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, a race where every pedal stroke counts and the list of contenders and pretenders is longer than any other. Who will keep their nerve?
The Route: 291km plus the processional ride out of Milan mean it’s 300km of riding (and could be longer still if there’s a detour to avoid a big diesel spill near Ovada). The race traverses across the vast Po valley and the Pianura Padana, the flatlands that grow much of Italy’s rice crop. At 117km 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, the railway beside the road points to the soft slope. 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 wintry plains to the shimmering spectacle of the Mediterranean with its palm trees and blooming flowers, from winter to spring via one mountain pass.
There’s a 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 where no winning move has worked 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.
It’s easy to cite the contenders but hard to pick a winner. The beauty of this race is that so many are in with a chance yet only champions tend to win, the list of previous winners is a roll call of champions and even if Matt Goss or Filippo Pozzato may invite head scratching they were world class when they were winning.
Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) is the obvious pick once again. He can win from an attack over the Poggio, he’s supreme on the descent and can out-sprint the best from a large group too and there’s a random touch because if doesn’t win he’ll shrug while many others named below may feel crushed by missing the career opportunity of the season, even the lifetime. He’s in form having had a good Tirreno-Adriatico and he’s also got a stronger squad this year which helps save precious energy. At times he’s his own biggest rival, despite the aura and the rainbow stripes his win rate in the classics is not prodigious as we might expect after nine years as a pro. He says he wants to put on a show but I suspect he’ll be more clinical.
Michał Kwiatkowksi won last year and can do it again. He’s been Sagan’s rival since they were juniors and is just as versatile, he’s won Tirreno-Adriatico and can sprint well too. He won’t take a bunch sprint but he can do pretty much everything else and has a sharp racing brain. Sky come with a strong team with Gianni Moscon as a dark horse, if he drifts off on the road between the Cipressa and Poggio it’ll take a lot of work to bring him back.
Quick Step have lost Fernando Gaviria to a crash but still come with options. Julian Alaphilippe was the third man a year ago and for all the unsuccessful attempts in Paris-Nice apparently his numbers in training are better than last year when he was able to follow the winning move so expect a queue on his wheel on the Poggio. Philippe Gilbert is the curiosity, he’s 35 and losing the searing acceleration that made following his moves on the Poggio almost impossible. So does he try a move on the Cipressa? Give Alaphilippe an uphill leadout on the Poggio? Elia Viviani is the team’s sprint option but has thrived on shorter, flatter courses but is a redoubtable sprint option for the team.
Arnaud Démare has won here already and returns in good form after a strong Paris-Nice. Sanremo is his kind of sprint, a brute force contest after seven hours and he’s got a solid Groupama-FDJ team in his service, essentially seven lead out riders.
Greg Van Avermaet could win all five monuments, he wasn’t far off in Liège-Bastogne-Liège and if he could hang on to the finish (or wait for the revised flat finish on the banks of the Meuse next year) he’s in with a chance for the sprint. Sanremo is the hardest because how does he win, if he jumps clear on the Poggio he’s likely to find Peter Sagan hard to handle in the finish and if he waits for the sprint then others are surely quicker? Jürgen Roelandts could try the sprint too.
Financial scares aside Astana have had a great start to the season. Alexey Lutsenko looks hard to categorise, he can pound the cobbles and win on the Jebel Akhdar alike and has the punch for the Poggio. The team has Magnus Cort Nielsen as back-up for the sprint and Michael Valgren is a dangerman too.
Mitchelton Scott come with two sprinters and worries about a virus that has caused several late selection changes. Caleb Ewan is presumably on orders to sit tight until 150m to go and he’s got the speed but Sanremo is a different sprint after 300km. Matteo Trentin could almost follow the moves over the Poggio but can and has won classics from sprints. It’s not a case of Ewan or Trentin being better than the other, it’s having options according to how the race pans out, if things go wild on the Cipressa then Trentin is good, if the race huddles then Ewan is an ace card.
Sonny Colbrelli tried to follow on the Poggio last year but either couldn’t or wouldn’t. He’s a hard sprinter who thrives in tough conditions so Saturday looks good for him but he’s not an obvious pick for the win, an outsider rather than a likely pick. Bahrain-Merida team mate Vincenzo Nibali rides and may try an attack but how can win?
Sacha Modolo returns to the race that made him famous when he was fourth in 2010 aged 23. That’s been his best result but like Colbrelli and Trentin he thrives in harder sprints.
Alexander Kristoff (UAE Emirates) made a name for himself with a win here and now faces similar conditions. His problem is his form, he’s been expressing doubts and been on antibiotics recently but when he won in 2014 he wasn’t on the radar much either and let his powerful sprint do the work. New team mate Ben Swift has been on the podium here too but the top step seems a tall climb for an infrequent winner.
Marcel Kittel is Katusha-Alpecin’s star attraction and comes off two stage wins in Tirreno-Adriatico. He starts this race for the first time and the Cipressa and Poggio look to be too much for him but imagine losing sight of him only for him to appear on your screen on the back of the group as the speed into Sanremo. Nathan Haas brings more options.
Did a black cat walk across the path of the Sunweb bus? They’ve had a spate of injury woes. Some good news though because Michael Matthews fractured his shoulder in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and could have raced Tirreno-Adriatico but resumes here. He’s ideal for this race with his punch and sprint but the form is the doubt.
André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) has tried here before and on paper this ought to be his race, he can cope well with sharp climbs and has a huge sprint. But come Sanremo and his watts weaken and he was out of the mix in Paris-Nice too.
A few more in rapid fire. Cofidis are a soap opera right now. Nacer Bouhanni was dropped because the team say he’s not fit, he keeps retweeting interviews saying he is: open conflict with the management. Christophe Laporte is good for a long sprint, but a World Tour win would be an upset and if he wants to dream, perhaps Paris-Roubaix is more his thing? Tony Gallopin fell ill in Paris-Nice but recovered and is out for revenge but if he can sprint, others are faster. Danny van Poppel is Lotto-Jumbo’s pick for the sprint. Finally Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) gets the perennial tip but often struggles in longer races, team mate Stephen Cummings is off the radar and can jump away when everyone least expects it.
|Arnaud Démare, Elia Viviani, Matteo Trentin
|Alexey Lutsenko, Alexander Kristoff, Julian Alaphilippe, Gianni Moscon, GVA
|MCN, Matthews, Kittel, Ewan, Colbrelli, Gilbert, Modolo, Greipel, Swift
Weather: a wet start and 9°C on the plains with a light headwind. The sun should appear at times when the race is on the coast and the temperature rises a few degrees and a 10-15km/h headwind.
TV: Rai’s coverage begins at 2.00pm CET with four hours of live broadcast with Eurosport doing the international feed. The finish is forecast for 5.00pm CET. Cyclingfans and steephill have guides and links to schedules and streams.