Which is the best race to ride yourself into form for Milan San Remo? Is it Paris-Nice? Or is it Tirreno-Adriatico?
While the respective race organisers ASO and RCS try to tempt the major G.C. riders to their races, the classics stars are also faced with a choice of how best to prepare for the first monument classic of the season.
Take a look at the results of Milan San Remo for the last few years and it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that Paris-Nice provides the better preparation. Last year’s winner Alexander Kristoff was present at the French race as were the winners of the 2012 and 2011 editions, Simon Gerrans and Matt Goss.
But dig a bit deeper into the results lists and a different picture emerges. The following bar chart shows the breakdown of which race was preferred by the podium finishers in Milan San Remo for the past 10 years:
Even though three of the last four winners have ridden Paris-Nice, this chart shows that Tirreno-Adriatico has been the overwhelming choice of the top contenders in Milan San Remo for the last decade. The ‘one’ in the ‘Neither’ column was Ben Swift who finished third last year having taken the unorthodox decision to ride the single day Nokere Koerse in Belgium while all of his closest rivals were in France or Italy.
Let’s dig deeper still and extend the data to include the top 10 finishers for the last 10 years:
The four riders, along with Swift, who didn’t ride either during this period were Juan Jose Lobato (2104), Ian Stannard (2013), Bernard Eisel (2013) and Robbie Hunter (2007). In recent years the lean towards Tirreno Adriatico has actually been even heavier as no top 10 in Milan San Remo has had more than two riders from Paris-Nice since 2008.
So it’s good news for all the pre-race favourites this weekend who chose Tirreno-Adriatico thereby foregoing a couple of extra days rest.
But it’s bad news for Mark Cavendish, who abandoned Tirreno-Adriatico before its conclusion this week. No rider has abandoned this race (or indeed Paris-Nice) and gone on to win Milan San Remo in the past 10 years. Just one rider has abandoned Tirreno-Adriatico and finished on the podium (Thor Hushovd 2009) and just one abandoned Paris-Nice before finishing on the podium a week later (Tom Boonen 2007).
The following is a list of the top 20 bookies favourites and in which race they chose to hone their form before this weekend (interestingly, more chose to ride Paris-Nice):
Paris-Nice: Alexander Kristoff, John Degenkolb, Michael Matthews, Nacer Bouhanni, Philippe Gilbert, Michal Kwiatkowski, Andre Greipel, Ben Swift, Arnaud Demare, Heinrich Haussler
Tirreno-Adriatico: Peter Sagan, Mark Cavendish, Fabian Cancellara, Greg van Avermaet, Zdenek Stybar, Filippo Pozzato, Vincenzo Nibali, Sam Bennett
Neither: Juan Jose Lobato, Alejandro Valverde
“I’m not looking forward to Milan San Remo, it’s not really a race for me anymore.”
So says Mark Cavendish, professional cyclist and professional bullshitter. The world’s best sprinter uttered these words in the aftermath of the Tour of Qatar which he won overall along with four stages and the points classification. And he was only there in the first place as a last minute replacement for the injured Tom Boonen.
Cavendish may want all of his rivals to believe that Milan San Remo is not a season goal of his, but the facts tell a different story – that he has never been in better shape at this stage of the season.
He won a race in January for the first time in his career (Stage One of the Tour de San Luis), he has won more races this year than he has won before Milan San Remo during any previous year (six, and counting) and he has just won four stages in a row for the first time ever. In addition, many riders and commentators have noted just how lean he is looking for this stage of the season.
Cavendish’s sprint on the final stage of the Tour of Qatar was the most impressive of his four wins. In the picture to the right, Mark Cavendish is circled in the bottom left. He has 35 riders in front of him, with no lead out train. Nineteen seconds after this still frame was taken, he won the stage.
Cavendish is not as adept to riding in the wind as four time Tour of Qatar winner Tom Boonen is. After the first stage of this year’s race, where the a breakaway made it to the finish in typically blustery conditions where the maximum wind speed was over 30km/h, it seemed that overall victory would be beyond the Manxman.
But after the team time trial on Stage Two, where his Omega-Pharma Quick-Step team finished third, the wind in Qatar died down considerably to a much more moderate 17 km/h. Once the wind was no longer such a factor on the race, the overall prize became a formality as Cavendish gobbled up stage wins for fun – with a leadout, without a leadout or sprinting on his own down the opposite side of the road from everyone else, as he did on the final stage.
