Milan-San Remo celebrates the 100th edition of the race on Saturday (March 21) and yet again the finely-balanced route and the Italian hype and hysteria for the race makes the first big classic of the season a totally unpredictable thriller.

The race distance of 298km means riders spend seven hours in the saddle but the intensity of the final half hour makes up the for wait.

As ever Milan-San Remo will be a battle between the sprinters and the late attackers, about if the sprinters can get over the coastal ?capi? climbs and who still has some speed in their legs for the finish.

Milan-San Remo is considered one of the easiest classics on the calendar to win but is excruciatingly easy to lose and can be decided in a split second.


100 YEARS OF MILAN-SAN REMO

The first edition of Milan-San Remo was held in 1907 and the race immediately became a classic.

As Friday?s Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper recalls, just 33 riders lined up at 4.30 in the morning for that first edition race on dirt roads. Italy?s Giovanni Gerbi was the favourite but bike sponsor Bianchi wanted French rider Lucien Petit Breton to win. He was offered 15 lira per kilometre if he won and so paid off Gerbi, who took out Frenchman Garrigou in the sprint. He was disqualified but Petit Breton paid him 15,000 lire, a fortune at the time.

Gazzetta asked for readers to vote their best ever edition of Milan-San Remo in an internet poll.

Mario Cipollini?s win in 2002 came out on top with 30.2 per cent, beating Francesco Moser?s win in 1984 just after he broke the hour record in Mexico. Fausto Coppi?s 1946 victory after a 147km lone break was third. He broke away on the Turchino climb and finished 14 minutes ahead of the second placed rider.

Cipollini?s victory perhaps came out on top because it is the most recent but his winning sprint in the zebra-striped Acqua & Sapone jersey perfectly symbolises Milan-San Remo. Cipollini watched his brother Cesare ride when he was seven. His dad was disappointed that Cesare struggled and Mario promised he?d win Milan-San Remo one day. He often went close but finally did win in 2002 after 13 years of trying.


WHO’S GOING TO WIN in 2009?

We assess the favourites for La Primavera.

Trying to predict this year?s winner is harder than usual this year. No single rider stands out as the absolute favourite but at least a dozen have a real chance of victory.

These include sprinters Alessandro Petacchi (LPR), Daniele Bennati (Liquigas), Mirko Lorenzetto (Lampre) and Tom Boonen (Quick Step), attackers Davide Rebellin (Diquigiovanni), Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) and Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step).

The absence of Last year?s winner Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) and world champion Alessandro Ballan (Lampre) will also affect the race, meaning the sprinters are in the majority and so perhaps able to control the attacks.

For an in-depth prediction of who might win the 2009 Milan-San Remo, see our separate article>>

Mark Cavendish Tirreno Adriatico 2009Mark Cavendish

Mark Cavendish (Columbia) has rightly played down his chances. It will be his first Milan-San Remo, it’s easy to forget he is still only 23, and the distance and the climbs could hurt his chances.

However, Cavendish pointed out he is climbing better than ever and is already at the same weight as when he finished last year?s Giro d’Italia. If the race stays together with the attackers neutralising each other, do not be surprised if he goes close to what would be an amazing debut victory.

Lance Armstrong

Lance Armstrong (Astana) has virtually no chance of victory but hogged the spotlight before the race after organisers RCS Sport convinced him to ride. He last rode Milan-San Remo in 2002, and he also rode as world champion way back in 1994.

Armstrong has spent the last two weeks training in the South of France. He seems pretty fit and will have no problem making it to San Remo but it?s difficult to see him risking his neck on the descent of the Poggio. However, he could makes some friends and justify all the attention by going on the attack on the Cipressa. What else can Astana expect to achieve in the race? Their team is pretty weak, with only Yarolslav Popovych standing out in a team of relative unknowns.


