The Spin: Milan-Sanremo preview

Milan Sanremo podium

Milan-Sanremo remains an elusive contest, so long yet the action is concentrated at the end. It has few obvious difficulties yet only a select few contest the finish. Curiously it’s the spring classic that’s open to all yet reserved for the sport’s VIPs and arguably the only race of the year where sprinters, classics specialists and grand tour contenders race each other directly.

Here’s a race preview with more on the route as well as the riders to watch, the weather, TV schedules and more.

The Route
Think of a slow burning fuse attached to a stick of dynamite. The Milanese start is hours away from the coastal explosions. The early breakaway often contains many riders and you need a mini-peloton to ride away because four or five riders are not going to hold off the others for 300km.

The first part of the race sees the top riders try to stay focussed. In the team briefing everyone gets told to eat and drink but still it takes effort. Top riders will start with thermal clothing and their helpers will spend time ferrying clothing back and forth between the team cars. Talking of keeping warm, some say it’s the longest warm-up in the world but the first hour can be fast and in order to finish the race in the customary seven hours means averaging well over 40km/h.

It’s worth watching from Le Manie onwards, if not just before the climb. Last year saw Mark Cavendish ejected and the race opened up. The pace from here is fast and the roads twist and turn along the coast, rising over the coastal capes before the final combo of the Cipressa (hard) and the Poggio (fast). Each of these climbs has a descent that’s as decisive as the climb but we often miss the action as no motorbike can ride fast enough to film it.

The finish in Sanremo has a couple of turns  is wide and flat and ends parallel to the sea.

The Scenario
For decades now the race has added more and more obstacles to thwart the sprinters. From the Poggio in 1960 to Le Manie in 2008. There’s even talk of big changes for 2014 or beyond. The difference this year is the weather – forecast below – and this could help break up the race and sap precious calories. But for all the talk of miserable conditions, there will be a tailwind along the coast which will help speed everyone along. An early break will go, watch to see if Cannondale place a rider to play policeman and save them from chasing too hard.

The distance matters. It makes the race into a game of poker were everybody has a weak hand. After 250km nobody has aces to spare. A sprinter needs to sit tight in the shelter of others. An attacking rider has to time their move just right; last year Simon Gerrans rose out of the saddle at the exact moment Vincenzo Nibali did and that’s partly why they got away.

Break or sprint? Sanremo is known for its casino, place your bets. They say it’s a sprinters’ classic but here is an excellent chart from Twitter’s resident cycling statistician Irishpeloton:

Milan Sanremo sprint finishes

As you can see the finishing group size is often small. Strip out 2004 and normally the finishing group contains fewer than forty riders. It’s why the Poggio works for attacks, there are few teams left to chase.

Peter Sagan
Can he be beaten?

The Contenders: Sagan vs Cancellara, Nibali and Cavendish?

It’s for Peter Sagan to lose this race. Tirreno-Adriatico showed us that he can outsprint Mark Cavendish and André Greipel and also ride up 27% slopes with Joaquim Rodriguez and Vincenzo Nibali. In other words he can fly over the hills and win the sprint and he’s probably got the victory salute choreographed too.

But cycling isn’t tennis, it’s not one on one. Sagan goes up against a big field and one of the joys of cycling is that you rarely know until the last moment who will win. Last year Mark Cavendish was the top pick but ejected early on Le Manie. Sagan has two weaknesses: his team and himself. His team is not the strongest. Moreno Moser is a card to play but everyone will be watching the Slovak, he could easily be marked out of contention.

In fact the race is always open. Let’s do the sprinters first. Cavendish is a good pick because few are talking about him. I’m increasingly impressed by him, we know he’s fast but we’re seeing his ability over longer distances and increasing leadership too. As ever though he needs support and Sky-like mountain train from his OPQS team to get him over the climbs and the team has other cards to play with Tom Boonen, Michał Kwiatkowski and Sylvain Chavanel, each with personal ambitions?

Another sprinter to watch is 2011 winner Matthew Goss, a win in Tirreno-Adriatico shows he’s in good shape and he can often cope with climbs. The same for BMC Racing’s Thor Hushovd and Greg Van Avermaet although they are even rarer winners these days, idem for IAM’s Heinrich Haussler. A dark horse here is Saxo-Tinkoff’s new signing Daniele Bennati who crashed out of the classics last year but has just popped up with second place in the GP Nobili. Nobody seems to be talking about Lotto-Belisol’s André Greipel but he’s been eyeing this race for a long time and remember, if you think he’s too big for the climbs, he won German junior hill climb championships in the Bavarian Alps, plus he comes with a good team.

