: Michele Scarponi (Diquigiovanni-Androni)

2010: Stefano Garzelli (Acqua & Sapone)

2011: Cadel Evans (BMC)

2012: Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale)

What happened last year?

Last year’s race featured a nail-biting climax. Going into the final stage, Chris Horner (RadioShack), Roman Kreuziger (Astana) and Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) were separated by just six seconds, but it was the Shark of Messina who triumphed thanks to a strong ride in the concluding time trial to push Horner down to second.

Nibali looks forward to toasting giant marshmallows after winning last year (image by Panache)

Nibali looks forward to toasting giant marshmallows after winning last year (image by Panache)

Orica-GreenEDGE had put Matt Goss into the first blue jersey with victory in the team time trial, while Sky cleaned up on the following sprint stages courtesy of Mark Cavendish and Edvald Boasson Hagen. Peter Sagan showed the strength which would later sweep him to multiple victories in the Tours of California, Switzerland and France to win on the punchy climb in Chieti on stage four ahead of team leader Nibali, who at that stage lay 34 seconds off the lead.

But Nibali dominated thereafter. He clawed back 22 seconds by winning the queen stage on Prati di Tivo. And a second place behind Joaquim Rodriquez the following day netted him six bonus seconds, putting him in position to deliver the killing blow in the time trial.

1. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) 29:38:08

2. Chris Horner (RadioShack-Nissan) +0:14

3. Roman Kreuziger (Astana) +0:26

4. Rinaldo Nocentini (Ag2r La Mondiale) +0:53

5. Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil-DCM) +1:00

6. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) +1:16

7. Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) +1:16

8. Wout Poels (Vacansoleil-DCM) +1:25

9. Christophe Riblon (Ag2r La Mondiale) +1:31

10. Cameron Meyer (GreenEDGE) +1:33

Our 2012 race reviews can be found here: Mid-race review, Review

This year’s race

You could be forgiven for thinking the 2013 parcours looks remarkably similar to last year’s – because it is. Book-ended again by a TTT starting in the holiday town of San Vincenzo and the short ITT in San Benedetto del Tronto, the race follows a near-identical route.

Stages two and three should both finish in sprints – the former once again a marathon slog (232km) to Indicatore – before the GC men take over with finishes at Prati di Tivo (14.5km, 7.1% average gradient) and Chieti (2.2km, 12.2%). The only real difference here is that this year these two stages are the other way around.

Stage 4 profile: the queen stage once again concludes on the summit of Prati di Tivo

Stage 4 profile: the queen stage once again concludes on the summit of Prati di Tivo

Similarly, an undulating stage six will encourage breakaway artists but may end with GC contenders looking to sneak bonus seconds ahead of the concluding race against the clock. Small time gaps are likely on every stage from four onwards – bonus seconds for the top three finishers can be crucial – with the overall likely to remain in doubt until the very end.

Who to watch

There is an embarrassment of riches of talent competing this week, so this preview cannot possibly cover every potential stage or overall winner. But here goes anyway.

Starting with the team time trial, Orica-GreenEDGE will hope to repeat last year’s success on what is essentially the same course. They can expect strong challenges from an always competitive Garmin-Sharp and two teams powered by the men who have won the last seven World Championships time trials between them: the Fabian Cancellara-led RadioShack-Leopard, and Omega Pharma-Quick Step, who can boast reigning double rainbow jersey Tony Martin, 2008 champion Bert Grabsch and the equally formidable Michal Kwiatkowski. BMC also look strong, with Taylor Phinney providing considerable engine power. The concluding individual time trial is likely to come down to a straight fight between Cancellara, Martin and Phinney.

Will we see Cavendish in blue early on? (Image courtesy of OPQS)

Will we see Cavendish in blue early on? (Image courtesy of OPQS)

OPQS will look to put Mark Cavendish in blue either in the TTT or on one of the two sprinters’ stages which follow it. But the Manx Missile will not have it all his own way by any means, as this race sees him face off against Andre Greipel and the Lotto Belisol train for the first time this season. Others who will look to sneak an upset include Matt Goss (GreenEDGE), John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano), Tyler Farrar (Garmin) and the Italian trio of Francesco Chicchi (Vini Fantini-Selle Italia) – fresh off a brace of wins at the Tour of LangkawiDaniele Bennati (Saxo-Tinkoff) and Roberto Ferrari (Lampre-Merida). And, of course, there’s the small matter of Peter Sagan (Cannondale), who has kicked off his season in exemplary form, although his best bet may be a repeat of last year’s win in Chieti. This is as strong a sprint field as we will see outside the Tour de France this year.

Froome will hope to swap the red of Oman for the blue of Tirreno-Adriatico (image courtesy of Sky)

Froome will hope to swap the red of Oman for the blue of Tirreno-Adriatico (image courtesy of Sky)

The ranks of the GC contenders aren’t exactly thin either. Defending champion Vincenzo Nibali brings the number 1 dossard to Astana, where he will be supported in the mountains by Janez Brajkovic, Paolo Tiralongo and Fredrik Kessiakoff. Former winner Cadel Evans (BMC) will be hoping to use the race as a springboard in the same way he did in his Tour de France-winning season of 2011, while Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) will be looking to fill one of the few gaps on his palmares. The Spaniard will rekindle his Tour of Oman showdown with Nibali, Evans, Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and the man who ultimately bested them all, Chris Froome (Sky). Throw in Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), 2009 winner Damiano Cunego (Lampre) and Sky’s Colombian pairing of Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran, and the climb to Prati di Tivo takes on a mouth-watering appeal. My tip? He won’t win the GC, but look for MTN-Qhubeka’s Sergio Pardilla, battle-hardened from two summit finishes at Langkawi (where he finished third overall), to chance his arm – and gain valuable sponsors’ air-time – in the break.

Finally, the penultimate stage holds potential for a Classics rider to make an attack stick. So look to Niki Terpstra (OPQS), Juan Antonio Flecha (Vacansoleil-DCM), Greg van Avermaet (BMC), Alexandr Kolobnev (Katusha) and Strade Bianche winner Moreno Moser (Cannondale) to slip away if the GC contenders are too busy man-marking one another.

Race details

March 6th: Stage 1 – San Vincenzo to Donoratico, 16.9km team time trial

March 7th: Stage 2 – San Vincenzo to Indicatore (Arezzo), 232km

March 8th: Stage 3 – Indicatore (Arezzo) to Narni Scalo, 190km

March 9th: Stage 4 – Narni to Prati di Tivo, 173km

March 10th: Stage 5 – Ortona to Chieti, 230km

March 11th: Stage 6 – Porto Sant’Elpidio to Porto Sant’Elpidio, 209km

March 12th: Stage 7 – San Benedetto del Tronto, 9.2km individual time trial

Tirreno-Adriatico starts on Wednesday 6th March and concludes on Tuesday 12th. Daily live coverage will be shown in the UK by Eurosport. For other options check cyclingfans.com.

Link: Official website