The fringes of Spring may only just be tracing their way across Europe, but the looming prospect of Milan – San Remo shall imminently signal the confirmation of this year’s classics campaign getting underway. Victories in the five races which form cycling’s monuments (Milan – San Remo, Tour of Flanders, Paris – Roubaix, Liège – Bastogne – Liège and Giro di Lombardia) are rare badges of honour for a rider to add to their palmarés; having the power to turn a ‘great’ into a ‘legend’. For a race to possess such prestige, it cannot be a simple affair to win, thus presenting a total of 291km from Milan to San Remo to all of those with an eye upon victory. This year’s edition follows a familiar format which seeks to agitate the race over the decisive late climbs of the Cipressa and Poggio, often then creating an established group of elite riders who are then poised to hammer it to the finish line upon the Via Roma. The peloton will let the day’s breakaway vanish up the road, keeping them under control and rolling through more than half of the race before truly considering reeling them in. Though the Cipressa is expected to be the scene of a few speculative moves, the 5.6km climb averages a modest 4.1% and with the steepest section only hitting 9%, it is unlikely we will see the race won from here. What follows is the historic Poggio ascent, coming less than 10km from the finish and possessing a history of inspiring attempts to fracture the race in hope of seeing the major sprinters slide out the back of the pack. The climb lasts 3.7km and mirrors this with an average gradient of 3.7%, the most demanding section is 8% and it summits 5.4km from the finish. The climb itself is not that tough, but the puncheurs will seek to set a high tempo in order to make life as difficult as possible for the sprinters. Once the riders return to the main coastal road after the dangerous technical descent, only 2.3km will remain for those wishing to stay away and those hoping to reel them back in. With a lack of road furniture or tight bends, it is ideal terrain for the main bunch to capture any escapees before the finale, the Via Roma set once again to be the scene of another iconic finish of Milan – San Remo.
John Degenkolb is a previous winner of this monument in a season which saw him double up with victory several weeks later at Paris-Roubaix. Such performances seemed to signal the emergence of a dominant force within the classics for years to come, but an unfortunate training crash which saw the German nearly lose a finger meant he has had to see his palmarés stall for an entire season. This seems to have allowed Degenkolb’s abilities to soften slightly in the minds of many, despite the fact that this endurance based affair and likely sprint finish are almost tailormade for this power based rider, as proven previously with victory in 2015.
Peter Sagan may well have a greater focus upon this year’s Tour of Flanders, but there is no doubt he will be in the hunt at Milan – San Remo as the two time World Champion seeks to collect his second career monument win. The last year has proven to be a demonstration of Sagan’s potential coming to fruition at an intimidating level, beginning to establish a consistency to his riding which has seen few beat him when he really targets a race. As ever though, Sagan’s passion for aggressive riding sometime leaves him paying the price come the finish, but it may be this bad habit which earns him victory here when forcing the tempo.
Fernando Gaviria looked on course for a shock win at last year’s Milan – San Remo, the Colombian appearing the fastest rider left in the lead group as they approached the Via Roma, but he was struck by misfortune when clipping wheels and ending up on the deck questioning what exactly had happened. Since last year, Gaviria has demonstrated an ability to perform well in sprints at the end of a long day in the saddle, getting the better of sprinting’s biggest names in the process. The support of his Etixx teammates could be a deciding factor here, as they look to limit his efforts in the final kilometres, leaving him fresh enough to outperform any remaining favourites.
Arnaud Démare was the unexpected victor a year ago and arrives with intentions to defend his title in superior form to that of last season. The Frenchman’s start to 2017 has been impressive, marking his intentions to make life has difficult as possible for those hoping to snatch his crown, though a degree of his hopes do rely on his team putting in another great showing here. A champion’s desire to retain a title can count for a lot when gritting teeth and pedalling squares is required to get up the final climb, so despite not being the biggest favourite, plenty shall be keen to observe his performance.
Alexander Kristoff is another former winner riding 2017’s edition, though perhaps the one in the least eye-catching form ahead of the opening classic to the season. The Norwegian has long established a reputation for seemingly savouring the harshest of conditions and there is no coincidence that his victory at Milan – San Remo came in the most grimy of weather; taking advantage of his rivals’ weary state to win. His form ahead of the race may not be the most encouraging, though should the wind and rain begin to close in, then there is every chance Kristoff will once again become the man to beat.
Michael Matthews once appeared to be set for taking this monument during his career, but his evolution as a rider has perhaps altered the races once seemingly suited to his abilities. The Australian consistently performs at the World Championships when the course is fitting, demonstrating a talent for coping with these arduous contests, though he usually favours a drag up to the finish line to make the most of his sprinting skills.
Mark Cavendish shall be viewed as an outsider for many here, despite the fact the Manxman won this race in 2009, though he will do well to recapture such victorious form in 2017. However, he was underestimated at last year’s World Championship Road Race and would have earned himself another year in the rainbow bands had he chosen the right sprinting line when just losing out to Peter Sagan. He is a tactical mastermind at preserving energy and staying out of danger, while in a simple drag race to the line, only Gaviria looks faster than Cavendish.
Sonny Colbrelli has a great record at Milan – San Remo, having never finished outside the top 20 during his four appearances, though never quite being in the mix for the win itself. The Italian looks in much better form this season, taking a surprise stage win at this month’s Paris – Nice, showing great determination to beat typically faster finishing sprinters. Colbrelli has developed a talent for long distance races and will be hoping to hit the Via Roma in a fresh enough condition to take advantage of the bigger name riders watching one another in order to make his dash for the line.
Niccolo Bonifazio took an impressive fifth place finish two years ago when making his debut at the age of just 21 years old, stoking the hopes of native fans for an impending Italian champion. His start to the year has yielded modest results, though his talent for being one of the fastest left after such a tough race and a canny skill for navigating chaotic finales marks him out as strong outsider regardless.
Nacer Bouhanni appeared destined for victory in 2016, but then saw his chain slip just as the tempo kicked up in the sprint for the finish line, leaving the fractious Frenchman smashing his handlebars in frustration. This year he will be hoping for better fortunes on the Via Roma, only recently returning to racing after being forced to abandon Paris-Nice, bouncing back immediately when winning Nokere Koerse; albeit a race 100km shorter than this contest. Bouhanni is a durable sprinter and will be a man many hope to shake loose in the final moments, plenty fearing his potent burst of acceleration as they hit the final hundred metres.
1st John Degenkolb 2nd Peter Sagan 3rd Fernando Gaviria