At the other end of the age spectrum Argos-Shimano’s Wunderkind John Degenkolb says he’s over injuries and remember he was fifth last year. Arnaud Démare is FDJ’s sprinter and worth watching just to see how he copes.

Now for the others. Fabian Cancellara has a nice collection of podium places as well as one win. Last year’s winner Simon Gerrans said it took everything he had to stick with the Swiss rider on the descent, he could feel himself slipping out of the slipstream. The trouble is that this is all so obvious and there will be a scrap to get his wheel on the run on to the Poggio. Perhaps Cancellara has to be prepared to lose the race in order to win it, to sit up and let others work. The same is true for Vincenzo Nibali who took a great win in Tirreno-Adriatico but often seems prone to late attacks only be caught and passed. Still, like Cancellara, if he gets 10 seconds over the Poggio he could be gone although his famed descending skills are more the fluid flow of a Super-G skier rather than the criterium-style urgency needed off the Poggio.

A lot of money is going on Philippe Gilbert and you can see why. One big attack on the Poggio could work plus if there’s a sprint from a small group then he’s often stronger the longer the race. But his form is in the ascendant and maybe the peak is yet to come? A more unknown factor is Edvald Boasson Hagen, Team Sky’s leader. The Norwegian can climb and sprint and was the peloton’s most versatile rider until Sagan showed up. He’s still a real threat for Sunday though and seems to have got over his problems with handling longer races but what level is he on? We asked the same questions of Richie Porte and Chris Froome recently and the team come with Geraint Thomas too. Fillipo Pozzato is past winner but remains a rider with a higher profile than his palamrès suggests, still here’s a race suited to him and he’s in form and ready to bury his Roman embarrassment.

Jurgen Roelandts is one to watch this year, an outsider for Sunday, the Lotto-Belisol rider can cope with short climbs and finishes fast too and is due a big win some day. Yoann Offredo loves this race but probably needs worse weather. He’s a rider who handles the distance better than many but seems too willing to attack and waste energy, a bit like Juan-Antonio Flecha but the Frenchman can sprint if he has to. An unlikely winner but he says he’ll attack between the Cipressa and Poggio. Vini-Fantini’s fluo yellow jersey was brighter with Mauro Santambrogio‘s ride in Tirreno-Adriatico and if a win seems unlikely, he seems to have the form to be in the mix, the same with Movistar’s Andrey Amador.

Finally the race has a tendency to surprise. Mistakes are easy to make after six hours of racing and in the sprint gaps open up for riders to come through. Here it could the chance for an unknown rider to emerge, imagine Ag2r’s Davide Appollonio, Orica-Greenedge’s Jens Keukeleire or IAM’s Aleksejs Saramotins.

Weather: Having written that you can change seasons during this race, Sunday will provide the demonstration. Normally labelled La Primavera as a tribute to spring, winter will steal the show.

The start will see the temperature hover near freezing in Milan and as the race heads out across the plains it won’t warm up. Indeed some snow flurries are expected on the Turchino pass.

For the finish the temperature will rise to 10°C (50°F) with rain showers. But crucially there will be a tailwind of 20km/h which will help breakaways but also it won’t split the bunch in the way a crosswind will and can even help dropped riders get back.

TV: It’s on Sunday. Worth mentioning because it’s long been on a Saturday but that’s changed. The race will be shown on TV all around the world but the channel depends on where you live. There will be broadcasts from the start but the main TV feed goes live on Italy’s Rai Sport 2 at 2.00pm Euro time and other channels will pick this up. The race should be near the top of the Turchino pass at this time depending on the average speed so far. If the race is to schedule things hot up by 2.50 for Le Manie and then stay tuned for the finish by 4.00pm.

Update: with the snow today the race is being stopped in Ovada and the riders will be bussed over the Turchino pass to restart in Arezano at 2.30pm. That means 135km left and so the finish will be later by 4.00pm.

As ever or are the go-to sites for video streams.

Sanremo or San Remo?
Both are used but road signs say Sanremo.

