Sunday, March 23, 2014.
After some great racing in Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico, it’s now time for the first big Classic of the year; Milano - San Remo. After last year’s extreme edition, many are hoping for a more humane race this year. However, the weather forecast shows rain again so we should be in for a quite a show on Sunday afternoon.
The aspect of the route, which most people have been discussing, is actually what’s missing. The new climb close to the finish, Pompeiana, was supposed to make for a better race - according to the race organizers - but ended up being cancelled due to bad road conditions. Le Manie was already taken out of the race which means, we are back to a more classical Milano - San Remo route this year. This definitely favors the sprinters but it also means that the other teams will try to make the race that much harder on the remaining climbs.
This year’s Milano - San Remo is 294 km long. However, it won’t be until the riders reach Cipressa that most people will say that ‘now the real race begins’. Cipressa comes with 27.7 km to go and this is where the teams of Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan will have to put the sprinters under pressure. The climb itself isn’t very hard. 5.6 km with an average gradient of 4.1 %. Still, there are parts of 9 % towards the top and after 266.3 km on the bike - possibly in the rain - Cipressa will definitely make for the first big selection.
Coming down from Cipressa, the route is flat for about 9 km until the final struggle begins. Poggio is only 3.7 km long and its average gradient of 3.7 % doesn’t look like much. However, this late in the race, there won’t be many riders left in the peloton when the riders reach the top. This is the last chance for the non-sprinters to attack and try to win this race. There are 6.1 km to go from the top of Poggio and after a technical descent, the final 3 km are flat towards the finishing line in San Remo.
Many will say this is a race for the sprinters. It’s most likely their last chance to win Milano - San Remo for a while and they will be extra motivated. However, a rainy weather forecast and lots of strong and opportunistic riders on the start list, won’t make it easy for them.
My personal favorite is Peter Sagan. In 2012, he probably would have won the race but he stayed in the chase group as he had his teammate Vincenzo Nibali up front. With his descending skills, I don’t think Sagan would have had any problems closing the gap on his own. However, a week earlier he made a tactical mistake when he outsprinted Nibali on a stage in Tirreno-Adriatico. He wasn’t going to do that again to the team leader. Unfortunately, Nibali didn’t have anything left in the sprint up front, finishing third, while Sagan easily won the sprint behind the trio to take fourth place. Last year, Peter Sagan once again was amongst the strongest riders in the race. He put in a powerful attack on the final kilometer of Poggio and managed to get away with a handful of riders. The Slovakian seemed to have the race in his pocket, but unfortunately for Sagan, one of his breakaway companions was Gerald Ciolek, who outsprinted him on the line. Sagan probably still hasn’t forgiven himself for letting Ciolek beat him last year and he’s now eager to finally win Milano - San Remo. It’s his first big goal of the season but it still requires him breaking away in a select group over the top of Poggio. The peloton will be chasing hard to bring the race back together but bear in mind that the last two years in a row, the winning group only had a gap of 4-5 seconds on the top of Poggio.
One of the main reasons why the peloton didn’t catch the leaders is Fabian Cancellara. Both times, Cancellara was a machine on the descent and the flat part and nobody left in the peloton could match him. This year, Cancellara - once again - seems to have timed his condition perfectly and I would be surprised not to see the Swiss in the front group on top of Poggio.
In case this race ends in a bunch sprint, look to Mark Cavendish. He’s a former winner of Milano - San Remo and he always steps up for the big races. Cavendish wasn’t late to criticize the new course as he saw his chances of ever winning again disappear. However, without Le Manie and Pompeiana, Cavendish now has a last chance to win this race. In Tirreno-Adriatico, he proved to be in good shape as he stayed with the favorites when Cannondale hit the front on the climbs on stage 6. Ever since the rumors to take out Pompeiana started, Cavendish changed focus and started to prepare for Milano - San Remo. It hasn’t been an ideal preparation, however, since the news weren’t confirmed until less than a month ago. According to the original plan, Cavendish wasn’t set to peak right now. Therefore, it will be interesting to see if he’s strong enough to stay in the peloton on Poggio and still able to outsprint the rest if it comes down to a bunch sprint.
