Milan-San Remo 2014: preview
Strong field set for season's first Monument race
The WorldTour peloton will tackle the first - and longest - Monument of the year on Sunday (March 23) as Milan-San Remo returns for its 105th edition.
The 2014 La Primavera was set to change from a ‘Sprinter’s Classic’ to one better suiting the climbers and puncheurs of the peloton, but the forced removal of a planned new climb – the Pompeiana – means the fast men are right back in contention.
In the absence of the Pompeiana, which was ruled unsafe, the race instead returns to a route last used for the 2007 edition.
Oscar Freire was victorious then and the likes of Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) and John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) will be bidding for glory this time out.
But with Gerald Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka) seeking to repeat his victory in last season’s snow-hit race, and Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) and Peter Sagan (Cannondale) desperate to make amends for their defeat in 2013, the race remains wide open.
We'll analyse the route and some of the leading riders in contention for victory over the following pages - and to find out where you can watch this year’s race, check out the television schedule.
[part title="The course"]
Though the Pompeiana has been removed from the original route proposed for this year’s race, anyone with serious ambitions to win in San Remo will still have to tackle 294km of racing, including the climbs of the Cipressa and Poggio.
Peaking with just six kilometres remaining, the Poggio – first introduced in 1960 – has become race-defining, and with the likes of Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellara looking to foil the out-and-out sprinters this year it could well be again.
Last year’s epic race saw the race-defining split form on the Cipressa, however, with Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) the first to attack. By the time of the descent of the Poggio it was a leading group of six up the road, from which Gerald Ciolek took the stage honours.
But they are not the only climbs to feature en-route to San Remo, with the long, steady ascent of the Passo del Turchino midway through the race.
The weather, of course, had more bearing on last year’s race than the route profile but forecasts appear much more favourable this year.
Rain is expected throughout the day, but there will be more than a few riders – along with race organisers – relieved to see no snow on the cards this time out.
[part title="The contenders – Fabian Cancellara"]
Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) has made a quiet start to his 2014 campaign, but the Swiss ace showed signs he was approaching top form at Tirreno-Adriatico with a strong ride in the individual time trial.
Milan-San Remo winner in 2008, Spartacus has stood on the podium in the last three editions and will be desperate to kick off his Classics season in winning style.
His aggressive style and descending prowess means he is capable of blowing the race open on the Cipressa or the Poggio and, as he lacks the sprint of the likes of Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quickstep), it's likely to be his best bet.
Part of the late race-winning attack last time out, Cancellara ultimately had to settle for third place behind Gerald Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka) and Peter Sagan (Cannondale) but followed it with three cobbled Classics wins at E3 Harelbeke, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
If the race is not won by one of the leading sprinters, Cancellara will be among the favourites and a podium place is not out of the question even if he does find himself among the fast men in San Remo.
[part title="Mark Cavendish"]
The withdrawal of team-mate Tom Boonen, after the Belgian’s wife sadly suffered a miscarriage, means Mark Cavendish is likely to assume full control of Omega Pharma-Quickstep on Sunday.
fter a slow start to the season, Cavendish burst into life on stage six of Tirreno-Adriatico as the Belgian super team’s sprint train obliterated their rivals in the final kilometres.
Cavendish’s thoughts immediately turned to La Primavera, with confidence flowing after the team were able to cope with Cannondale’s furious pace in the bunch before clicking into gear to deliver a technically perfect lead-out.
While only his second victory of the season, it was nevertheless a comprehensive victory and a statement of intent by the Manx Missile and his team-mates. Cavendish proved in 2009 that he can handle the lumpy finale to the race and if the 2014 edition ends in a bunch sprint he will be favourite to add a second title to his palmares.
[part title="The contenders – Andre Greipel"]
Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) has been the form rider from the leading sprinters at the start of the season, with the German and his Lotto-Belisol blazing a trail through the first three months of 2014.
