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Last Chance for The Sprinters

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.

The 2015 profile without Le Mànie and Pompeiana

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 winning break in 2012 with Cancellara, Gerrans and Nibali


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.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • hoh Thursday, 19 March 2015, 2:33 pm

    Thanks for the great post. Have to say that I love the look on Sagan’s face in that last photo.

  • Watts Thursday, 19 March 2015, 2:35 pm

    It is often said that it’s the riders that make the race hard. I think Milan-Sanremo is the perfect example of that. You can revisit the finish from the Cipressa to Sanremo a hundred times, and still find subtle movements that ultimately decided the race. I love Cancellaras 2008 win, they just gave him 2 metres too much!

  • Dave H Thursday, 19 March 2015, 2:45 pm

    I really hate the idea that they are messing with Milano San Remo. The current route is so well balanced between the sprinters and puncheurs that I really don’t see how the Pompeiana will make it any better. With the Pompeiana it will simply become another hilly classic in much the same mould as Liege, Amstel Gold, Il Lombardia et al. Those are all great races but MSR is unique at the moment so why sacrifice that.

    If they want to make it a little tougher then bring back le Manie which made it even more balanced rather than backloading the route with hills to completely rule out the fast men.

  • Andrew E Thursday, 19 March 2015, 2:53 pm

    Thanks for a very interesting article. I must admit I would find it strange if RCS would prefer if Contador or Froome won to Cavendish or Degenkolb. One of the (many) joys of following cycling it that there are many types of rider and many types of course. On no given day is any result a certainty. Why can’t organisers let the racing sort out who wins and who doesn’t? Fiddling with courses to manufacture outcomes does annoy me sometimes, especially in a one day race where such changing can have extreme effects.

    • Gargatouf Thursday, 19 March 2015, 4:06 pm

      Unfortunately it’s all about money and TV ratings etc… From a TV perspective, being the sprinters classics, MSR only really comes to life in the final 10-15 kms when the sprinters trains start and that’s not exciting enough for TV.

      You get the odd result here and there like Cancellara in 2008 or Gerrans two years ago (??), but it’s usually decided in the sprint. How do you get more people to watch a race if “nothing” happens until the last few kms of the race??

      • Andrew E Thursday, 19 March 2015, 4:48 pm

        Well if I recall correctly the race is never on TV until they hit the coast anyway. And these additional hills are always in the final sections of the race too. The only thing that changes is who can or can’t win. As was said above, it just rules out sprinters in favour of others. Will these others bring more viewers to the TV? Is the prospect of Contador winning more attractive than Cavendish (for example)? I don’t recall the Cancellara or Gerrans wins being more exciting for viewers than when Kristoff or Ciolek won. I’m dubious.

      • The Inner Ring Thursday, 19 March 2015, 5:54 pm

        Remember it’s always been about money and media, most races were created to sell newspapers.

        One way to get people to watch is to give them some names they know so they might tune in and many Italians would watch because of Nibali.

        • Copycat Dan Thursday, 19 March 2015, 10:06 pm

          You have to hope some of these race organisers were watching OHN. The riders make the race. Send puncheurs out on a parcours that gives them every chance of making it tough enough to jump clear and the entertainment will take care of itself. If sprinters can hang on then more power to them. This doesn’t need mountains, just variety.

        • ArgyllFlyer Thursday, 19 March 2015, 10:12 pm

          Nibali enters most years anyway though so route changes are not going to affect that.

          • Dr Manhattan Friday, 20 March 2015, 8:23 am

            Who are these people who want to see the same riders in all races, anyway? People who aren’t really into cycling, that’s who!

            I do understand the basic concept that revenues are proportional to tv ratings, but surely an argument can be made for attracting an audience by standing out from the crowd?

            In terms more relatable to non-cycling afficionados: Where is the fun in wathcing Real Madrid vs Barcelona… every bloody weekend?

  • King Boonen Thursday, 19 March 2015, 3:39 pm

    Will adding the Pompeiana really attract guys like Froome and Contador?

    It doesn’t seem big enough for those kind of riders to drop the likes of Gerrans, Sagan, Kristoff, Gilbert et. al. AND hold them off until the finish. All I can see it doing is pushing out the top tier sprinters (who still struggle to win here) and making it more about the guys who can get over the lumps. It could maybe open it up more for guys like Gilbert, Cancellara (although he’s already won it) but in terms of names surely if you can’t get the GT winners (Nibali already rides it of course), then the top tier sprinters are the next well-known guys because of their ability to win several stages in the GTs?