The last one of my personal favorites is John Degenkolb. He finished fifth behind Peter Sagan in 2012 and seems to be in great shape right now. He won all three sprint stages in Tour Med last month, and in Paris-Nice he finished second on the first two stages before winning stage 3. In both races he also won the points classification. Degenkolb is the sole leader of Giant-Shimano in this race and he has big ambitions for Milano - San Remo. The strong German is good on these kind of climbs and he’s very fast on the line. In his own words; “There is no other rider in the bunch more similar to me than Sagan”. This shows pretty well why Degenkolb is amongst the favorites for this race. I don’t think he can beat Sagan in a sprint but a lot of things can happen in Milano - San Remo, we saw this last year.
One of my personal outsiders for the win this year is Michael Matthews. The young Australian was no less than outstanding in Paris-Nice where he managed to stay with the GC favorites even on the steepest of climbs. It even came close to being bizarre when Matthews was the one chasing down the overall winner, Carlos Betancur as he attacked on a part of 20 %. Matthews didn’t manage to win a stage but he surely seems ready to take on Milano - San Remo, which is his first big target of the season. GreenEdge also have two former winners, Simon Gerrans (2012) & Matt Goss (2011), amongst the contenders for this race but in my opinion, Matthews is their best card to play. I would imagine Gerrans would try to attack on Poggio, hoping to get away in a select group like he did when he won in 2012. This would give GreenEdge the green light to let the other teams do the chasing, hoping for a sprint. However, this wouldn’t increase Michael Matthews’ chances of winning. He’s fast, very fast, on the line but not as fast as Mark Cavendish. The best scenario for Michael Matthews would be if he managed to get away on Poggio. In Paris-Nice he showed that his climbing legs are great right now and I don’t think he will have problems following the attacks. However, in the end, it all comes down to team tactics. In Paris-Nice, GreenEdge send a horrible team to support Matthews. He had nobody in the final and this probably cost him a couple of stage wins. This team is a lot stronger and if they play their cards right, GreenEdge will be fighting for the win again this year.
Update. Saturday: GreenEdge announced that Simon Gerrans won't take part in Milano - San Remo due to illness. Matt Goss is also out of the race and this means the Australian team is now backing Michael Matthews 100 %. Look out for 'Bling'!
Another very interesting outsider, should this end in a bunch sprint, is Sacha Modolo. After joining Lampre-Merida, Modolo has taken a step up the ladder and I honestly believe that he can beat Mark Cavendish head-to-head in sprint. In his first year as pro, Modolo finished fourth in Milano - San Remo. Proving he can stand the distance and still be competitive. The fast Italian has already won four races this season, beating Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish. Lampre-Merida sends a very strong team to the race including the former winner Filippo Pozzato, Damiano Cunego and Diego Ulissi. All three are strong candidates for an attack on Poggio. Actually, it would be a surprise not to see a Lampre rider in the attack over the top of Poggio. However, if not, they will definitely work hard to set up Sacha Modolo for the sprint. Modolo is still gunning for that big win which will put him amongst the best sprinters in the world. Personally, I have no doubts it will come this season. Don’t be surprised if it comes in Milano - San Remo this Sunday!
For other strong outsiders for an attack in the final, look to Philippe Gilbert, Roman Kreuziger, Luca Paolini, Stefano Pirazzi and, of course, Vincenzo Nibali. Should it come down to a sprint, focus on Arnaud Démare, Gerald Ciolek, Alexandre Kristoff and the unofficial world champion in finishing fourth, José Joaquin Rojas. Andre Greipel also seems to be in good shape. He has already won six races this year but he seemed to lack a little in the sprints in Tirreno-Adriatico. Greipel didn’t plan to do Milano - San Remo this year. He only changed his race schedule recently, after Pompeiana was taken out of the equation. The German is strong on the climbs but he doesn’t seem to be in peak condition for the bunch sprints right now.
If you are looking for a super-super joker, try Bauke Mollema. He would have been a strong contender had Pompeiana still been on the menu. Mollema packs a strong kick on the climbs and he’s actually very fast on the line as well. He can’t beat Peter Sagan in a sprint, but he showed in the Vuelta last year, that he’s not afraid of attacking on the final kilometer if he sees an opportunity. The Dutchman had a very poor Tirreno-Adriatico, knowing his strength, but he’s still facing Milano - San Remo full of confidence. It will be interesting to see what he can do on Poggio this year.