Unlike the gentle changes which signal Winter’s transformation into Spring, the challenge of Milan-San Remo will deliver a blunt blow of realisation to the peloton, no longer are they riding for early season fitness; this is a monument. Much like the vanishing lights on a F1 grid igniting the race for the first corner, Milan-San Remo signals an oncoming weekly onslaught of classics and monuments until the end of April. Though it lacks the punishing cobbles of Paris-Roubaix or Liège-Bastogne-Liège’s skywards climbs, it compensates by offering the longest day in the saddle at 293km long; naturally being the most draining affair. The possibility of bad weather is a concern for those contesting any classic, but when factoring in the likelihood of sitting in icy winds and rain for 6 hours (bordering on 7), it becomes apparent how much glory a win here bestows upon the strongest rider. Though this might be the easiest classic to finish, it is by far the hardest to win.
Endurance in both physical and mental forms are crucial in a race where the tempo is unlikely to ratchet up before the famous climbs of the Cipressa and Poggio. The introduction of various ascents has resulted in the route being tinkered with in an attempt to quell the dominance of sprinters in recent history; meaning the ability to hide in the bunch all day conserving energy was not always a winning formula. Milan San-Remo’s form appears to have settled into a recognisable shape in recent editions, with the Poggio acting as a launchpad for those attempting to void chances of a sprint finish, but this year makes such a tactic harder then usual. Its obvious alteration in 2015 is the re-introduction of the historic Via Roma finish, the town centre straight formerly a backdrop to the dominance of Eddy Merckx in the 60’s, will make any sprint finish intently iconic once again. However, the side-effect of this return to Via Roma means the peloton will have one kilometre less in hand coming off the Poggio in pursuit of a possible breakaway.
An obligatory breakaway shall be formed with the sole purpose to hang off the front of the bunch all day and are likely to only find their advantage begin to shorten with 60km or so remaining. It is at the 24okm marker that the climbs of Capi shall begin to liven the peloton up; the triple-header of Capo Mele, Capo Cervo and Capo Berta will begin dismantling the escapees. Any lingering scraps are likely to be swept aside by the pre-emptive anxious pace of the peloton as the Cipressa tops their agenda 21.5km from the end. An average of 4.1% might not seem daunting on paper, but being asked to conquer 5.6km of this after 240km in the saddle (possibly in the rain) will see cracks forming. Cipressa is also likely to be the backdrop for the first big dig of the day, a solo attack like Vincenzo Nibali last year or a small group will do their best to cause a stir and get the sponsors on camera; it would surprising for any attack here to be the winning move.
Should any rider(s) manage to stay away after the Cipressa’s climb, it seems certain that they will be swallowed up by the peloton’s 9km blitz to the base of the Poggio. Always stressful and sometimes decisive, the Poggio appears 300m after slipping below the 10km marker; the run onto its opening slopes is an unspoken sprint each year. Dialling up the pace is guaranteed from the sprinters’ teams, aiming to deter any breakaway attacks by making the required escape velocity too obscene to even attempt reaching. With 3.7km to cover, the early twisting hairpins of the Poggio are not fertile ground for a race winning move; these will occur on the harsher 8% ramp towards the top. This launchpad has seen victories secured by Gerald Ciolek, Simon Gerrans and Matt Goss in recent years when benefiting most from breakaways formed on the Poggio. Riding from the summit into the finish will be a blood and thunder descent in order to pull back the danger men who have played their cards. Considering the interesting inclusions of Alejandro Valverde and World Champion Michal Kwiatkowski at this edition of Milan-San Remo, it will be worth turning a keen eye to the tricky descent.
Only a strip of flat road separates the riders from the finish now, lung busting efforts will be committed in desperation to either stay away or drag back attackers. Team’s anxieties will now be focused primarily on keeping their star rider safe and positioned well within the bunch as they navigate the final turns and enter onto the historical Via Roma. This stretch of road has seen the first monument of the year claimed by an array of cycling greats; winning this race would guarantee a place is set aside for a new champion’s accession to greatness.
