The first Monument of the year, this Saturday’s Milan-Sanremo is all about the tense finish, the paradox of the longest race of the year that’s often decided in the final metres and one of the rare one day races where grand tour contenders and sprinters can each stake their claim. Who will keep their nerve?
The Route: 291km plus the processional ride out of Milan. Once the official start is done the race traverses across the vast Po valley and the Pianura Padana, the featureless plains that grow much of Italy’s rice crop, for 100km. Ovada is the town that marks the start of the long Passo del Turchino. This climb used to be important to the race but it’s a slow and gradual climb and 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 of passage, lifting riders away from the wintery plains to the shimmering spectacle of the Mediterranean with its palm trees and blooming flowers, from winter to spring via one mountain pass.
It’s a steep and stressful descent with tunnels to the outskirts of Genova. The halfway point is crossed but the finish feels closer, the coastal road 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 (full detail here). This starts with sharp right hander and quickly climbs through olive groves above the coastal town of San Lorenzo, the 9% 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 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 entire course, is often too fast to film in full. The race continues along the coastal road, the Via Aurelia.
The Finish: the Poggio (more here) 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 before entry 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 aged 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 this is not for virtuoso descenders, instead it suits those with power, a series of sprints out of every corner. Carrying speed into the bends matters but what matters more is being able to pump out big watts on every exit. The ramp ends with fast junction onto the main road and it’s left at the fountain, then right on the Via Roma which has 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 over the years. All the blue bars represent the years with the Cipressa-Poggio combo and the grey ones represent the harder years with the additional climb of Le Mànie, now skipped. It shows any “bunch” sprint is really a reduced group, typically the Poggio reduces the race to 20-40 riders. With seven hours in the legs the resulting sprint is a test of force and energy rather than pure speed and few have a team mate left to lead them out.
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 who is well placed.
Onto the Cipressa and long range moves are hard, nobody has attacked and stayed away since 1996. It’s still strategic, a chance for teams to play some cards and 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 coastal approach to the Poggio as a move can slip away while others get into position, everyone wants someone else to chase. 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 like sardines. The best attacks came late on the steepest part after the chapel on the left and a breakaway only needs 10 seconds over the top to stay away.
Peter Sagan looks invincible right now, at ease on the climbs and winning bunch sprints. He’s been in contention several times here but has yet to win in Sanremo. He seems more relaxed, he’s shown he’s willing to lose races which will help reduce the queue of riders on his wheel. Still he’s the celebrity pick, an obvious choice but if it comes down to a sprint he’s got plenty of competition and if he could design the course he’d surely make it more selective. As ever his Bora-Hansgrohe team are not going to impose themselves on the race but Sam Bennett could feature, he copes well with a climb or two and as we saw in Paris-Nice he can beat the best on his day.
Fernando Gaviria is Sagan’s nemesis. The Colombian crashed within sight of the finish line last year and as bad as this was, it proved the neo-pro could handle a 300km race and reach Sanremo. Now we’ll see if he’s still got the zip in his legs, he’s an ex-track rider but this is a stamina sprint rather than speed contest. To make things harder he’s sustained a wrist injury after crashing on Thursday. This could be ruinous in a long race, especially when required to pull on the bars in the sprint. But so far the extent of his injuries is unknown, just pictures of him with a taped wrist so we don’t know if his wrist is duff… or bluff? Still he’ll lose a chainring for the ratings below for this. He leads a Quick Step team with more back-ups than Team Sky’s computers. Tom Boonen can sprint and add an extra line to his palmarès, the same for Paris-Tours winner Matteo Trentin although both are likely to lead out Gaviria. Julian Alaphilippe was drafted in late and is a good pick for Poggio attack and he’s perfect for the descent too, fearless and able to punch out of each bend and there’s Philippe Gilbert too for the very same role.
Arnaud Démare won last year and has an excellent long sprint for a finish like this. As we saw in Paris-Nice he was the only rider to match Alaphilippe uphill on the opening stage so he’s in good form and has an FDJ team built around including the valuable additions of Davide Cimolai and Jacopo Guarnieri.
Michael Matthews was the five chainring pick a year ago and he remains a prototype contender because he can float over the climbs and has an excellent sprint. He seems to win big too, his palmarès is all quality. Sanremo is his big early season target and has been for the last couple of years. But how does he plot his path to the win? He can sprint but so many many others so does he try a move on the Poggio because he can climb better than other sprinters but what if the likes of Sagan arrive with him?
Alexander Kristoff doesn’t have to worry about tactical scenarios, he’ll surely settle for a sprint and nothing else. After all he won this way in 2014. He has the stamina for the sprint but hasn’t looked too sharp of late with a discreet ride in Paris-Nice but has been quiet before but made the podium in 2015 and was sixth last year too meaning Katusha’s captain knows just what it takes.
