Milan-San Remo 2016 preview: the route, contenders and form guide
Who will win the season's first Monument?
The season’s first Monument, Milan-San Remo, kick-starts the Spring Classics on Saturday (March 19), with plenty of big-name riders finding form ahead of La Primavera.
Dubbed ‘the sprinter’s Classic’, the WorldTour’s best fast men will be joined on the startline by the likes of former winner Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo) as they battle for supremacy over the Poggio and on to the Via Roma finale.
Nevertheless, if a rider can earn a gap over the top of the Poggio, we could well see a rider winning solo for the first time since Fabian Cancellara in 2008.
And the Poggio, which kicks up after some 280km of racing, is not the only place Milan-San Remo could be lit up.
After the typically, relatively flat opening half to the race, the Passo del Turchino is an early, moderate test of the legs – the 25.8km length being the most difficult aspect, rather than the 1.4 per cent average gradient.
The Capo Mele (3km at 8.1 per cent), Capo Cervo (3km at 1.9 per cent) and Capo Berta (2.5km at 5.1 per cent) then break up the flat sections – not enough to seriously dent any riders’ ambitions but punishing enough after more than 200km of racing for those out of form.
Finally the Cipressa, which kicks off with a sharp right-hander where road position will be vital, and ramps up to a maximum gradient of nine per cent before a gentler finish and then the Poggio offer platforms for any long-range solo attempts.
Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) and Greg van Avermaet (BMC Racing) forged clear between the two climbs in 2015, but the pace of the sprint teams behind ultimately put paid to their efforts.
The fast, technical descent then leads the way to the pan-flat final two kilometres, where the season’s first major one-day race winner will be crowned on the Via Roma.
The contenders: sprinters
Alexander Kristoff (Katusha)
Winner in 2014, Alexander Kristoff was beaten into second last time out and the Norwegian will be keen to return to the top step of the podium in 2016.
In fact, he was in the top five every day until the final weekend – which were a pair of stages tailor-made for the climbers instead.
Third at Milan-San Remo last time out, the 25-year-old has proved with some of his five career Grand Tour wins that tougher races like this are perfect for him and another podium spot will be the minimum target.
2016 form: Paris-Nice – two stage wins, points classification Milan-San Remo best result: third (2015)
He’ll be a marked man as ever in the striped jersey, but to earn his first win as World Champion at one of the biggest races of the season would be the perfect way to banish the ‘curse of the rainbow jersey’.
2016 form: Omloop Het Nieuwsblad – second; Strade Bianche – fourth; Tirreno-Adriatico – second on two stages, second overall. Milan-San Remo best result: second (2013)
Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis)
Nacer Bouhanni named Milan-San Remo as his primary early-season target, and showed he has the sprinting form at Paris-Nice.
Boasson Hagen, 28, was out of luck at Tirreno-Adriatico, as it happened, with third on stage two his best result but the Norwegian already boasts three stage wins to his name this season after performing well in Qatar and Oman.
Major success has eluded Boasson Hagen too often, but he boasts a strong supporting cast – Cavendish and fellow Brit Steve Cummings among them – and could be a dark horse.
2016 form: Tour of Qatar – one (ITT) stage win, fifth overall; Tour of Oman – two stage wins, points classification, sixth overall
Milan-San Remo best result: tenth (2015)
The contenders: Classics specialists
Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo)
The last man to win Milan-San Remo solo, Fabian Cancellara will ride La Primavera for the final time on Saturday having been on the podium five times in his career in all.
Since his 2008 victory, Cancellara has come second three times, third once and was seventh in last year’s edition too.
Winner of the semi-Classic at Strade Bianche, Cancellara has started 2016 well too and with all eyes on Spartacus ahead of his final Classics campaign it could be a very special spring.
The likelihood is he will need to go long if he wants to foil the sprinters again, but the Swiss ace is as powerful as ever – as proved by his Tirreno time trial win – and perfectly capable of doing just that.