Offering the chance of winning Milan-San Remo on the Via Roma once again, will undoubtedly add fuel to the ambitions of the sprinters here; possibly making the odds of a bunch kick greater than usual. So turning the spotlight onto the quick men who are likely to contest the win is obvious; beginning with defending champion Alexander Kristoff. Early season form has been no issue for the Norwegian Kristoff, dominating Tour of Qatar with 3 stage wins, while demonstrating strength and consistency at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and Paris-Nice respectively. Lieutenants in the form of Alexandr Kolobnev and Luca Paolini should ensure the marked Kristoff is protected and positioned well over the Poggio and into the final flat kilometres of racing. Last year’s victory displayed his prowess to cope and ultimately benefit from testing conditions; similar to his casual attitude towards the ruthless crosswinds when racing in the Middle East this year. Assuming the winner comes from a large sprint finish, it seems a guarantee that Kristoff will be in the pack, but heading into Milan-San Remo with such blistering form has not always benefited the victor here.
Mark Cavendish is certainly finding his feet once again as force to be reckoned with in the sprints; notching five wins so far this season. Overall victory at Tour of Dubai where he won two stages, has been added to by winning Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne ahead of Kristoff and the Clasica de Almeria ahead of Juan José Lobato. However, Tirreno-Adriatico saw Cavendish walk away without a top 10 finish; abandoning on stage 6 of the week long race. Illness has also recently struck the Brit and whether or not he is still reeling from this and the terrible conditions when not finishing Stage 6 is unclear. Despite this, Cavendish has the innate ability to pull out a race winning performance on the biggest of days and will be a major threat in a group sprint. One negative for Cavendish could actually be his team’s line-up, the inclusion of Michal Kwiatkowski and Zdenek Stybar possibly offering less protection and assistance than expected; both now being in their own race winning form compared to their role here last season.
Britain has another man worth looking for as the peloton reach the business end of the day’s affairs; Yorkshireman Ben Swift. Last year saw the Sky rider secure an impressive 3rd place in this race and there is no reason to suggest he cannot go at least one better this year. He is bound to have greater support than before and has been nicely ticking over in regards to performances. At Paris-Nice he was able to stay with and fulfil his domestique duties for Geraint Thomas and Riche Porte on the penultimate day’s difficult climbs. He also finished 9th in the first day’s sprint finish, despite having to wildly correct his line to stay upright when another rider moved erratically across. Often winners fly under the radar until Milan-San Remo and Ben Swift certainly fits the mould in this respect; keep a close eye on him.
Despite it being his Milan-San Remo debut last year, Juan José Lobato was far from daunted by the prospect; going on to secure an impressive 4th in the sprint. His season has gone well so far this year, demonstrating solid form by winning testing finishes at both Andalucia and Tour Down Under. It was only Cavendish who stood in the way of Lobato winning the one day Clasica de Almeria; a promising sign for the Spaniard. This could be the year he finally delivers on expectations by taking a major win, but it remains to be seen if the race will be selective enough for him to benefit sufficiently. John Degenkolb was the man who got the better of Lobato on stage 3 of Dubai Tour when riding the likes of Valverde into the ground with a monstrous effort on the Hatta climb. His performances so far have been spluttering at best, often unable to match the pace of others come the finish or disadvantaged by poor lead-outs. A late puncture in last year’s race spelled the end for a strong looking Degenkolb, but he has finished 5th here once before. Though there is little to encourage the backing of Degenkolb so far this season, he will hope the day’s racing is hard, wearing down his rivals before unleashing his sprint on a finishing straight which does suit him.
Despite not being the fastest of riders, it is the strongmen of the peloton who will really look to hammer home their strength after 293km of riding; crushing the thoroughbred sprinters’ chances. Many fancy Peter Sagan to do just that, he recently broke his 200+ day duck of no wins at Tirreno-Adriatico by winning the 210km long stage 6. The weather on that day was atrocious, but it seems unlikely that similar conditions will be apparent for the Slovak to utilise; wind looking set to be a more influential aspect than rain or cold. Though it baffles all common sense, Sagan is still lacking a major classics win, jinxed by consistency which has already seen him finish top 5 here twice. He is guaranteed the full commitment of a very strong Tinkoff-Saxo team, but his weakness could be a lack of tactical nous; knowing whether jumping across to a group on the Poggio will be worth the effort if the majority are working hard for a sprint for example.
