Sunday’s Milan-Sanremo will use the Cipressa and Poggio climbs. Once a novelty and now a tradition they help spice up the finish, scalable for some sprinters but hard enough to ensure suspense until the very end of the longest one day on the pro calendar.
Over the years the race has added extra climbs to thwart the sprinters and the prospect of the Pompeiana climb looms for 2016. It means this year’s Milan-Sanremo is the last chance for the sprinters to win.
Last year RCS was planning to add the climb to Pompeiana, it would have come after the Cipressa climb and before the Poggio. Its length and steepness combined with the subtraction of a section of the Via Aurelia coastal road meant no chance for the sprinters. But Mother Nature must like sprinters because landslides on the descent meant the road could not be used; less prosaically, the local municipality has to ration the cash and isn’t been in a rush to repair this minor road. RCS promised to add the race for 2015 but it’s been skipped again, heavy winter rains took their toll.
Toying with a perfect recipe? Perhaps but if it’s sacrilegious, it’s part of a long tradition. Should anyone rail against the inclusion of Pompeiana, remember the Poggio was first added in 1960 to thwart a series of foreign winners taking the sprint. The result? More foreign winners, only the morphology changed with winners like Raymond Poulidor, Tom Simpson and Eddy Merckx. They added the steeper, longer climb to Cipressa in 1982 and in 2008 we got Le Mànie, further from the finish but an even harder climb. None of these climbs are hard by themselves but do them with 250km in your legs and they’re just enough to split the field. Often a sprinter has won but only because they’re on top of their game and in recent years we’ve seen sprinters, grand tour contenders and classics specialists all in the mix, a rare sight.
The inclusion of the Pompeiana climb would change everything. According to RCS race director the idea is to tempt the likes of Chris Froome and Alberto Contador. If RCS is paying for the Fantastic Four to race Tirreno-Adriatico they want their money’s worth with their participation in Milan-Sanremo the following end. Moreover they don’t want them starting in Milan, the plan is to have them featuring in the action near Sanremo. You can understand this but it points to the growing uniformity and conformity of the sport where the contenders for the Tour de France become the star attractions of a spring classic, a celebrity culture where there’s only room for a few star names on the bill. This echoes calls for Froome, Contador et al to ride Paris-Roubaix although at least RCS is designing a course for the stage race specialists rather than sending them into a race unsuited for their body type where, if they finished at all, 36th place in Roubaix would be satisfactory.
Make Milan-Sanremo for the climbers and punchy riders like Philippe Gilbert and Michał Kwiatkowski and there could be a waterbed effect: deny the sprinters in Sanremo and they look elsewhere for glory. Paris-Roubaix becomes a target. It might sound far-fetched but in recent years we’ve not been far off from having a large group sprint, teams could attempt to control the race even more or at least bring a sprinter for the day in the hope that he’s there for the finish.
If we look at the calendar there are slim pickings for the sprinters for one day glory. Gent-Wevelgem is possible, the Scheldeprijs certainly. Across the whole year there are opportunities like the Hamburg Cyclassics or Paris-Tours but the former isn’t famous and the latter is like an old trophy that sits on a dusty shelf, it has a rich history but is in danger of being ignored. Otherwise there’s the cyclical aspect of the World Championships and the hope that every few years the rainbow jersey awaits after a flat course, like Copenhagen in 2011 or Qatar in 2016.
Of course the grand tours have many sprint finishes. In fact many races end in a sprint and the top sprinters end the year with the most wins. It’s valuable too: winning a sprint on the opening weekend of the Tour de France brings more publicity than success in Sanremo. But all the top sprinters know they’ll win a stage in the Tour de France one day, if they’re lucky and good they’ll win 10 or even 20 stages. There’s only once chance left for them to win Milan-Sanremo.