    I think it’ll also see a very similar end to the race, with a large group arriving at the Poggio, but it just won’t contain the usual sprinters and may mean less attacking as everyone fancies their chances in a bunch kick a bit more.

    Regardless, I think the current route offers very good opportunities for both the sprinters and the Rouleurs/Puncheurs in an early season race, it’s the one race where you think anyone could win, and fiddling with it with the express purpose of stopping the sprinters winning will be to the detriment of the racing.

  • djconnel Thursday, 19 March 2015, 3:47 pm

    Don’t underestimate the impact of the shortened finish on the sprinter’s chances.

    • The Inner Ring Thursday, 19 March 2015, 4:09 pm

      Indeed, it will be harder to pull a move back. Anyone with a lead going over the Poggio can hope to preserve it on the descent and then they only need a few seconds to stay away arriving in town.

  • Ablindeye Thursday, 19 March 2015, 4:44 pm

    Just like the race itself some decent early tension building.

    It could indeed be the sprinters last chance but I wouldn’t underestimate Italian municipal inertia or indeed the weather given the recent past.

  • Larry T. Thursday, 19 March 2015, 4:47 pm

    Geez, I’d hoped all this crazy talk had gone away with that guy RCS canned when all the euros went missing. There are already plenty of races for the climbers, do we really want to make ’em all the same so the same cast of characters are protagonists at every one? Chasing the Spacebook generation, who have attention spans measured in minutes (seconds?) leads to the sound of the whole thing flushing down the crapper. I want to see skill, tactics and bravery…not a simple contest of watts vs kilograms…for that we can skip the roads and just set up some trainers in a TV studio and let ’em have at it.

  • Ben Thursday, 19 March 2015, 5:43 pm

    Admittedly breadly generalising, I find it significant that the home nation isn’t particularly strong in either the sprints or one-day classics. RCS want Italian interest in MSR. Without a Coppi, Saronni, Moser, Lion King, Alejet, Bartoli, Bettini, Bugno, or Argentin where is the next home winner going to come from on the current course? Nibali and Aru are the home stars, and the proposed new course is more suited to their skilset. Perhaps when we have an Italian regularly winning sprints, RVV or P-R, again we’ll see RCS consider moving away from the more GC/LBL contender friendly route.

    • The Inner Ring Thursday, 19 March 2015, 5:52 pm

      I think the same, they want a good home win. If Guardini, Cimolai, Viviani etc were to win this year Mauro Vegni would be out with a shovel on the Pompeiana to prompt another landslide.

      • Larry T. Thursday, 19 March 2015, 10:23 pm

        Beppe Conti on RAI’s “Radiocorsa” show this evening said the plan is to keep La Classicissima the same now that the traditional finish on the Via Roma has been restored. I think the last time a course has been tailored for a specific rider might be the 2009 Giro, the one designed for BigTex. I hope they’ve learned from that mistake!

      • Dr Manhattan Friday, 20 March 2015, 8:34 am

        But isn’t the courrent course a way of hedging their bets for the home nation? After all, Italy has come close with both a climber (Nibali 3rd in 2012) and a sprinter (Colbrelli, sixth last year) only the last few years…

  • Pierre-Jean Thursday, 19 March 2015, 7:15 pm

    It is hard enough to feel anything about so-called pure sprinters, especially since they are invisible except for 30 seconds, and since they now have full squads devoted to defensive, spectator-unfriendly racing. Sercu, Frank Hoste or Jean-Paul Van Poppel never won in San Remo (or the Worlds), rightly so, and I feel (even doped-up) Cipollini and Cavendish shouldn’t have won either.

    This said, San Remo should give big chances to sprinters with huge resistance, and with the character to chase in person the punchers’ attacks. The “what’s the ideal course for MSR” debate is a classic, and I believe the Italians should have the elegance of forgetting to try to favour this one or other rider. It’s a matter of nuance and minor adjustments, more than changing the nature of the race. Adding the Pompeiana because the race is not selective enough, would be like simply smothering ketchup on a steak because it’s too rare. It would turn the race into an Ardennes classic, which is not the point. Le Manie I think everybody agreed was a very good addition. And perhaps another biggish climb before that could be useful. But honestly, what this steak needs is not stronger seasoning, it is a much longer marinade. The flavour of this race is given by distance, and if 300km no longe serve the purpose they use to serve some decades ago, then another 20 or 30km should be added. With that, the Poggio and the sprint would be much more dramatic and slow.