Greipel has registered six stage wins to date, including a spell in the yellow jersey during the Tour of Oman, but it is not just in the sprints that the 31-year-old has excelled. In Oman, the sprinters were not expected to feature at the end of an undulating stage three, but not only did the Gorilla stay right in contention over the punchy finale, he went on to win in style.
It was a similar story at the Tour Down Under, where he performed superbly to lead the way over all but the toughest climbs while Jurgen Roelandts proved himself as one of the very best lead-out men in the business.
However, question marks remain as to whether Greipel has hit his showed his cards too early after returning from Tirreno-Adriatico without a stage win. Outsprinted by Matteo Pelucchi (IAM Cycling) on stage two, Greipel’s team-mates were then involved in a big crash on the penultimate stage. Greipel, Marcel Sieberg and Jens Debusschere all did not start the final stage time trial, and what sort of condition the Lotto-Belisol train will be in remains to be seen.
[part title="Peter Sagan"]
Peter Sagan (Cannondale) was second at last year's Milan-San Remo and is confident of bettering that result this time out as he looks to make a bright start to the Classics campaign.
After an encouraging start to the season, with two wins to date, the Slovakian star is confident of a strong Classics season, arriving in Italy pleased with the shape he is in and confident of being in contention on Sunday.
He said: “Milan-San Remo has always been one of the most important goals of my season. I plan to succeed at this race and ready myself for the next - the upcoming Belgium Classics.
“The route without Pompeiana climb makes the race different, but I'm not worried. This change effects everyone. To win Milan-San Remo, you need to first to be at your top condition and try to own the race with your team. That is my goal."
Cannondale showed how they can control races with dominant displays on stages two and six of Tirreno-Adriatico. In the former they dropped Sagan off in perfect position to take the stage win, while the latter saw the Green Machine set a phenomenal pace in the bunch, which was enough to shed Marcel Kittel and his Giant-Shimano team from contention, though Mark Cavendish went on to claim the win.
However, Cannondale have showed they are capable of dictating proceedings, and with Sagan already showcasing his attacking flair at the Tour of Oman, all eyes will be on the 24-year-old when the race hits the Cipressa and the Poggio.
[part title="The contenders – John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano)"]
While Marcel Kittel suffered a frustrating week at Tirreno-Adriatico, Giant-Shimano's ‘other’ German fast man was in impressive form at Paris-Nice, winning a stage, wearing the yellow jersey and going on to top the points classification.
After impressing on the three flatter stages with two second-place finishes before winning at Magny-Cours on stage three, Degenkolb then proved his one-day ability as he tackled the lumpy routes that featured in the second half of the week. While sprint rivals Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ.fr) and Moreno Hofland (Belkin) faded, Degenkolb showed he is capable of handling the pace when the road heads uphill.
Particularly impressive was his spirited defence of the yellow jersey on stage four where, despite the leading GC contenders splitting the race with a series of attacks and counter-attacks off the front, Degenkolb stayed in contention to cross the line just 18 seconds down on stage winner Tom-Jelte Slagter (Garmin-Sharp).
Just a few seconds closer and Degenkolb would have retained his yellow jersey ahead of Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas - but maillot jaune or not, the statement was made. John Degenkolb is most certainly a contender for Milan-San Remo.
[part title="best of the rest"]
Orica-GreenEDGE are among the teams set to start with a strong line-up, with 2012 Milan-San Remo winner Simon Gerrans having abandoned Paris-Nice to concentrate on overcoming illness for the race, while Michael Matthews showed he can handle undulating terrain with some strong rides in France.
Gerald Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka) was rarely in contention at Tirreno-Adriatico but as defending champion he will keen to put in a strong showing at Milan-San Remo too, while Daniele Bennati and his Tinkoff-Saxo team-mates have been in strong form so far this season.
World champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing), meanwhile, is targeting the Ardennes Classics rather than La Primavera but he tried several solo attacks at Tirreno-Adriatico, which could indicate his intent for Sunday, too.
Whoever triumphs in the opening Monument of the season, however, will be a deserving winner and will be crowned champion having overcome a suitably strong field.