Sunday, March 22, 2015.
It’s time for the first Monument of the season. Milano - San Remo is one of the most unpredictable races on the calendar. Both attackers and sprinters will claim they have a good chance to win. Everything can happen Sunday afternoon.
The course for Milano - San Remo never differs much from the previous years. The organizers already took out Le Manie last year and without adding the infamous Pompeiana ascent, there isn’t much climbing left to do in this year’s edition.
From the start in Milano, the first 120 km are flat. In Ovada, the road gently starts to kick up. The gradients are very low and no riders should really be in trouble as the peloton crests Passo del Turchino, which top comes with still 150 km to go. The following 100 km are more or less flat but this ends when the riders take on Capo Mele, Capo Cervo and Capo Berta within the next 15 km. This is when the team leaders start to move up in the peloton. From the top of Capo Berta, there are just about 10 km until the peloton starts on the Cipressa climb. The 5.5 km towards the top have an average gradient of 4.1 % with parts of 9 % halfway through the top. This is most likely where we will see the first serious attacks in the peloton.
Coming down from Cipressa, the route is flat for about 9 km until the final struggle of the day begins. Poggio is only 3.7 km long and while its average gradient of less than 4 % may not sound so hard, it will have a huge impact on the final outcome. The riders start on the climb after 283 km on the bike. It’s the last chance to attack for those riders who are not fast on the line, meaning the pace will be furious. The maximum gradient of 8 % comes just before the top, making it an ideal place to attack for strong riders who can’t win in a bunch sprint. The descent is very technical. A good descender should be able to hold off the chase group before hitting the flat part. Remember, you can mouse-over the final climbs on the profile at the top to see detailed information.
The ‘new’ old finish on Via Roma is located just 2 km after the descent from the Poggio. On paper, it favors the opportunistic riders. However, the last time it was used, in 2007, the peloton still managed to catch the front group (Philippe Gilbert and Riccardo Riccò) just before the last kilometer-banner to make sure it all ended in a sprint - won by Oscar Freire.
The last two years, Milano - San Remo was raced in horrible weather conditions. Snow and rain have followed the riders and, unfortunately, it seems like the tradition will continue this year. As of Thursday, the weather forecast shows rain. The temperatures will not be as bad as in 2013 but 300 km in the rain can, psychologically, ruin the race for many riders even before the start is given Sunday morning.
As mentioned earlier, this is one of the most unpredictable races of the season. No matter the course, the question “will the breakaway make it”, always dominates the discussions about Milano - San Remo. On one hand, you can argue that the lack of climbs favors the sprinters. On other hand, however, the attackers now have a better chance of making it with only 2 km to go after the technical descent from Poggio. It all depends on how hard the race has been when the peloton starts on the final climbs and if there is a headwind on the slopes towards the top of Poggio. In case this year’s race ends in a sprint, the two top favorites must be Mark Cavendish and Alexander Kristoff. Both have won the race in the past. Cavendish in 2009 and Kristoff last year.
Winning on the traditional finish on Via Roma has always been a dream for Mark Cavendish. All his focus in this first part of the season has been on Milano - San Remo. He has already won five bunch sprints this year, beating most of his main rivals for today. However, a stomach virus just before Tirreno-Adriatico did set him back a little. He never got to sprint for the win in the Italian stage race and decided to withdraw on the penultimate day, in order to not get sick in the rain. It’s hard to say if Mark Cavendish is on the level he needs to be to win this race. What is certain though, is that he has a very strong team to support him. Zdenek Stybar and Michal Kwiatkowski are both among the top outsiders to win this race. If Cavendish feels good as the peloton starts on Poggio, both should probably stay with him. However, in case the Manxman is not on top of his game, Kwiatkowski will probably try an attack over the top. The Pole is an excellent descender and fast on the line too. He has a huge motor and he will be very difficult to catch, should he get a gap on the descent.
While Etixx has a few cards to play, Katusha should put all their focus on Alexander Kristoff. The big Norwegian has had a great start to the season, winning bunch sprints in all the three stage races he has taken part in. Katusha didn’t give him much support in Paris-Nice, but Kristoff still managed to win stage 1. It must have given him a huge confidence boost, knowing he’s capable of winning even with very little help. Imagine what he can do with a full team backing him. Few riders are as strong as Kristoff after over 250 km on the bike. This is what makes him such a hot favorite for the Classics. While many of the sprinters will lose their edge in these long races, Kristoff’s raw power gives him a huge advantage. Coming from Norway, the bad weather won’t hold him back either. It will be very tough to beat Alexander Kristoff in a sprint this Sunday afternoon.