    • djconnel Thursday, 19 March 2015, 7:56 pm

      Interesting suggestion to increase the distance. Actually, historically this isn’t a particularly long race. Consider just the Tour de France… the number of stages > 300 km there:

      1900’s: 47
      1910’s: 82 (many Tours canceled)
      1920’s: 106
      1930’s: 14
      1940’s: 3 (many Tours canceled)
      1950’s: 12
      1960’s: 4
      1970’s: 0
      1980’s: 3
      1990’s: 2
      2000’s: 0
      2010’s: 0

      So until the 1960’s the Tour typically had stages longer than MSR. In contrast 2000 was the last year the Tour had a stage of even 250 km (I didn’t check 2011-2015 but I’m pretty sure there were none).

      Stripping that last km from the race is huge. There’s an enormous difference trying to hold off a concerted chase an extra km. That’s worth at least 10 seconds @ the top of the Poggio, perhaps more. I’m really looking forward to this year’s version.

    • Larry T. Thursday, 19 March 2015, 10:29 pm

      Since Le Manie is out there’s plenty to suggest that not everybody thought it was a good idea. The Manx Missile would be the first one who comes to mind. I agree that this should not end up as another Ardennes type course. What is now the “classic” route should just be left alone in my opinion, the list of winners is pretty impressive without many Grand Tour GC contenders…they get their chances later.

      • Anonymous Friday, 20 March 2015, 8:21 am

        What’s the reason for not climbing Le Manie this time?

  • Anonymous Thursday, 19 March 2015, 11:49 pm

    Froome would never win MSR as long as he’s got a hole in his ………!

  • Joe K. Friday, 20 March 2015, 6:29 am

    La Primavera–as the name implies–was historically the season’s first big race for getting some long distance racing miles into the legs at the start (back then) of the new season, so the distance was long and steady, and the peloton included everyone: stage racers and one day racers, climbers as well as sprinters. It’s only in modern times with the arrival of specialists who target only the grand tours that (most of) these specialists don’t ride the MSR. Why? Because they don’t need it for gaining fitness in the early season. They have their own training methods and racing schedules aimed to peak at the right time since their target is only one (normally) of the grand tours. So not having Froome, Quintana or Contador at MSR is a sign of the times, and we shouldn’t have to tweek the course every year to coax them out and ride it. For me, the race stands alone as being great. And not having any Tour de France contender riding it detracts nothing from its greatness as a Monument of cycling.

  • Anonymous Friday, 20 March 2015, 8:36 am

    I presume they run Lombardia which would suit Froome and Contador etc, keep the diversity

    • Anonymous Friday, 20 March 2015, 8:46 am

      It’s funny that neither Froome nor Contador have never done anything serious in Lombardia.

      • The Inner Ring Friday, 20 March 2015, 9:04 am

        That’s a matter of timing too. Sandwich a hilly MSR in between Tirreno-Adriatico and the Volta a Catalonia and things would be different. I’d still prefer the current version, probably with Le Manie though.

  • Marcel Friday, 20 March 2015, 9:40 am

    I’m not sure if riders like Froome and Contador will ever care about Milan-Sanremo, and even if they will, I don’t think they’ll do well. After all, when have they ever played a part in LBL or Worlds?
    I like the fact that the classics all have their own character, and I wish organisers wouldn’t mess with that.

    • gabriele Friday, 20 March 2015, 12:32 pm

      Contador has been a worthy gregario in a couple of occasion, maybe three (I’m including Olympics), but otherwise he could just leave his mark in lesser one-day races, generally with an uphill finish.

  • ave Friday, 20 March 2015, 9:42 am

    For those with the negativity towards changing the route. Remember that the now-so-perfect route is a result of changes too. Why not watch an edition or two with the Pompeiana, and decide afterwards?
    You can speculate, but nobody knows what will happen.

  • J Evans Friday, 20 March 2015, 10:00 am

    If they must change it – does any cycling fan want this? – couldn’t they have a hilly version one year and a flat version the next?
    I, like many others above, dislike the trend towards making all the monuments the same.
    I suggest a flat finish to L-B-L would make it less likely that everyone waits till the end.
    And, whilst we’re at it, one of the cobbled classics (not monuments) should end on a hill; for variety.

    • cthulhu Friday, 20 March 2015, 10:03 am

      Isn’t that the plan for this years L-B-L, to reintroduce a more classical finish where the Redoute is the last mayor climb again and a fast downhill run-in towards Liège?

      • J Evans Friday, 20 March 2015, 10:06 am

        I hadn’t heard that – hope you’re right!

      • The Inner Ring Friday, 20 March 2015, 10:57 am

        It’s being explored but the latest is that it probably won’t happen this year.