Below is a graph showing the maximum and average wind speeds for each stage in this year’s Tour of Qatar (red lines). These are plotted against a much windier edition from 2009 (blue lines), where the bunch came home in dribs and drabs every day as Boonen exerted his dominance.
The moderate wind speeds during the second half of the race were reflected in the sizes of the pelotons making it to the finish together each day. For instance, 99 riders arrived at the finish together on Stage Three, on only four occasions in the 12 year history of the race has a bigger bunch contested the finish. These wind speeds made Cavendish’s overall win inevitable.
The wind speeds in Italy come March 17th will be more akin to the 2013 edition of the Tour of Qatar than those of 2009.
Cavendish has tried this trick before. In 2009, the year he won Milan San Remo when he beat Heinrich Haussler by a matter of millimetres, he made great efforts to convey in his interviews that he should not be considered a contender. The following is from a conversation printed in the March 2009 edition of Cycle Sport magazine:
“Milan San Remo for the next couple of years is going to be like Ghent-Wevelgem in 2008 [he finished 17th] or the Tour in 2007 [best stage placing was ninth, before abandoning on Stage Eight]. I’m going there for the experience. If I get a result, that’s great. If I don’t, I don’t.”
And again in an interview with cyclingnews.com in the days just before La Primavera:
“Sanremo is one of the most difficult races on the calendar, I am only 23 years old and don’t expect too much.
He admitted his tactic after he had won the race in another interview with Cycle Sport magazine (June 2009) saying that he even went so far as to fake being in trouble during races when the camera was on him:
“People think I can’t climb. Tom Boonen said I couldn’t get over a railway bridge. I wanted them to keep thinking that. I needed them to keep thinking that…In Eroica, I made sure I got dropped with a few team-mates around me, and I made sure it was on TV. I knew people would look at it and say ‘Well, he’s not going to win Milan-San Remo climbing like that.'”
The ploy worked so well that the following year, when he genuinely was on bad form, recovering from dental surgery, nobody believed him when he ruled himself out of contention – he finished the race in 89th.
But four years have passed since he pulled the wool over the peloton’s eyes, have they now forgotten? Four years ago the Irish economy was in the process of completely collapsing as Fianna Fail were busy passing laws which has brought this country to its knees. Today, an opinion poll has been released which declares that Fianna Fail is, once again, the most popular party in the country. A famous Bushism regarding fooling people comes to mind.
Last year, Cavendish did not perform well in Milan San Remo. He missed the split on the climb of La Manie with about 100km to go and eventually abandoned the race as a result. But last year, he was attempting to spread himself very thin in an Olympic year where he was expected to deliver.
This year, there is no Olympics. He may not even be selected for the World Road Race championships due to the hilly nature of the course. If we are to believe Cavendish that he has no plans for Milan San Remo, this leaves the only major goal of his season as the Tour de France, which is nearly five months away. Has he really no ambitions to win another edition of this monument classic? As an Irish mammy would say, ‘sure what else would he be doing’?
Oliver Zaugg won the Tour of Lombardy last year in what was most certainly a surprise victory considering he had never won a race before. The 30 year-old chose a monument classic to make his mark on the sport as he beat Daniel Martin into second place. Zaugg became the first post-war rider to take one of cycling’s five biggest one-day races as his maiden victory.
But there was another notable statistic which emerged as a result of Zaugg’s victory.
Since the last Italian victory at the Tour of Lombardy, by Damiano Cunego in 2008, the race has been won twice by Phillipe Gilbert of Belgium and most recently by Zaugg of Switzerland. Three barren years without an Italian victory in their own race is compounded by the fact that the last three winners of their other monument, Milan-San Remo, have been an Aussie, a Spaniard and a Brit.
This is the first time ever that no Italian has won either Milan-San Remo or the Tour of Lombardy three years in a row.
If we widen the net to also include the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and Liége-Bastogne-Liége, no Italian rider has won any monument classic in the last three years, since that Cunego win in 2008. Zaugg’s victory for Switzerland made it 15 barren monuments in a row for Italy. This has also never happened before.
The Italians have gone 14 monuments in a row without a win a number of times previously, but not for a long time. The last two times this abomination occured were between the years 1968 and 1973. Throughout these years, the classics were utterly dominated by Belgians. Eddy Merckx, Roger de Vlaeminck, Walter Godefroot and Eric Leman left very little opportunities for anyone else to sneak a win.
But as the 2012 Milan San Remo approaches, the Italians have reached a new low as they continue to flounder in the classics.
In the figure below, the red plot line indicates Italian riders in the pro peloton who have amassed at least one ranking point according to cqranking.com. The blue bar chart indicates the number of top Italian teams in the peloton.