In case a breakaway does make it all the way, my prime pick would be Philippe Gilbert. The Belgian knows he has to attack on Poggio in order to win. He has tried many times before but never managed to pull it off. Milano - San Remo is a big target for Gilbert. According to the BMC captain himself, this is the race he most wants to win this year. Gilbert has a strong enough punch to make a selection on Poggio. He’s good on the descent and very fast on the line in a small group. To me, it will be a huge surprise not to see him attack.
Fabian Cancellara is another very hot favorite for a late attack. The Swiss arrives with big morale after winning the final time trial in Tirreno-Adriatico. On his best days, Cancellara won’t have problems following the attacks on Poggio. He’s one of the best descenders in the peloton and, after a long race, he’s extremely fast on the line. Don’t forget that he finished 2nd in the bunch sprint behind Kristoff last year. Cancellara is probably also one of the few riders able to attack on the last two flat kilometers and keep the peloton behind him.
According to the bookmakers, Peter Sagan is the top favorite for the win. I don’t agree. It’s true that Sagan has all the right qualities to win though. He’s strong on these type of climbs, he’s good on the descent and very fast on the line. However, he’s not as fast as Kristoff, Cavendish and some of the other sprinters. Therefore, he has to attack. The question then is; who wants to get away in a group with Peter Sagan? Imagine Sagan, Cancellara, Gilbert and a few others get a gap on Poggio. Do the other riders really want to work, knowing Sagan’s fast finish? Just a slight moment of hesitation can ruin the breakaway’s chances of keeping the peloton at bay.
Except for Michal Kwiatkowski, whom I already mentioned, my two personal outsiders for this year’s Milano - San Remo are Juanjo Lobato and Michael Matthews.
Juanjo Lobato has had his eyes on this race for a very long time. It’s his biggest goal of the season and he has proven to be in outstanding shape this year. He’s 2.5 kg lighter than last year but he hasn’t lost any speed in the sprints. He almost humiliated his rivals in Tour Down Under and Ruta del Sol, winning the slightly uphill sprints very easily. However, it’s not only when the road kicks up, the Spaniard is good. He finished 2nd behind Marcel Kittel in the opening criterium in Australia and placed 5th and 3rd in the two flat sprints in Dubai Tour. Unlike most the riders here, Lobato didn’t take part in neither Paris-Nice nor Tirreno-Adriatico. Instead of suffering in the rain, he has been simulating race speed by training long hours behind a moto home in Spain in great weather conditions. Recently he pulled of a 285 km training ride, behind a moto, with an average speed of 43.8 km/h. There is no doubt that Juanjo Lobato is ready for this race. He finished 4th last year. This time, he’s ready to make it onto the podium.
I had Michael Matthews as one of my outsiders for Milano - San Remo last year as well. However, the young Australian didn’t have a good day and never finished the race. Now he’s ready to take revenge. He has only raced in Paris-Nice this season but there, he proved to be in extremely good shape. He won stage 3 and got to wear almost all the different leader’s jerseys at some point during the race. A few extra climbs to tire out the sprinters would have upped Matthews’ chances in this race. On the contrary to what most people think, he’s not sprinter. He’s indeed very fast, but his forte is on the undulating courses. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if he - like Gerald Ciolek did in 2013 - joined a strong attack on Poggio. He clearly has legs to do so. GreenEdge is fully committed to help Michael Matthews reach the podium and when he has a full team working for him, Bling almost always delivers. It would be a big mistake to underestimate him today.
For other strong riders, who can both follow attacks on Poggio and fight for the win in a bunch sprint, look to former winner Gerald Ciolek, in-shape Greg Van Avermaet and John Degenkolb who was unlucky to puncture at a crucial moment last year. In case a big peloton arrives together for the sprint, don’t count out guys like Giacomo Nizzolo, Andre Greipel, Nacer Bouhanni and last year’s number three Ben Swift. For breakaway candidates, keep an eye on Edvald Boasson Hagen, Ian Stannard, Vincenzo Nibali, Alejandro Valverde and Sylvain Chavanel. Lampre-Merida has no less than four solid candidates on the start line. Filippo Pozzato and Rui Costa for the breakaways and t Niccolo Bonifazio and Davide Cimolai for the sprint. Especially, Cimolai looked very strong in Paris-Nice last week.
For a super joker, look to Moreno Moser. The young Italian didn’t have a good season last year. Now, Michele Bartoli is training him and that, together with a change of mentality, seems to have brought Moser back on track again. He did very well in Australia in January and finished off Tirreno-Adriatico on a good note earlier this week. Milano - San Remo is a big goal for Moser. He knows he can’t win in a bunch sprint and, therefore, he has to ride aggressively. He dreams of a solo win on Via Roma. It will be extremely difficult to pull off such a thing but on his best days, Moreno Moser has proven to be capable of just that.