The first Monument of the year and the last chance for the sprinters to win before more hills are added to the route. Sunday’s Milan-Sanremo is all about the tense finish, the paradox of an unpredictable race yet it’s almost always won by a one of the best riders going. Who will keep their nerve?
The Route: exit Milan and the race speeds across the vast Po valley and the Pianura Padana, the plains that grow much of Italy’s rice crop. Ovada is the town marks the start of the long Passo del Turchino. This mountain pass used to be important to the race but it’s a slow and gradual climb, the road is tracked by a railway line, a clue to the gentle gradient.
Turchino means a shade of blue in Italian, hinting at the Mediterranean sea that awaits on the other side. The pass is a symbolic moment, lifting riders away from the foggy plains towards the shimmering spectacle of the Mediterranean, although the weather isn’t going to be so poetic this year.
The race drops down to the coast via more tunnels to the outskirts of Genova and the stress ratchets up. The halfway point is crossed but the finish feels closer, the coastal road is familiar. The race goes from one town to another, negotiating modern street furniture and antiquated town squares alike. In time comes the cape trinity: Capo Mele, Capo Cervo and Capo Berta. These are small climbs but serve as landmarks to break up the flat road and by now the race has done 250km.
Then it’s on to the Cipressa. This starts with sharp right hander and quickly climbs through olive groves above the coastal town of San Lorenzo, the nine percent gradient bites hard after 270km. This is a proper moment of climbing that can prove fatal for the sprinters, the average of 4% is a blend of a steep start and, after crossing the autostrada, a flat portion over the top where dropped riders flounder. Television cameras often follow the back of the peloton to catalogue the dropped riders because the toboggan-run descent, the most technical part of the course, is often too fast to film in full.
The Finish: the Poggio starts with 9.2km to go and marks the final phase of the race. A furious pace is inevitable. A right flick off the main coastal road is followed by series of wide bends that are so fast some riders have to brake despite going uphill. Positioning is everything as the road winds up, every metre matters. Unlike the Cipressa this isn’t steep, there’s only one short step at 8%. But after 285km the elastic is like an old rubber band and the Poggio is just enough snap the peloton.
The descent is fast and marked by a series of curves and five hairpins. The race has been won on the descent before and it has its technical moments, for example knowing which bend has the sunken inspection cover on the exit line helps but it is really a very physical effort, a series of sprints out of the corners. Carrying speed into the bends matters but what makes the difference is being able to pump out big watts on every bend exit after 290km. The ramp ends with fast junction onto the main road and it’s left at the fountain, then right on the Via Roma, the “old” finish, sloped with the slightest of slopes up to the finish line.
The Scenario: a bunch sprint? If only it was so simple. The chart above shows the size of the front group in Sanremo. All the blue bars represent the Cipressa-Poggio combo while the grey ones represent the harder years with the climb of Le Mànie. The takeaway is that a “bunch” sprint is really a reduced group, a selection of 20-40 riders over the Poggio.
We’ll see an early move go clear. Look to see which teams place riders in it and if there are any big engines in the move to keep it clear for as long as possible. As ever the pace ratchets up along the coastal road, on TV you might see a bunch of riders, the trick is to spot which teams still have plenty of riders and how well each rider is paced.
Onto the Cipressa and long range moves are hard but the harder the pace the more the sprinters will struggle. It’s got some steep sections and it’s easy to crack and then lose 30 seconds over the flat section to the village of Cipressa, game over. There’s always a danger moment on the flat section to the Poggio as a move can slip away while others get into position. The Poggio’s early slopes can look slow on TV but chances are the bunch is going full gas only space is at a premium and the riders are packed tight like sardines. The best attacks came late on the steepest part and a breakaway only needs 10 seconds over the top to stay away. With the return to the Via Roma there’s less time to pull back a move but the wide, straight road also encourages the surviving bunch to chase any fugitives all the way to the line.