  • J Evans Friday, 20 March 2015, 10:12 am

    ‘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’

    – Absolutely. That’s why the shortened grand tours with all the ‘star’ names riding them are such a terrible idea: all other races would be negated, the ‘trifecta’ would be meaningless and throughout cycling history one rider has often dominated (the current situation of having a few equally strong GT riders is rare) – how dull would the three tw0-week grand tours be then?

    The people who suggest these things have no interest in cycling – only in money.

    • gabriele Friday, 20 March 2015, 12:28 pm


  • J Evans Friday, 20 March 2015, 10:53 am

    And as one of the true classics, Paris-Tours should be a world tour race.

  • J Evans Friday, 20 March 2015, 11:12 am

    And how about an occasional mountainous world championships for the grand tours contenders?

  • luigi Friday, 20 March 2015, 11:48 am

    the introduction of the pompeiana would be a turn towards the Ardennes that I don’t like. The Manie, i.e. the new Turchino, and the finish line back in via Roma instead that by the sea would make the Sanremo open, tachycardiac, a real fight between sprinters and the others.

    I hope strong riders will not let alone Nibali on the Cipressa this year, otherwise, as usual, too many riders will be together in Sanremo

  • gabriele Friday, 20 March 2015, 12:24 pm

    As Larry said, this year there’s no specific reason to have Le Manie out. The organisation wants it like that and says it’s going on that way. I hope fans may have these guys change their minds?
    The best thing (or one among the best) about Le Manie is that it provided something interesting to watch during the first hour of TV. I’m a big fan of the subtle waiting sensation, half-way between expectation and boredom, which is so typical of La Classicissima: all the same, Le Manie granted that *something* was happening, even if it was far enough from the finish line not to spoil the sense of vagueness that the race holds at that point. Plenty of strategy, even if it well could end in much ado for nothing.
    Though, maybe that’s part of the problem. Even the biggest fans of the Sanremo can sometimes be irritated by its linearity, indeed, but on the other hand a significant part of the general public prefers to understand clearly what’s going on, possibly without a greater effort (which could hinder digestion or distract you from after-lunch conversation). Multiple breakaways, splitting peloton… ouch.
    I’m not saying RCS would take Le Manie out *because* of this, not at all, but maybe they were *ready to sacrifice it* because they considered its importance incidental to the success of the race in a wider context.
    At least, that’s what I’m figuring out comparing the angry reaction of practically every single cycling fan I know to the removal of the climb, with the lack of enthusiasm about it in occasional spectators.
    (No need to say that my opinion is that they should keep it and just improve the quality of the TV “narration” to make people understand why it’s so interesting).

    Larry got another point quite right, IMHO. Someone in the peloton *really* didn’t like that climb.
    Note that, as it has been pointed out by Dr Manhattan, nationalism isn’t at all the main drive in this kind of decisions. RCS doesn’t restricts its marketing considerations to home soil, and rightly so. Generally speaking they want a *big name* to win the race, a name known by the more general public, not just by cycling fans.
    Even if, as cycling fans, we may appreciate a Sanremo won by a rider who could make the top five in Flanders or a podium in Roubaix, or, say, a victory by a rider wearing the rainbow, RCS will always like best a Cavendish victory. Sagan or Cancellara would do, too, possibly Pozzato (to foster some always welcome polemiche), but few other riders.
    Repeated victories are extremely welcome, too, as a form of positive reinforcement which sport marketing generally loves, even if hardcore fans aren’t always so satisfied with them (it depends, I’d say).
    From this point of view, the Albo d’oro of the last four or even five years (incredible for most informed fans…) didn’t satisfy RCS. They tried to get something out of it, “the first Australian”, “the first African team”, yeah, but it really didn’t work so well. That’s why they’re turning the course over and over in their minds, including a good share of politics (that is, riders’ or, better said, teams’ requests). Sadly, big teams will always bet on control and predictability, I’m afraid.
    Quite a pity, IMHO, since the Le Manie solution was the perfect key to match innovation and tradition.

    PS On paper, no Pompeiana for me. If the race should lose interest, I agree that we may try that for a couple of years, but, for me as a fan, this just isn’t the case now, nor it has (ever?) been in the last, dunno, fifty years? I can’t recall four consecutive years of bunch sprints (Pozzato 2006 has the same time of the bunch, but it was a finisseur move). 1997-2005 was on the limit, maybe, but that’s 10 years ago, and then came Le Manie. Nor were all those Zabel’s “bunch” sprints the same. *The chase* is part of the charme of the race.
    Contador and Froome may try to enter the race with Pompeiana, yeah, but what has been their impact till now on any other one-day races? And without an uphill finish? The start list buys some interest, but it’s the result which eventually makes a title in the news.