2016 form: Trofeo Serra de Tramuntana – first; Volta ao Algarve – one (ITT) stage win; Strade Bianche – winner; Tirreno-Adriatico – one (ITT) stage win Milan-San Remo best result: winner (2008)
Greg van Avermaet (BMC Racing)
Greg van Avermaet helped to animate the final proceedings of last year’s race, though his efforts went unrewarded.
Coupled with his Omloop het Nieuwsblad win, the 30-year-old is finding form at just the right time to be a serious contender in the spring Classics, as he has so often threatened to be.
Van Avermaet has traditionally done better over the cobbles – as proved by his Omloop win and his podium finishes at last year’s Paris-Roubaix and Tour of Flanders.
But he is not afraid of lighting races like this up, and you can expect to see plenty from BMC Racing as they crest the Cipressa and Poggio.
2016 form: Tour of Qatar – third overall; Omloop het Niewusblad – winner; Tirreno-Adriatico – one stage win, winner overall. Milan-San Remo best result: ninth (2011)
Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-QuickStep)
Etixx-QuickStep have a great depth of options for Milan-San Remo, and Zdenek Stybar may seem like the less obvious pick with the cobbled Classics more likely to be his chance to shine.
But the Czech ace is in top form, and his descending skills at Tirreno-Adriatico – which earned him a stage win and a stint in the race lead – showed he is a man to watch on the run-in to San Remo.
Second at Strade Bianche, Stybar lacks the all-out speed of team-mates Fernando Gaviria and even Tom Boonen but all three represent great options for the Belgian super team for La Primavera.
If Stybar gets a gap over the Poggio, he’ll be difficult to bring back. If not, he’s a powerful engine to help tee up his faster team-mates for a sprint finish.
2016 form: Strade Bianche – second; Tirreno-Adriatico – one stage win Milan-San Remo best result: seventh (2014)
Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky)
Michal Kwiatkowski was one of a number of high-profile riders to crash on the Poggio at last year’s Milan-San Remo – the then world champion believing his helmet had save his life in the incident.
But the Polish ace says the confidence is flowing again after his strong finish to the final road stage at Tirreno-Adriatico – finishing third after attempting a long-range sprint.
Kwiatkowski will be bidding to end Team Sky’s search for a Monument win, and though Liege-Bastogne-Liege – where he was third in 2014 – is a more likely setting for that, he is a strong outsider for Milan-San Remo.
Geraint Thomas showed his penchant for attacking in this race last year, and the Welshman – fresh from Volta ao Algarve and Paris-Nice success – may try again this time out.
But Kwiatkowski is another very strong rider, and he will be a rider to keep a close eye on as riders look to earn a gap on the final two climbs.
2016 form: Trofeo Pollenca-Port de Andratx – second; Trofeo Serra de Tramuntana – second; Tirreno-Adriatico – third on stage six, eighth overall. Milan-San Remo best result: 67th (2015)
Others to watch
Moving the finish line back to the Via Roma does mean a well-timed attack can pay off over the finale, and there are plenty of riders who can do just that.
Tom Dumoulin was one such example – the Dutchman having been scheduled to lead Giant-Alpecin in the absence of the recovering defending champion Degenkolb.
However, even with the Dutchman missing out due to a bout of flu there are plenty of riders you’ll want to keep a close eye on.
Degenkolb won last year after his proving his form earlier in the year with victory atop the Hatta Dam at the Dubai Tour – where Juan Jose Lobato (Movistar) won last month.
The Spaniard was fourth at Milan-San Remo in 2014 but was forced to quit Paris-Nice early, complaining of leg pain.
Likewise, the man who finished second to Lobato on the Hatta Dam (and second overall at the Dubai Tour) Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek-Segafredo) looks a good plan B to Cancellara for Trek, but illness cut his Tirreno-Adriatico short.
Nizzolo is not the only Italian rider with an outside chance though – Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida) has proved with his four Giro d’Italia stage wins to expect the unexpected when he’s involved.
And you can almost guarantee Italian champion Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) will try an attack at some point too.
The 31-year-old loves to ignite Milan-San Remo, and has a podium place to his name from 2012 – proof the race is not just one for the sprinters.
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