The Contenders: Alexander Kristoff is the prime pick. He’s got a very powerful sprint and crucially he’s strong in the toughest races and on the hardest of days. Sanremo could end in a sprint but it’s a test of brute force rather than sheer speed and that’s how the Norwegian ogre can win. It’s said he trains with punitively long sessions on the wet coastal roads of Norway. This was all visible last year and now he’s started 2015 even better than before with a series of wins. His Katusha team are solid and ready to work for Plan K. Alexander Kolobnev seems the odd one out amid the sprint train wagons but he could be tasked with marking moves on the Cipressa. Kristoff’s weakness is his strength, his sprint all about long range power rather than a sudden flourish in the final 50 metres. There will be a scrap to get on his wheel.
Mark Cavendish is the next choice. The Briton’s contract is up at the end of the year and he’s picked this race as the best way to boost his market value, spending winter training for Sunday and shedding weight to float over the Cipressa. But he’s been ill of late, a virus struck about two weeks ago. He looked solid in Tirreno-Adriatico, more than could be said of his chainring which flexed in the sprint and dropped his chain. The sprint will be interesting, can Cavendish have a full lead-out from Etixx-Quickstep in Sanremo? Probably not so he might be the first in the queue on Kristoff’s wheel but we’ll see who is left over the Poggio. Team mates Zdeněk Štybar and Michał Kwiatkowski can have their cards to play too, both are tempting options for a move on the Poggio, especially as Kwiatkowski’s demon descending can help on the Poggio.
Peter Sagan is next, he’s been tipped before but has deceived. His problem is how to beat Kristoff and Cavendish in a sprint, he’s patently not as fast in a straight line but if you could run a sprint into Sanremo again and again the configuration could change, plus he’s able to go clear on the Poggio if the tactics require it. He’s in form and feeling the wrath of team manager Oleg Tinkov.
John Degenkolb is a prototype winner, a fast sprinter with the added endurance and hustle to benefit from the climbs that eliminate or blunt his rivals. He comes as sole leader of Giant-Alpecin but his form hasn’t looked so sparkling of late, an excellent sixth in the Paris-Nice prologue shows the ability but his best during three sprint stages in France was one third place which doesn’t translate into a win.
Fabian Cancellara has been second or third for the last five years, a superb record. Can he keep it up? His riding in Tirreno-Adriatico says yes but he’ll have to put his power to use on the Poggio to thin the field. He can win on the descent, taking a few seconds on each bend is enough to see him slip away. Trek Factory Racing also have the in-form Giacomo Nizzolo for the sprint.
Greg Van Avermaet has found winning ways after his triumph in Tirreno. One problem for Sunday is the flat finish isn’t ideal. He can finish very fast but he’s not going to beat Kristoff, Cavendish et al in a straight sprint. So he’s likely to go on the Poggio. Another problem is that his own team mate Philippe Gilbert is the master of the uphill attack on a climb like this, the two work together but are not best friends, Gilbert’s attack could prevent Van Avermaet’s move although Gilbert is capable of the win.
Michael Matthews has been training for this day and has the knack of delivering on the big occaisions. But how? He is quick in the sprints and has some handy workers who he can count on for a leadout like Simon Clarke and Daryl Impey. Watch to see if Orica-Greenedge try to lift the pace on the Cipressa to asphyxiate the heavier sprinters.
Movistar have two interesting options in Alejandro Valverde and Juan-José Lobato. Valverde can go on the attack and even sit on the wheels knowing Lobato is waiting for the sprint. Both are in form with Valverde among the best on the Strade Bianché while Lobato was a level above John Degenkolb in the Vuelta Andalucia although he didn’t look so invincible with fourth place in the recent GP Nobili.
Team Sky can play similar tactics with Ben Swift for the sprint, perhaps with a lead out from Luke Rowe while Geraint Thomas can be used in a breakaway bid and Lars Petter Nordhaugg was with the best on the Poggio last year. Swift has been training hard for this race after coming so close last year.
André Greipel won a stage in Paris-Nice. He’s 32 and it’s about time he got a big win as he’s at ease on these climbs and comes with a strong team. Tony Gallopin used to win bunch sprints with Cofidis so he’s quick too but could be a stealth option to slip away although after his Paris-Nice performance nobody will give him much room. Jurgen Roelandts would be an outsider but is recovering from illness and had a quiet Tirreno-Adriatico.