A total of €50,000 with € 20,000 for the winner, €10,000 for second place and €5,000 for third. Every rider from 10th to 20th place gets €500. As ever though in cycling, rewards come via pay and not prizes. Should an unknown rider win podium he can probably add a zero on the end of his contract for the following year.

Eddy Merckx won the race seven times, beating Constante Girardengo’s record of six wins.

In 1906 the Sanremo club ran a race from Milan but with two stages, staying overnight in the scenic Roman town of Acqui Terme. It wasn’t a success but the idea was transformed into a single long race and Frenchman Lucien Petit-Breton won, although to the satisfaction of his Italian sponsors Bianchi. He averaged 26km/h for the 281km route. Today’s race is longer thanks to the inclusion of several climbs which take the race inland and uphill before returning back down to the coastal road.

“It took a month in hospital for Christophe to recover from frostbite to his hands”

The snow has been a factor in the past and none more so than 1910. That’s from 1910 and the tale of Eugène Christophe when snow ravaged the race, via, an unofficial website full of race history and more.

50 thoughts on “The Spin: Milan-Sanremo preview”

  1. I’d go for Hushovd or Greipel.

    If he’s riding, and everything seems to say he is, then Bouhanni, if recovered, may be worth an outside bet.

    • Relative to his ambitions. If there are 40 riders left as they approach the Poggio, how many will be from Cannondale? I don’t think he’ll have a lot of support left if this happens, it’s not like OPQS, Sky or BMC. What works for him though is that he’s got a team in his service.

      • Depends how much they had to work before. Probably quite a lot, as the have the race favourite in the team. But Moser, Koren and Caruso will be there at least.

        What is your take on Sky’s approach to the race? Altitude training instead of racing, can that work?

        • For Sky, the answer is on Sunday. But it’s worked well with Porte and Froome. A one day race though is very different, there are no solo time trials or long climbs where both efforts are long and controlled efforts. Instead a classic is like playing chess whilst moving at 50km/h and wearing wet clothes. And you’ve been pedalling hard for five hours already. In other words it’s a much harder environment to control.

  2. I am supporting Cancellara or Nibali for the win. Mostly because they need to attack in order to win instead of waiting for the sprint…

  3. I really can’t see past Sagan for this one. I wonder how dissappointed he’d have been after Strade Bianchi – great tactics for the team but if they keep sending people up the road knowing that no-one will want to drag Sagan to the finish then he’s not going to win as much as he’ll want. He’s surely got to expect to win a lot of Classics, though, and this is the one that (I feel) really suits him – he could surely win from any number of different scenarios.
    Having said that I would love to see Cancellara get the drop on everyone – as payback for all the wheelsucking his rivals have done over the last few years. And being a Brit I always want Cav to win.
    But I have the feeling that this could be the first of many MSRs for Sagan.

    • Sagan could end up like Cancellara. Everyone just sits on his wheel/chases any break he is in/forces him to do the majority of the work. He is a much better sprinter than Cancellara but if people like Goss and even Greipel get dragged along with/up to him then he’s suddenly not such a dead cert.

      • Greipel can’t climb. I don’t care he won some hill climb as a junior, he’s never shown any ability at all in senior ranks.

        Goss is ok, but the only way he gets to the finish with Sagan is if he already is in a break and Sagan bridges up to him.

        The only person I see possibly staying with Sagan up the Poggio and down the descent and then *maybe* outsprinting him is Gilbert. Gilbert got a good second in a Paris-Nice stage after misjudging the sprint. I think he’s in good form.

        Here’s my prediction:

        Sagan jumps on the Poggio, Gilbert & Cancellara go with him. Boonen covers the move for OPQS and the four stay away on the descent. No one will work with Sagan, but he still wins the sprint, with Gilbert second. Cav wins the bunch sprint for 5th.

        • Uh, well Greipel isn’t a climber by any stretch, he did get over the climb on his final Tour stage win last year where most of the other big sprinters didn’t.

        • Greipel won the stage to Cap D’Agde (second longest in last years TDF), which had a vicious climb in the denouement that was much harder than the Poggio and shelled most sprinters including Cavendish. Greipel can be there at the end and win in my opinion.