The most interesting point indicated by the graph is that both the number of Italians with ranking points and the number of top Italian teams have both taken a sharp drop in the past three years. This would translate into the contention that there are simply less Italians out there now capable of a victory.
It’s perhaps also worth pointing out a similar graph I’ve used before. It’s related to Grand Tours so is less appropriate than the graph above, but it nevertheless shows a decline in the Italian influence on the pro peloton. The graph below shows the number of Italians who finished in the top 50 of the Tour de France since 1970:
This graph shows a serious decline in the number of Italians who were competitive for the G.C. at the Tour de France. From their peak of 13 in the mid-90s, they’re now down to just two riders in the top 50 in 2011, Damiano Cunego and Ivan Basso.
The last two Italian winners of Milan-San Remo are Filippo Pozzato and Alessandro Petacchi in 2006 and 2005 respectively. The latter finished third as recently as 2010 but Ale-Jet certainly has his best years behind him and the prospect of a 298km slog is becoming more and more daunting.
Pozzato is a strange case. He was truly feared throughout the spring classics in 2009 where he won the E3 Prijs, took fifth at the Tour of Flanders and was beaten only by a rampant Tom Boonen at Paris-Roubaix. Despite finishing fifth in Milan-San Remo last year, Pozzato has regressed dramtically since 2009, choosing to follow wheels and scupper the hopes of others rather than ride his own race and take risks. The only race he has won in the past 18 months is the modest GP Beghelli.
But as the old guard of Italian prospects have faltered over the past few years, there is a new wave of young sprinters who have been breaking rank over the same period.
Sacho Modolo finished fourth in Milan-San Remo in 2010 aged just 22. He seems to be approaching decent form having finished fifth behind Cavendish in the bunch sprint at Tirreno-Adriatico yesterday. Manuel Belletti is a similar kind of rider albeit a couple of years older and coincidentally finished fifth in today’s bunch sprint at Tirreno-Adriatico.
But on a level above Modolo and Belletti are Elia Viviani and Andrea Guardini. These two Italian powerhouses are perhaps the country’s best chance of breaking their terrible losing streak at the monument classics. Viviani has just turned 23 and has won five times already this year while Guardini is just 22 and has six victories to his name (even if they were all at the Tour de Langkawi).
But regardless of the expectations that will be heaped on their shoulders, both will face the extremely difficult task of defeating the favourites for the race, all of whom graduated from the school of HTC-Columbia – Andre Greipel, Matt Goss and Mark Cavendish.
The Italians regularly win the Giro d’Italia and prior to the past three years, actually enjoyed many wins in the monument classics too thanks to the likes of Cunego, Paolo Bettini, Michele Bartoli and Andre Tafi.
So if we’re feeling sorry for the Italians, spare a thought for the French, who quite apart from their Grand Tour woes (they haven’t won one since Laurent Jalabert won the Vuelta in 1995), haven’t won a monument classic since Frederic Guesdon took a surprise win in Paris-Roubaix…12 years ago.
Matt Goss’s victory in Milan San Remo came after one of the most exciting races in recent years. It also threw up many an interesting fact to keep us sad anoraks occupied and amused.
It was the first victory in Milan San Remo by an Australian, and indeed it was also the first win in this race by any rider from outside of Europe. Goss isn’t the first Australian winner of a monument classic though, as that honour befell Stuart O’ Grady in 2007 when he won Paris-Roubaix.
Thor Hushovd was a major favourite before the race and was aiming to win La Primavera as the reigning World Champion. Even though Oscar Freire has won Milan San Remo and the World Road Race Championship on three occasions each, he never tasted victory in San Remo while wearing the Rainbow Jersey. As it happened, both Freire and Hushovd ended up in the wrong half of the split peloton as both riders succumbed to crashes. The last rider to achieve this feat was Giuseppe Saronni way back in 1983. Indeed, having won the Worlds in Goodwood in 1982, he accomplished the ultimate Italian hat-trick of winning the Tour of Lombardy, Milan San Remo and the Giro d’Italia all as World Champion.
Sticking with the road race champion theme, Giovanni Visconti, the current Italian national champion had a chance to accomplish a feat which hasn’t been done since long before Saronni’s time. The last rider to win Milan San Remo as the Italian champion was Adolfo Leoni in 1942. But unfortunately for Visconti he also ended up in the massive chase group which got left behind with about 80km to go.
