Finally, Milan San Remo…

The first monument classic of the season takes place this Saturday. Milan San Remo, at almost 300 kilometres is the longest race on the calendar. Last year Mark Cavendish had most people fooled before the race saying “San Remo is one of the most difficult races on the calendar, I am only 23 years old and don’t expect too much“. He had in fact been preparing specifically for La Primavera with the help of his sprinting mentor Erik Zabel, a four time winner of the race. Cavendish delighted in the comments of riders like Boonen who beforehand had scoffed at his chances of successfully negotiating the Cipressa and the Poggio saying that the Manxman “couldn’t get over a railway bridge“. Cavendish certainly had the last laugh when he beat Heinrich Haussler to the line by the narrowest of margins to become Britain’s second winnner of the race after Tom Simpson in 1964.

This year however things are different. Cavendish has had well publicised problems with his teeth which meant he has only a fraction of the miles in his legs which he had at this stage last year. He also tellingly, hasn’t won a race yet in 2010. Of the past ten editions of Milan San Remo, the only winner who came into the race with no victories under his belt was Filippo Pozzato in 2006. Usually, riders who win the Italian monument have won four or five races before setting out in Milan. Even Fabien Cancellara, the most non-sprinter to have won in recent years had four race wins early in 2008. Alessandro Petacchi, the Italian sprinter who will be hoping to have a say on Saturday, won a remarkable 11 races before his victory in 2005. Cavendish just doesn’t have the form. Unless he has taken the sandbagging to a whole other level, as I’ve mentioned before, I think HTC-Columbia would be better served by putting the weight of the team behind André Greipel.

A rider who is on form however is the Team Sky sensation Edvald Boassan-Hagen. He has won four races already this season including the final stage of Tirreno-Adriatico. Ominously, the final stage of the race of the two seas was also won by Cavendish, Petacchi and Cipollini on the way to their respective victories at Milan San Remo. The Norwegian is most people’s favourite to win on Saturday even though many can’t agree on whether he is better suited as a sprinter, a time-triallist or if he’ll become an unstoppable all-rounder in the Eddy Merckx mould. Well he has certainly shown his ability to beat the best in a bunch sprint. But according to Mark Cavendish, “Milan San Remo is never a bunch sprint, it is 20 guys“, which is somewhat true. Of the past ten editions of the race there has only once been a bunch at the end of more than 50 riders. The size of the average group which crosses the finish line first has been 32 riders. Cavendish says this is because it is all about resilience. A rider needs to have the courage and durability to make it over La Manie, the Cipressa and the Poggio and afetr 300 kilometres still have enough fight left in your legs for a burst at the line. To me, this sounds like a description of Edvald Boassan-Hagen and with one of Cavendish’s chief lieutenants from last year Michael Barry by his side he has as good a chance as any. Team Sky will be riding in their first monument classic and will be buoyed by the fact that in their first ever one day race, they won, through Juan Antonio Flecha at Het Niuewsblad.

In any edition of Milan San Remo there are always riders who think themselves capable of escaping on the climb of the Poggio and making it all the way down the other side to the finish line before the chasing pack swallows them whole. It has been attempted in recent years by riders like Davide Rebellin, Ricardo Riccó and Phillipe Gilbert. However the only successful breakaway in the last 15 years that went before the top of the Poggio to make it to the finish was in 2003 when Paolo Bettini took the victory. This year the route is slightly different to last, as more than a kilometre has been cut from the run in to the finish. In this month’s Pro Cycling magazine, Cervélo riders Thor Hushovd and Heinrich Haussler discuss how this new truncated finish could be beneficial for riders willing to attack on the Poggio. If attacks go, the bunch will have to close them down and if and when they do, there won’t be as much time to recover and regroup for the sprint as was afforded Mark Cavendish last year. This will be music to the ears of aggressive riders like Philippe Gilbert, Damiano Cunego or Alessandro Ballan. Gilbert will be aiming to become the first man since Seán Kelly in 1992 to win Milan San Remo coming off the back of having won the Tour of Lombardy the previous year.

Although Heinrich Haussler was talking up his chances in that interview he has since announced he will not be starting the race due to a knee injury sustained at the Volta ao Algarve. The sole leadership of the team will now be shouldered by Thor Hushovd who came 3rd last year. The Norwegian comes in to the race having won no races this year and seems slightly off form compared to last year when he had already won Het Nieuwsblad and a stage of the Tour of California.

As a powerful sprinter, Milan San Remo makes for a large empty space on the palmarés of Tom Boonen which already includes multiple Paris-Roubaixs and Tours of Flanders along with a Green Jersey and a Rainbow jersey. Unlike last year, Boonen has stated that he still rates Cavendish as a threat for the race on Saturday. The Belgian should come into the race with plenty of confidence for he has won a stage of each stage race he’s raced so far this year in Qatar, Oman and this week at Tirreno-Adriatico. He’s recently said that he would like to try his hand at becoming one of the world’s top time trialists but surely Milan San Remo ranks highly on his to-do list. Boonen himself has tipped the Liguigas rider Daniele Bennati for the win, but this is likely to be more smack talk and sandbaggery to try shift the focus away from himself. Boonen has finished on the podium before taking 3rd in 2007. He made the final selection last year but blamed the heat and the fact that he hadn’t had a drink for the final 50km for his inability to compete in the sprint. No doubt he won’t be making the same mistake again this year and must be considered one of the favourites.

As usual it will be an intriguing race and with plenty of sprinters coming into the race in top form, deciding who’ll win is very difficult. At the moment the shortest odds at the bookies are for André Greipel closely followed by Edvald Boasson-Hagen. Personally, I’ll be watching out for the Belgain duo of Boonen and Gilbert. But enough procrastinating, I need to move on to more serious business….the pub! Happy St. Patrick’s day everybody!

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