        • Greipel’s no hill climb winner these days but others make the mistake of looking at him and thinking he’s the worst of all sprinters at going uphill, when he’s not. I like to use the hill climb anecdote as it challenges the perception a bit. As the others point out, he made the climb up the Mont St Claire in Sète last summer when many other sprinters were ejected.

  4. Whilst I can see the argument that Cannondale are not strong enough to chase all day, unless they are really unlucky there will be others wanting to close things down and then we will see if strength of numbers can outmanoeuvre Sagan. To a minority victory is all that counts, to many working with Sagan to finish and coming second would be very satisfactory (points and all).

  5. The beauty of this race is that there really are so many plausible winners with so many different scenarios on the Poggio. I could see Gilbert and Chavanel breaking away alone, or it could be Cancellara and Nibali again, or it could be a four-way bunch finish between Greipel, Cav, Goss, and Sagan. Or anything else.

    Last year Cannondale had two cards to play, played them well, and it just didn’t work out. This year they have one real card, but they can play him in any hand they want. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Gilbert rocket away on the Poggio with Sagan on his wheel. Why wait for the bunch sprint when you can win it early?

  6. I`m financially involved with Peter The Great being victorious as expected ,however as I got at him @9/2 I can shovel a bit around to rescue my bet if it should go tits up my savers being * PG @ 12/1 * EBH @33/1 and a quid for my dear mother on *Haussler @ 40/1 😉 so then in boxing parlance lets get ready to rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrumble

    • I assumed this to mean his reputation – no-one with serious aspirations of standing on top of the podium will want to take him over the Poggio in a lead group with them, except possibly Cav/Greipel (and at a push Goss).

      I would imagine that several – if not all – of the teams will be factoring Sagan into their tactics, much in the way that Cancellara has suffered in recent classics from benig targeted.

      It’s harder to target Sagan in the same way, as if you just try to sit on his wheel he will probably still outsprint you, and if you just spend all your time watching him too closely then Cannondale have the option of sending others up the road (e.g. Moser in Strade Bianche).

      I can only see Sagan not getting over the Poggio in the lead group if Cannondale are forced to work all day and have no-one left to help him, but having said that he managed well enough in the last road stage of Tirreno-Adriatico, leaving behind many other noted specialist climbers.

      Essentially, the parcours looks as if it was crafted specifically to suit Sagan’s skill set, and it’s therefore hard to look beyond him for a favourite. The beauty of cycling, though, is that you can always expect the unexpected. I’m especially keen to see if Sky’s training tactics have a noticeable improvement on EBH, or if he is to remain as a sort of Sagan-lite; not quite quick enough to beat him in a bunch sprint, and not quite enough of a climber to get over the hills that Sagan can’t…

      • Exactly, a lot of people will be watching him, his reputation precedes him. It’s a weakness to be marked like this, if he lifts his backside off the pedals to break wind half the peloton will stand on the pedals in response because they’ll think he’s about to attack.

        • HAHAHA… You owe me a bag of Earl Grey that I lost while reading that.. =P

          He could use that to his advantage… just play mind games with people. Then again, that’s not his style…

  7. If I could click the heels of my Vittoria shoes together and be anywhere on Sunday, I think it would be atop the Passo Turchino to see the race pass through the legendary tunnel, then transported somewhere warm and dry with a decent TV and a Negroni to watch the rest of it.
    I get the 2nd half of the dream anyway, we’ll be watching RAI Sport and RAI 3 here in Sicily. Vai Nibali!!!

  8. Inrng, thought you may have made mention of Sagan’s descending skills. A lot of people have focussed on Nibali’s and Spartacus’s skills, but Sagan is very good and quick going downhill too as you have previously noted in your blog.

    • I almost took it for granted. Last year he rode the descent in second place on the reduced bunch, following Luca Paolini. He’s well suited to the descent with his skills but also his power as you have to go into the corners fast but crucially accelerate, ie sprint, out of each one to get up to speed.

      • Yep, I’d almost want to see the 3 of them together trying to go off the front to see what they could do as a downhill train 🙂

  9. I haven’t seen any evidence that Sagan has the endurance for MSR, but it’d be fine if I was proven wrong.

    Looks like a wide open race to me.

  10. I’ve got a feeling about Taylor Phinney. Call it madness. Call it sentimentality. Finishing the T-A stage of death the way he did shows he has mental strength. He does though need good service to get up and over those hills.