John Degenkolb is another previous winner and also had a quiet Paris-Nice but seemed to be using the week for training. He leads the Trek-Segafredo who can play other cards such as Fabio Felline who can cover uphill attacks and sprints well from a small group and Jasper Stuyven makes a precious lead out also has the power to barge away down the Poggio or even in the streets of Sanremo.
Nacer Bouhanni‘s odds must have fallen this week after the Nokere Koerse, finally a win and a convincing one too. He’s been close before and arguably would have made the podium last year were it not for an involuntary gear shift. Sanremo’s been his big goal all along with plenty of endurance training to prepare for this.
Mark Cavendish is another previous winner but has looked quiet. He’s done this before of course, famously faking it during Tirreno-Adriatico before winning Sanremo in order to stay under the radar. In other times he’s looked quiet before and got dropped on the climbs too so he’s far from a certain pick but if he’s in contention as they come into Sanremo all eyes will be on him and his ability to slalom through the group. Dimension Data also have Edvald Boasson Hagen who has seemed made for this race only he’s never been a threat. Steve Cummings is there too and will look to pounce the moment the bunch hesitates, be it on the Cipressa, Poggio or the streets of Sanremo.
BMC Racing’s Greg Van Avermaet is almost under the radar as a contender. He’s winning so much these days but how does he win in Sanremo? A sprint finish won’t work so he has to go on the attack and this is so obvious there will be a queue on his wheel as they scale the Poggio.
Caleb Ewan leads Orica-Scott but if he’s a sprinter has he got what it takes for Sanremo where high speed and aerodynamics helps but the final dash to the line is a test of what’s left in the tank. That tank could be rickety given he had to abandon Tirreno-Adriatico. On paper the team promise plenty with previous winner Simon Gerrans and the enduring ability of Michael Albasini while Magnus Cort Nielsen is a classy rider who can fill the void left by Michael Matthews and Jens Keukeleire as another sprint card.
Sonny Colbrelli‘s stage win in Paris-Nice was a step up and he’s placed in the top 10 in Sanremo before but a win and even a podium would be a big improvement; Bahrain-Merida team mates Niccolò Bonifazio is an outsider for the sprint too while Giovanni Visconti is likely to try an attack along the way as he did last year.
Team Sky line up behind their sprinter Elia Viviani who has made Sanremo his big objective so the team will be looking to apply what they learned from Cavendish to him. Meanwhile Michał Kwiatkowski would be a fitting winner in the “city of flowers” and has the punch and descending skills to take a flyer on the Poggio.
Lotto-Soudal bring a lot of exciting riders to the race with Tiesj Benoot, Tim Wellens and Tony Gallopin who are either planning a series of attacks or just along to bank the 300km ahead of races that are more in their grasp in the coming weeks. The team’s hopes probably rest on Jürgen Roelandts who is due a big win if only for his regularity but this says he could be top-10 but converting this into the win is very hard.
UAE Team Emirates have Sacha Modolo and Ben Swift for the sprint with the latter a podium regular but a win would still be a shock. Diego Ulissi is their man for a Poggio attack.
This is already a long list but that’s what makes Sanremo so alluring: an elusive race where so many riders can start in Milan with legitimate hopes of the win. Any more names? Ag2r La Mondiale’s Alexis Gougeard is good for the morning breakaway while Jan Bakelants might fancy an attack. Astana’s Oscar Gatto is an outside pick and Michael Valgren is tipped for big things. As ever Filippo Pozzato gets media interest and claims he’s flying but only seemed to be a contender when retaining the services of Dr Ferrari. Lotto-Jumbo’s Juan-José Lobato was once an outside pick for this race as he can sprint well from a reduced group so he gets a chainring. Cannondale-Garmin’s best chance is Simon Clarke and Androni’s Mattia Cattaneo is in form but both will hope for a top-10 if they’re lucky.
|Peter Sagan, Michael Matthews, Alexander Kristoff|
|Arnaud Démare, John Degenkolb, Fernando Gaviria|
|Nacer Bouhanni, Ben Swift, Greg Van Avermaet|
|Lobato, Cavendish, Ulissi, Roelandts, Viviani, Bennett, Alaphilippe, Kwiatkowski, Trentin, Bonifazio, Ewan|
Startlist: official PDF here
Weather (updated 9.30am CET): warmer on the plains at the start than the finish, there will be a 20km/h headwind for the opening phase to Ovada and a top temperature of 17°C before crossing to the Ligurian coast where it could be cooler with 17°C and the wind will be a tailwind, moving to a 10km/h onshore breeze later on towards the Cipressa and Poggio.
TV: Rai’s coverage begins at 1.00pm CET on Rai Sport before 4 hours of live broadcast on Rai 2 at 2.00pm CET which will be picked up by the international broadcasters like Eurosport. The finish is forecast for 5.00pm CET. As ever cyclingfans and steephill have guides and links to schedules and streams.