Goss’s win in Milan San Remo has been preceded in the last few years by victories for Freire, Mark Cavendish, Fabian Cancellara and Freire again. Thus, it has been five years since an Italian has won the sprinters’ classic; that was Filippo Pozzato in 2006. Italians are fond of winning their own races (five years is the longest stretch the Giro has ever gone without a home winner), but this current run of five years is not even nearly the most in a row without an Italian Milan San Remo winner. Since Loretto Petrucci’s win in 1953, the Italians had to endure victories by foreigners from Belgium, France, Germany, Great Britain, Spain and The Netherlands before Michele Dancelli ended the 16-year barren spell in 1970. Even Raymond Poulidor tasted victory in the meantime – he didn’t always finish second!
Filippo Pozzato was only notable in this year’s edition because he continued doing what he has done in the last number of classics. He didn’t attack and instead marked and chased down one of the major favourites for victory. Tom Boonen has been on the wrong end of the stick in the past, but this time Pozzato set his sights on nullifying Phillipe Gilbert’s chances of victory by successfully chasing him down inside the final two kilometres. Pozzato’s previous classic victory remains the 2006 edition of Milan San Remo. His race tactics continue to suggest that it will be his last. As for Gilbert, despite being chased down by Pozzato, he still managed third place which continues his remarkable run in the classics. He has now finished in the top 10 of the last eight monument classics he has ridden.
Pozzato’s appearance in the top five did lead to a rather interesting stat. Matt Goss finished on the podium ahead of Cancellara and Gilbert, both former winners of monument classic. If we include Goss as a monument winner (which is cheating a little bit but we’ll carry on), that’s a podium filled with monument winners. This has actually happened in Milan San Remo before on six occasions, including last year with Freire, Boonen and Petacchi finishing in that order. The other years where this has occurred are 1974, 1959, 1958, 1930 and 1920.
But with Alessandro Ballan and Filippo Pozzato finishing in fourth and fifth this year, the top five places were filled with monument winners. This has never happened before in Milan San Remo and only goes to accentuate what Matt Goss was up against in winning this race.
And I did all that without mentioning Sean Kelly’s win in 1992…
The classics season is in full swing and will continue this weekend with the 94th edition of the Tour of Flanders. The winner of the last two editions Stijn Devolder will be in with a chance of winning for the third year in a row, something which has only once before been achieved, by Italian Fiorenzo Magni almost 60 years ago. However Devolder’s Quick Step team mate Tom Boonen will also be looking to win his third edition of the race having won before in 2005 and 2006. Boonen is undoubtedly the leader of the Quick Step team at the classics, but ironically, it is Boonen’s status as leader that has allowed Devolder to win the Tour of Flanders for the last two years. In virtually identical races, 2008 and 2009 saw Devolder attack from about 20km out and solo home while other pre-race favourites were busy marking Boonen. Had Devolder been riding for any other team, Boonen’s Quick Step team mates would have chased down any breaks in an attempt to set Boonen up for his own race winning attack, therefore denying Devolder a victory.
However a third consecutive victory for Devolder is looking highly unlikely having shown appalling form throughout the season so far. Even his directeur sportif has been bemoaning his poor results this year. To illustrate, he has had no top 30 finishes at all this year and his best result in a cobbled race has been 40th in the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen last weekend. To put this into perspective, in the run up to the Tour of Flanders in 2009 he had racked up three top 10 places in the E3 Prijs, Dwars Door Vlaanderen and the time trial stage of the Three Days of De Panne. Further back in 2008, he had placed in the top 10 in two cobbled races and had also won the overall at the Volta ao Algarve. Devolder has said that he is still focused on completing his hat-trick of titles but it’s safe to say his form is dreadfully short of where it has been for the past two years.
But that’s not to say that Boonen won’t again be denied this year by a team mate. Sylvain Chavanel is also in a position to take advantage of Boonen’s status as race favourite and would be more than capable of ‘doing a Devolder’ and soloing home for a win. Chavanel has been solid if unspectacular so far this season. He has taken 20th place (ish) at Het Niuwsblad, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Milan San Remo, Gent-Wevelgem and most stages of Paris-Nice. If a Quick Step rider other than Boonen is going to win this hilly cobbled classic the most likely rider will be Chavanel and not Devolder. But having not won the Tour of Flanders since 2006, Boonen will be hungry to reclaim the prize which he has been denied the last few years. If he does win this coming Sunday, he will become only the second man after Johan Museeuw to have won three editions each of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
Another man who recently joined the club of riders to have won three editions of a monument classic is Oscar Freire. Having had a barren year in 2009 with only 2 victories to his name, his career seemed to be fizzling out. But having kept himself protected and largely anonymous until the peloton got over the Poggio, he stormed to the front on the finishing straight to take Milan San Remo for the third time in his career. Although Freire would not be considered a favourite for the Tour of Flanders he has a string of top 30 finishes to his name. But he he has stated that this year he won’t be riding the Ronde and that he wants to concentrate all his efforts on winning the Amstel Gold Race where he has previously finished 5th and clearly would like to add to his palamarés. A race which the Spaniard has won previously is the World Road Race Championship, on three occasions. To look over the previous winners of the six major one day races (5 Monuments + Worlds), Freire has joined Girardengo, Binda, Coppi, De Vlaeminck, Merckx and Museeuw as being the only men to be triple winners of two of those races.