  11. It’ll be Sagan or a total surprise/unknown rider. Sagan will be very heavily marked, but he’s been marked before and won anyway. He’s that strong!

    With the predicted tail-wind, a fool-hearty looking early escape could catch the favorites by surprise. I think Cancellara, Gilbert and others will try to go early to get away from Sagan. How else do you beat him?

  12. Will EBH really be Sky’s leader? He’s got the #1 bib but that could be alphabetical, Thomas’ victory in TDU with a poggio-esque climb and aptitude in ronde in past showed he can handle the distance. I’ve never been to sure with eddie.

    All things considered, either will have their work cut out. Would love to see Ciolek podium for MTN. I’m going Pippo to take it on sunday though.

  13. Wonderfully unpredictable but to foolishly try to make a prediction I’ll say weather and Sagan’s ever presence will result in a 20(ish) strong group finish and a podium of:


  14. Absolutly impossible to predict. A really wonderful race because of it. Will be interesting to see how opqs play it. So many options, I think Cavendish would happily let one of team win it and maybe he’s a brilliant tactical element of that. He’d be paid back come July and the tour.

  15. A wonderful mix of parcours, climate and talents combine to make this a real treat for the fan. It’s got everything. FWIW, I reckon.. Gilbert to go on the ascent of the Cipressa with Cancellara, Nibali and Sagan attempting to chase back on the descent. Sagan’s bike skills are too good to see him dropped by the other two and he’s too strong to lose on the Poggio or in a sprint to the line. Fabian’s going to stall, Nibali will attack and, after being eaten up, well..

    1. Sagan
    2. Gilbert
    4. Who cares.

  16. With his suspension in Italy up, I’m surprised not to see Valverde on the startlist. The race is tailor-made for him: he demonstrated he copes well with the 250+ km distance as showcased by his high placings in LBL and Worlds and he has decent turn of speed – the man did beat Freire and Gerrans on several occasions, both of whom are former MSR winners.

  17. I see this SanRemo as one of these once in a month of Sunday scenarios; a early breakaway will win. A group of small fries attack early 5-15 guys, nobody but Cannondale does anything, “why should we drag Sagan to the end” attitude and too late the peloton notice that Cannondale doesn’t have the strength to pull back the b-way with tail wind. So we end up with some unknown South African guy winning the race, and that would be great.

    • That would be Daryl Impey?

      I know what you mean and this is part of the attraction of the race, the anticipation lasts right until the last minute. Other races like Flanders, Roubaix and Liège tend to see a set pattern and the leaders reduced on a regular basis but in Sanremo it’s far less obvious what will happen.

  18. It could be Jim Songezo or Jay Thomson or someone else from MTN, but yeah Impey would be a good bet in a breakaway, but he’s not unknown.

  19. I’m inclined to think there are enough sprinters with strong teams coupled with a tail wind that will hold things together until the foot of the Poggio. Could be a relatively large bunch, so I will go with a sprinter who can also endure: Sagan, Greipel, Goss, Hushovd (though I don’t think the latter has e pure speed to deal with Sagan).

  20. Absolutely impossible to predict and that’s what makes it a beautiful race. I think looking at the start list. it’s quite interesting to see the numbers allocated for each team. Generally the leader is nominated as the ‘1’. Cavendish is 171 for OPQS, Boonen 172 and Chavanel 173. Sky have EBH as 191 but Geraint Thomas is 198, perhaps a diplomatic choice. Numbers aside I think it will be very interesting to see how OPQS play out the their tactics. I’m sure Cavendish would happily let a colleague win to set him up for return favours in July, particularly being on a new team. On Sky, I don’t think they quite have the grit to win. I think in time Thomas might get there but this year seems too early for a big classics win. I also think the training in Tenerife won’t pay off this time. Whilst they might be super fit they won’t be battle hardened as Nibali and Sagan will be after a tough Tirreno-Adriatico and I think to this counts more in the uncontrolled conditions of the classics.

  21. Will this be like the Olympic RR, where the tactics of every team is to make sure one man doesn’t get to the finish? It was a legit tactic used on GB and also Sky, so now the balance of power has shifted, will teams gang up on Sagan? Surely it makes sense, if he’s anywhere near the front at the final it’s a layup. I’d like to see some teams (Sky) just make it crazy and start loads of long and large breakaways.

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