The man possessing the polar opposite form in the classic is ‘Spartacus’ himself; Fabian Cancellara. Already this year the Swiss demigod has demonstrated that age is only a number when beating Peter Sagan in Oman. A rider with an immense love and knowledge of the sport, Cancellara is aware of the glory which would be bestowed upon him if winning on the historic Via Roma. He is still more than able at churning out a huge time trial styled solo breakaway in an attempt to give the peloton the slip late on in the day. However, it seems more likely that he will be part of an elite group of strongmen which reach the line ahead of the main bunch. Stage 3 of Tirreno-Adriatico gave a good indication of how this might play out; Cancellara finishing 5th on that day alongside likely Milan-San Remo protagonists Greg Van Avermaet, Peter Sagan, Zdenek Stybar and Fillippo Pozzato. It would be reckless to rule Cancellara out simply on the basis of age, this man is the monuments personified; he has not failed to finish in the top three of a classic since 2010.
BMC will have arrive with a strong squad which includes Daniel Oss, Alessandro De Marchi and Manuel Quinziato as support men for their two major riders’; Philippe Gilbert and Greg Van Avermaet. The options to go long, attack on the Poggio or wait for a sprint are all winnable possibilities for BMC’s star names. Though both have already looked in good shape so far this season, it seems more favourable to lean towards GVA after performing well at Strade-Bianche, winning at Tirreno-Adriatico and consistently finishing with the best throughout his Middle Eastern race schedule. However, he often spurns golden opportunities in major races and is liable to not finishing ruthlessly enough when it counts. Gilbert is worth watching as he is bound to make an impression on the racing at some point (probably the Poggio) but it remains tough to argue a strong case for the former World Champion.
Speaking of World Champions, Michal Kwiatkowski should certainly be considered a dangerous man, despite Mark Cavendish being the designated leader for Etixx-Quick Step on the day. Paris-Nice proved he is developing rapidly considering his age and will be dangerous on the Poggio if allowed off the leash by his team. He won the world title when attacking on a descent, going on to stay away from the chasing group of riders; as little as 10 seconds once he hits the final flat section could be enough for such a dangerous rider. Ensuring that Etixx-Quick Step are packed to the rafters with options is Zdenek Stybar, who having recently won the tricky Strade-Bianche, appears to be in the greatest form of his life thus far. Though he is probably tasked with leading Cavendish out in a possible bunch sprint, he may become a core member of a breakaway group of leaders such as Cancellara, Sagan, Gilbert and Avermaet for example. Should a group form composed of such strong riders, it would be a real task for the peloton to pull them back late on; especially if crucial teams are represented in the break and have no need to chase.
A man that no group of any size will wish to tow to the finish is Michael Matthews, who will contest Milan-San Remo as only his second race of the year. It appears that waiting until March before competing has worked a trick for the young Australian, opening his account at Paris-Nice with a stage win and the points jersey. He already looks strong and the addition of a support team including Simon Clarke, Luke Durbridge, Matthew Hayman and Daryl Impey only adds weight to his claims here. His two previous appearances at Milan-San Remo have been far from impressive, but he will be team leader on this occasion with the likelihood of this being his breakthrough year bigger than ever.
Astana come to the race with Vincenzo Nibali once again, a man expected to animate life in the peloton on either the Cipressa or Poggio. Though their odds of a securing a reasonable result seem better off in the hands of Andrea Guardini. The sprinter has been performing better than expected at this point of the season, but his most successful vein of form came against a below par field at Langkawi; however he did finish consistently in the Middle East and got the better of Sagan, Kristoff and Bouhanni in Oman. Another team with options which might otherwise go overlooked are Lampre-Merida, appearing at Milan-San Remo with an interesting mix of youth and experience. Top of the list in regards to experience at this monument is Filippo Pozzato, a man with a solid track record here which includes victory in 2006. Despite that being almost ten years ago now, Pozzato has appeared bullish in the press and will certainly aim to leave his mark on the day. Niccolo Bonifazio and Davide Cimolai are fresh faced when it comes to Milan-San Remo; the former making his debut and the later only his fourth appearance. Still extremely young at 21, Bonifazio might not win on the day, but he is extremely talented and will be worth monitoring to see how he performs. Cimolai has recently begun to show some form, securing a surprise win at Paris-Nice and could be the best option for the Italian team on the day; though his previous attempts here suggest little.
