The Spring Classics season steps up a gear on Sunday with Milan-San Remo – the first Monument of 2013 and the longest day’s racing of the year at 298km.
La classica di Primavera marks the start of one of the most important months of the season and after Milan-San Remo, eyes will turn to northern Europe for the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, before the Ardennes trio of Amstel Gold Race, La Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEDGE) returns to Italy as defending champion as part of a 200-strong peloton having won the race from a three-up sprint last March. But Milan-San Remo is almost unique in the variety of riders who can cross the finish line arms aloft. Let’s take a look at the route and the contenders.
Milan-San Remo is a race of two halves and, at close to 300km, is comfortably over the UCI’s self-imposed maximum distance of 250km, although having been run since 1907, the race receives special dispensation from cycling’s world governing body.
The peloton will roll out of Milan with seven hours of racing ahead of them but the first 100km are flat and will normally see a large breakaway go away. From there the road begins to rise, though the first climb, Passo del Turchino, is a long and shallow ascent, rising to 532m in 26km. Once through the tunnel at the top of the climb, however, the road quickly descends to the coast, and the race route then hugs the Mediterranean all the way to San Remo, close to the Italy-France border.
Milan-San Remo is often called the sprinters’ classic and the list of recent winners includes some of the fastest men in the peloton, but if the race does come down to a bunch sprint, it is normally from a significantly reduced group thanks to a succession of climbs attacked at a fierce pace in the second half of the race which, combined with the overall distance, quickly numbs the legs of those who are without their best form.
The first of the closing climbs is Le Manie, added to the parcours as recently as 2008 in a bid to thwart the sprinters and last year the hopes of Mark Cavendish (then Team Sky, now Omega Pharma-QuickStep) ended on the ascent with 98km left to race. Three short climbs – Capo Mele, Capo Cervo and Capo Berta – then come with 52, 47 and 40km remaining, before the Cipressa, which has a nine per cent gradient to sting the legs after 275km of racing.
It’s then on to the closing climb of the Poggio, where fireworks are all but guaranteed. The climb rises for 3.7km and has short section of eight per cent but averages only four. Instead it’s the fierce pace, with nearly 290km in the legs, which ends the hopes of many. Vincenzo Nibali (then Liquigas, now Astana) attacked on the climb last year, only to be followed by eventual winner Gerrans (Orice-GreenEDGE) and Fabian Cancellara (Radioshack-Leopard-Trek), who held off the peloton on the twisting descent into San Remo. With only six kilometres from the top of the climb to the finish line, there’s little time for a team, depleted in numbers by this stage, to reel in any escapees. It’s also worth nothing that heavy rain and chilly conditions are forecast for Sunday, which will change the complexion of the race, particularly on the technical descent off the Poggio.
Twenty five teams will line up in Milan, with the 19 WorldTour squads joined by six wildcard picks: Androni Giocattoli, Bardiani Valvole-CSF Inox, Europcar, IAM Cycling, MTN-Qhubeka and Vini Fantini. You can see the full provisional start list on the Milan-San Remo website.
Peter Sagan (Cannondale Pro Cycling) is the name on everyone’s lips. The 23-year-old Liquigas rider has it all but, more specifically for Milan-San Remo, he comes into the race with superb form on the back of two stage wins at Tirreno-Adriatico, having outsprinted Cavendish and Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) on stage three, before taming the 27 per cent slopes of the Sant’Elpidio a Mare with Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Nibali to win stage six.
Sagan is odds-on favourite with the bookmakers but Milan-San Remo, or cycling for that matter, is rarely so simple, and the Slovak all-rounder will be carefully marked by the peloton, as Cavendish was in 2012.
Former champion Cavendish, who won the race on his debut in 2009, has played down his chances in 2013, a stark contrast to the Manx Missile’s failed bid to win Milan-San Remo in the world champion’s jersey last year, and Tom Boonen goes into the race as Omega Pharma-QuickStep’s team leader.
Cavendish remains second favourite with the bookies, however, and, with several cards to play (including Michał Kwiatkowski and Sylvain Chavanel) , Omega Pharma-QuickStep have strength in numbers, while Cavendish’s low-profile build-up may see the 27-year-old slip under the radar, while last year every opposing team set out to disrupt Sky’s plans to take the race to a sprint.
That saw Gerrans, Cancellara and Nibali contest a sprint ahead of a marauding peloton. However, the race does normally come down to a bunch sprint, albeit from a depleted peloton, with Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEDGE, 2011), Óscar Freire (Rabobank, 2010) and Cavendish (2009) all recent winners, while Cancellara was the last to triumph from a solo attack back in 2008.
Both Goss and Cancellara start, therefore, knowing what it takes to win, but the beauty of Milan-San Remo is the variety of riders in the mix for victory. Like Cancellara, Nibali is one of the best descenders in the business, as he showed at Tirreno-Adriatico to win the overall, and will only needed a small gap at the top of the Poggio to extend that advantage on the descent into San Remo, while former world champion Thor Hushovd (BMC Racing) is returning to his best, finishing ninth on that stage at Tirreno-Adriatico, although the current wearer of the rainbow jersey, Philippe Gilbert, goes into the race as BMC’s leader and as a rider with the explosive kick to attack on the Poggio or win from a sprint.
Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto-Belisol) is another name being touted as a potential winner on Sunday, while Edvald Boasson Hagen will lead Team Sky, who will also have Geraint Thomas as back-up. The Briton is fast emerging as a Classics rider and, having sacrificed his 2012 season to win Olympic team pursuit gold on the track, returns to the road as a key member of Sky’s Classics squad.
Sunday March 17
13.30-1630 – LIVE on British Eurosport HD
2100-2200 – highlights on British Eurosport HD