Milan-Sanremo is on Saturday. The longest day of racing on the calendar at 298km, it is one of the five monuments that are the most prestigious of one day races in the sport. Here is a preview of the 2012 edition.
The race starts in central Milan and first 115km are unremarkable in terms of tactics and terrain. We must wait until about 185km until the pace really hots up. Just think about that, riding for 185km before the terrain livens up. Of course if the wind is blowing, if it cold or wet then this early part of the race can be misery.
Normally from the start the favourites sit tight and save energy for later; the world’s longest warm-up. The race passes empty rice fields ready to fuel Italy with risotto for another year. But don’t get the impression of a procession: this is still a full on race, there are crashes and breakaways and perversely the favourites must work hard at saving energy. The standard format is that a large breakaway goes early on after some frantic racing from the start. The composition of the move is crucial: does it contain a good mix of teams, are there any superstars?
Things change on the Turchino Pass (“tur-keen-o”). A long climb that starts in Ovada, the road snakes up into an empty land of sleepy woodland and quiet villages with derelict factories that once relied on waterwheels for power. The climb is easy, over 25km it rises 350 metres, although with a few ups and downs along the way to sometimes warrant the inner ring. The pace normally picks up here as teams start to soften up the race. The top is marked by a tunnel, a symbolic moment as the race crosses from one phase to another and into the bright light of the Italian riviera. On a good day you can scent the characteristic pine and other vegetation of the Mediterranean coast. The Turchino is asymmetric, a long climb up but at the top, marked by a narrow tunnel, the descent to the coast is rapid with a series of hairpin bends and the sea shimmering below.
The race then hugs the coast almost all the way to the finish, darting inland to tackle a few climbs along the way. Over the years these climbs have been added to break up the race in order to hamper the sprinters. The organisers have added more and more but each time the sprinters learn to cope. First up is Le Manie, the newest addition which begins with a passage through an archway. Its name translates as “The Manias”.
Added in 2008 it comes after 204km and is 4.7km long and averages 6.7% making it hard, especially given the 11% ramp in the middle. But I think you’d need an expert surveyor to find the 11% section, it seems more like a max of 8-9% in reality. The climb begins on the flat since positioning prior to the start matters. Once on the slopes if it was done at a steady pace this is a breeze. But full gas and some riders will be ejected. Above all it softens up riders for later. The descent is technical and risky, many riders want to cross the climb near the front just to avoid trouble on the way down.
More coastal riding and the race heads over two small capes, Capo Mele and Capo Cervo to mark the 250 kilometres, the kind of distance sufficient for the Worlds or Olympics. But it’s onwards and over the Capo Berta, a longer climb but on the main road and not too hard at 5%.
By now the pace is furious and riders need to be in position ahead of the Cipressa climb. But since everyone wants to be at the front the speed is high and the helicopter shots on TV makes for nervous viewing as riders jostle for position. This is cycling as a contact sport.
Think of it as the bigger sister of the Poggio. It is higher and the roads are wider. It climbs to the village of Cipressa, meaning cypress tree but Oliva would be a better name since the road climbs up past many olive groves, so many that they leave oil spots on the road and on humid days the air has a rancid smell. The stats say it is 5.6km long and averages 4.1% but it has steeper sections in places. But it is fast and a sprinter sheltered and paced by team mates should survive. The descent is fast and tricky. It starts with some long fast straights but later barrels into tight corners as it approaches the coast and the village of Aregai.
Then it’s on to the Poggio. The road in between is anodyne on a normal day but the riders will be scrapping for every bit of space and the right wheel. The climb got a whole preview of its own on here yesterday and to summarise it is a very fast climb interrupted by sharp hairpin bends making it a series of sprints. Harder at first, the road is narrow and the bends stretch riders into a long line which is why you need to be near the front before starting the climb. The second half of the climb rises up but less so, the chance for a very strong rider to pull away but also for collaboration amongst riders to bring back any attacks. The descent is not too technical but with 6km to go the intensity of the race means every corner is taken at the limit. Over the years crashes have been rare, perhaps because riders come over the Poggio in a line rather than a bunch.
Finally the race speeds into Sanremo, famous for its music festival and flowers. The roads are wide. A couple of bends await and the finish is by the seaside and totally flat.