In a World Championship the road race takes place on a different course every year. The course has a huge role to play in who are the favourites and what may constitute a race winning move on the day. Conversely, the monument classics are run on (almost) identical courses every year. This leads to the same riders being marked at the same crucial points throughout the race year after year. Thus, every year that a rider proves he can win one of these races, trying to repeat that victory the following year becomes increasingly more difficult as riders are then uber-aware of what a previous winner is capable of. This is what makes Devolder’s Tour of Flanders victory last year so remarkable. He had proven in 2008 that he had what it took to attack before the finish and solo home, and yet last year he was allowed follow the exact same route to victory.
Milan San Remo invariably boils down to who is the strongest sprinter on the day who can make it over the Poggio with the front group. Paris-Roubaix is often won by the strongest rider who has a bit of luck on his side. Last year Tom Boonen won solo without even having to formulate a race winning attack. The Belgian champion just powered home while everyone around him fell over. But the Tour of Flanders is a different monster with much more subtle tactics at play. A race winning break can be formed at a plethora of locations. There are six climbs in the last 50km of the race, each one providing ample opportunity to make a race winning move.
Another rider who wants to win the Tour of Flanders is Fabian Cancellara. Continuing the theme of triple victories, the Swiss power demon will be aiming to win his third different monument classic having previously won Paris-Roubaix in 2006 and Milan San Remo in 2008. He has stated that Flanders is a major career goal for him. Looking back on his career so far, having won three World Time Trial titles, worn the yellow jersey in three separate Tours de France, won the Olympic Time Trial title, won 7 Grand Tour stages, won his home stage race the Tour de Suisse and having won the aforementioned monument classics, it seems that what Spartacus wants Spartacus gets. However one race missing from his palmarés thus far is the World Road Race title. At Mendrisio last year he was clearly the strongest rider in the race but he suffered from over confidence and was defeated on the day by the more astute racing of Cadel Evans. Cancellara will have to be more tactically in tune if he is to be successful at the Ronde next Sunday. But, like Boonen, Cancellara also has a team mate who can steel away while his leader is being marked in the bunch by other race favourites. Matti Breschel has already won a cobbled semi-classic this year at the Dwars Door Vlaanderen and came 6th at the Tour of Flanders last year after Cancellara’s chances on the day were scuppered by a broken chain. The Danish champion may benefit from Cancellara’s intentions to go for victory this year.
Other contenders who should also be vying for victory on Sunday are Phillipe Gilbert, Filippo Pozzato, Juan Antonio Flecha, Alessandro Ballan, Thor Hushovd and Nick Nuyens. But each of these favourites also has a team mate who is also capable of challenging for victory, respectively they are, Leif Hoste (and Greg van Avermaet), Sergei Ivanov, Edvald Boasson Hagen, George Hincapie (and Marcus Burghardt), Roger Hammond and Lars Boom. Of all of these race contenders, each of them, except the youngsters Boom and Boassan Hagen and surprisingly the pair from Cervélo, have finished in the top 10 at the Tour of Flanders. Unfortunately last year’s runner up Heinrich Haussler will not be taking part due to a knee injury. Boonen once more is the out and out favourite, he has the hunger and the experience required to win. But with the experience of winning comes the burden of scrutiny, which may well afford plenty of opportunities for lesser riders to make a break for victory in this fascinating cobbled classic.
Unfortunately there are no Irish riders taking part in the Tour of Flanders this year. The cobbles aren’t a speciality of Deignan, Martin or Roche and the An Post-Seán Kelly team won’t be on the start line. But riders like Ronan McLaughlin, Mark Cassidy and Connor McConvey have all been gaining experience with the An Post-Seán Kelly team in cobbled races such as the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen and the Dwars Door Vlaanderen. So perhaps it won’t be too long before Ireland has a contender for the cobbled races.
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!