Whether it is in support of André Greipel or Tony Gallopin, Lotto-Soudal should be confident of being represented in the latter stages of the race. Despite his age, Greipel is always a risk to exclude from proceedings, as he demonstrated at Paris-Nice when beating Demare, Degenkolb, Kristoff, Matthews and Bouhanni on stage 2’s finish. Despite being a dominant force in sprinting, the German has never displayed a real ability to cope well with the demands of any classics race and at this point in his career there is little to suggest things will change now. A man who is rising to prominence for the same team is Tony Gallopin, coming here off the back of an impressive Paris-Nice performance. The Frenchman took the yellow jersey on the penultimate stage there, using a long descent to build an unbridgeable gap to the finish. This method is becoming familiar to those watching Gallopin race and nothing would suit him better at Milan-San Remo than attacking over the Poggio and trying to hold off the pack right to Via Roma. He is likely to be joined by others wishing to avoid a mass sprint, but he also has a quick finish, making him a dangerous man to bring to the finish.
Rounding up the waifs and strays who could also cause a stir include Alejandro Valverde (a surprising inclusion by Movistar), Gerald Ciolek (previous winner), Ramunas Navardauskas (finished 11th last year and could be Gamin-Cannondale’s best bet) and Nacer Bouhanni (debut here and should cope with terrain.)
Though the permutations of the outcome are many, the odds favour a bunch sprint on a course which mirrors the editions dominated by sprinters at Milan-San Remo in the past. Kristoff is favourite to capitalise on this factor, but that means becoming not only the first multiple winner since 2010’s Oscar Freire, but also the first back-to-back winner since Erik Zabel in 2001. With those facts in mind, the odds seem stacked against the Norwegian’s hopes of repeating last year’s victory. If John Degenkolb had shown more so far this year then he would be a major contender, but his erstwhile sprinting ability makes him a tougher act to back than usual. However, his poor results have predominately been the consequence of erratic leadouts in the midst of chaotic bunch sprints, but a bunch sprint after 294km of racing is a different affair altogether. His team is strong and should be able to offer him the best leadout of all contenders from a reduced field of riders once they turn onto the Via Roma. Ben Swift should fancy his chances with the full backing of Sky and will probably feel happier if the weather closes in much like last year; with pure sprinters shattered by the finish he could benefit greatly having approached this race under the radar. Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellara are likely to be amongst the best during a sprint, but probably lack the real top end speed to beat the likes of Kristoff and Cavendish. Despite Cavendish having targeted the race for sometime now, he is not won much this season against a field as strong as the one riding here.
Sprint: 1st Ben Swift 2nd John Degenkolb 3rd Peter Sagan
Should an elite group manage to slip off the front we could see many of the team’s ‘Plan Bs’ brought into action in an attempt to hedge their bets. Greg Van Avermaet, Zdenek Stybar, Peter Sagan, Fabian Cancellara, Michael Matthews or even Tony Gallopin could help form the core of an elite breakaway group late on. If this should happen, Avermaet and Stybar have already demonstrated their talents for winning in this fashion at Tirenno-Adriatico and Strade-Biacnhe respectively.
Elite Group: 1st Greg Van Avermaet 2nd Zdenek Stybar 3rd Fabian Cancellara
Finally, managing to win Milan-San Remo with a solo effort takes immense talent and skill, making this the least likely outcome on the day. With a course which should ensure a sprint of some sort, many will deem it better keeping their powder dry and instead gamble on an upset in the sprint. As ever, the Poggio will be the launchpad for those who believe they have what it takes to take off on the descent and stay clear of the pack. This should certainly appeal to the likes Michal Kwiatkowski, Tony Gallopin, Philippe Gilbert and possibly even Alejandro Valverde or Vincenzo Nibali.
Solo: Michal Kwiatkowski or Tony Gallopin