Vincenzo Nibali rides but his heart doesn’t seem in it and the course won’t suit. Everyone thinks he’ll try an attack on the Cipressa but his form isn’t scintillating and his acceleration could be prove fatal for team mate and sprinter Andrea Guardini. “Flash” has had a great time in Malaysia and can beat the biggest names in a sprint but the Via Roma isn’t about surging accelerations, Guardini’s trademark. Lars Boom is a name to mark on the Poggio, especially the descent.
Lampre-Merida have a re-motivated Filippo Pozzato, strong in the recent Tirreno-Adriatico but it’s hard to see him barging away on the Poggio and then driving the breakaway, maybe this is better for Rui Costa. Davide Cimolai brings a sprint option, as does Niccolo Bonifazio.
French rivals Arnaud Démare and Nacer Bouhanni each have an outside chance. FDJ’s Démare packs a powerful sprint and the long finish suits him, just as long as he can get the right wheel or be delivered into place. Meanwhile Cofidis’ Bouhanni has been training hard for this race too with visits to recon the course, he’s not done it before so expectations should be set low even if he can climb the Cipressa and Poggio and then find his way to the win in a scrappy sprint. FDJ’s Johan Le Bon is coming good.
If the race is likely to end in a sprint then MTN-Qhubeka have their bases covered with five sprinters. Matthew Goss is a past winner but hasn’t been visible in sprints this year. In-form Gerald Ciolek is a better bet. Edvald Boasson Hagen is the enigma, he’s often run out of steam in races beyond 200km but a return to old coach could help while Kristian Sbaragli is fast and good on home soil.
Ramūnas Navardauskas probably isn’t on the tip of your lips but he’s an outsider. He’s got a few placings in sprints thanks to his long power. He leads Cannondale-Garmin who are still searching for their first, in fact their first World Tour ranking point. Nathan Haas has some speed for the finish too.
Among some other names, Bardiani-CSF bring Sonny Colbrelli, a cheap version of Peter Sagan and that’s a compliment. Ditto CCC-Sprandi’s Grega Bole, in form and with a strong sprint. The problem for all these lesser names is that Milan-Sanremo rarely smiles on the outsiders. Heinrich Haussler is still searching for the form he had in 2009 while IAM Cycling team mate Sylvain Chavanel is strong, he’s been working on his sprint but will probably go in a longer range move, perhaps in between the Cipressa and Poggio. Bora-Argon 18 have Sam Bennett for the sprint but this a voyage of discovery; Jan Barta and Bartosz Huzarski are good bets for the early breakaway.
|Mark Cavendish, Peter Sagan|
|Fabian Cancellara, Michał Kwiatkowski, Greg Van Avermaet, Michael Matthews|
|Juan-José Lobato, John Degenkolb, André Greipel, Philippe Gilbert|
|Štybar, Démare, Bouhanni, Rui Costa, Swift, Guardini, Valverde, Navardauskas, Nizzolo, Gatto|
Quality first: we don’t know what will happen but usually once it’s happened we knew the result was inevitable. What? It’s the paradox of an open and unpredictable race yet the winner is rarely a surprise. Almost without fail the result is very satisfactory, glance at the list of previous winners and it’s packed with quality, with one or two exceptions every single winner in recent times has been among the very best in the world.
Weather: rain turning to showers for the afternoon on the coast and a top temperature of 12°C. There will be a 20-30km/h NNE wind meaning a (three quarter) tailwind along the coastal section and multiplying the chance of crashes.
TV: the race starts at 10.10am CET. Italian TV starts coverage at 2.30 pm CET with most international coverage too. For many English-speaking readers, US viewers have BeIn Sport, UK is Eurosport and SBS in Australia.
The finish is expected for 5.10pm Euro time but with a large margin given the distance involved. Part of the experience is watching the race build so tune in early if you can. The Capo Mele is scheduled for 3.50pm. The final hour is crucial with the capes and the hills. As ever steephill.tv and cyclingfans.com are the go-to sites for TV schedules and feeds.
Sanremo or San Remo? Both. Ride into town and you’ll see signs saying “Sanremo”, arrive by train and the station says “San Remo”.