Summary: if the above is too long (like the race) then it’s 300km where there are countless moments for a rider in prime condition to lose the race by careless positioning or simple misfortune. The finale of the race is so intense. Fatigue for the riders and excitement for the viewers make this a compelling finish.
Finally don’t ignore the poetic nature of the route. We start in Milan, one of Italy’s biggest cities and infamous for its cold winters and foggy mornings… only to finish in Sanremo with its sunshine, the sea, colourful flowers and more. It takes seven days to go from Paris to Nice to find the sun, this takes seven hours.
Because the course is not so selective, picking a winner is hard. The hills are just enough to eject some sprinters but not selective enough to ensure every sprinter disappears. Here the weather plays a part, foul conditions lend themselves to a greater selection but Saturday’s forecast looks mild.
Mark Cavendish (Sky) is the rider you never bet against. Meticulous, ambitious and almost invincible in the sprint, he is the obvious pick. The winner in 2009, he has coped with the hills before but has also met with misfortune, he punctured last year. If anything his greatest problem is that many expect him to win and rival teams will develop tactics to thwart him, for example attacking in order to avoid a bunch sprint.
“Cav” can’t win every sprint and after 298km anything is possible. Peter Sagan is another favourite rider because he can both sprint and attack, as we have seen in Tirreno-Adriatico and also because Vincenzo Nibali is in great shape and able to attack on the Cipressa or Poggio and push Sky to the limit; Sagan’s weakness seems to be his youth, he has struggled with long distancess. But if he’s in the mix, Sky can stick Edwald Boasson Hagen on him; plus in his own right the Norwegian is Sky’s sprint Plan B.
Tom Boonen has never won this race but has twice finished on the podium. He’s been enjoying a good start with five wins but sometimes wins via brute force rather than tactical finesse and he might find himself outfoxed in the finishing straight.
Oscar Freire lurks as usual, ready to pounce upon any weakness. There’s not much more to say about the Spaniard except that he’s won already this year and riders forget him at their peril. Just ask Erik Zabel who lifted his arms in celebration back in 2004 only to find Freire threw his bike to the line and won.
If Sky and Liquigas have two top riders, I’d venture Fabien Cancellara and Daniele Bennati from Radioshack-Nissan as another prime pairing. Cancellara has won the race before and is in excellent form after his bold win on the Strade Bianche race. Bennati is often seen as a sprinter but managed a long breakaway in the Strade Bianche and recently placed second to Cancellara in the Tirreno-Adriatico time trial, a sign of more than sprinting power.
Last year’s winner Matt Goss hasn’t demonstrated the form he enjoyed in 2011 but you never know, especially since he can cope well with the climbs along the way and he knows Mark Cavendish very well. One of the most in-form riders this year is André Greipel who comes with a whole team at his service and several wins. Don’t forget Heinrich Haussler has this race burned into his mind after 2009 when Cavendish overhauled him in extremis.
Can we exclude Philippe Gilbert? He’s been off form this year and has done nothing to suggest he’s in shape to win… so unless he’s doing the biggest bluff the sport has ever seen, we’ll see him in April. I think his team mate Alessandro Ballan is a better bet but he’s not got a killer sprint in his armoury.
So far the big names have been cited. The odd thing is that the race is very open yet only the stars of the sport seem to win, only occasionally does the race throw up a surprise winner.
Weather forecast: 9°C (48°F)on the start line in Milan with light cloud cover and almost no wind. By the time the race drops off the Turchino it will have warmed up to 12°C (54°F) and it will be 14°C (57°F) at the finish line. Crucially there will be a tailwind along the coast, a moderate 20km/h. As the race zigzags up over the climbs this will mean a crosswind and a headwind at times and at the slightly higher altitude the windspeed could be higher but for now the forecast suggests a mild and calm day and little more.
The race will be shown worldwide for free on the internet via the La Gazzetta Dello Sport website, the Italian sports daily that belongs to RCS, organisers of the race. The commentary is in Italian and of an excellent standard.
However there are English language options. Eurosport will be covering the race with David Harmon and former race winner Sean Kelly joining him. A cable and satellite TV channel in Europe, Eurosport has an online platform called Eurosport Player where you can subscribe to receive good quality video and audio.
This is available in a PDF document from the race organisers. There are 25 teams of 8 riders, a total of 200 riders.