THE BRITS IN MILAN-SAN REMO

British riders have been out in force so far this season but only Mark Cavendish (Columbia), Roger Hammond (Cervelo) and Ian Stannard (ISD) are on the initial entry list.

Update: Bradley Wiggins is a late replacement for fellow Brit David Millar. The Scot crashed during Paris-Nice and underwent surgery on a fractured collarbone during the week.

Steve Cummings (Barloworld) opted not to ride after a difficult Tirreno-Adriatico. He suffered after travelling back from racing in the heat in South Africa and did not finish the tough mountain stage at Tirreno-Adriatico on Tuesday. He will focus on recovering in Tuscany and then race again at the Three Days of La Panne and the Tour of Flanders.

His team mate Geraint Thomas is also out of action after his high-speed crash in the Tirreno-Adriatico time trial. He is recovering fast despite breaking his nose and hopes to get back on the bike next week.

Ian Stannard?s selection for the ISD team is reward for his hard work in recent weeks. Stannard has slimmed down even more and impressed directeur sportif Luca Scinto in training on Monday. Stannard?s job will be to look after team leader Giovanni Visconti and sprinter Oscar Gatto but it would also be great to see power along in the early break.

David Millar (Garmin-Slipstream) was originally scheduled to ride, but was forced to withdraw when he broke his collarbone.


MILAN-SAN REMO: THE ROUTE

Milan-San Remo starts outside Castello Sforzesco in the heart of Milan and ends on the seafront in San Remo after 298km of racing.

The inclusion of more and more capi climbs over the years has balanced the improvement in the roads, bike technology and training techniques. However the inclusion for a second year of the Manie climb, 100km from the finish, is an extra handicap for the sprinters that could prove to be decisive.

It is only 4.7km kilometres long but climbs at an average of 6.7% and many of the sprinters will go into the red as they try to hang on. Some will get dropped and have to chase hard, while some will never get back on and their race will be over.

The short capi climbs begin in the final 50km with the Capo Mele, Capo Cervo and Capo Berta on the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean.

The Cipressa (5.7km at 4.1 per cent) comes 28km from the finish and is often the launch pad for attacks. They rarely stay clear but can affect the race.

The Poggio (3.7km) is just 10.7km from the finish and almost always decide the race. Attacks go early and near the top as the sprinters try to hold on and save their legs. The twisting descent through the greenhouses is also a test of nerves with the final two kilometres on the flat to the new finish a last chance for an attack.

When Milan-San Remo finished in Via Roma, the slight rising road was also a factor, punishing whoever started their too early. The new finish near the port includes some extra corners that perhaps any late attacks and means a lead out from a team mate could be decisive.


MILAN-SAN REMO ON TV

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Saturday March 21, 2.50-4.15pm, British Eurosport, Milan-San Remo live coverage

Saturday March 21, 12.15-1am, British Eurosport, Milan-San Remo highlights


MILAN-SAN REMO: HOW IT WAS WON

Here we look back at every edition of Milan-San Remo since 1994 to see how the race has been decided.

image2008

How it was won: LATE ATTACK

Fabian Cancellara launches a strong late attack, and none of the sprinters or their teams can match the time trial champion’s turn of speed in the closing kilometres. As late attacks go, its timing was perfect.

2007

How it was won: SPRINT

Philippe Gilbert and Riccardo Ricco attack on the Poggio but are caught. Oscar Freire takes the bunch sprint

2006

How it was won: POGGIO ATTACK

Samuel Sanchez, Frank Schleck and Rinaldo Nocentini, Filippo Pozzato and Alessandro Ballan get away on the Poggio and stay away. Nocentini attacks with 600 metres to go but fades quickly. Pozzato of Quick Step counters with 300 metres to go just as the bunch is about to close him down.

2005

How it was won: SPRINT

Laurent Brochard tries a late attack inside the last 1.5 kilometres but it ends in a sprint, won by Alessandro Petacchi.

2004

How it was won: SPRINT

Igor Astaraloa and Samuel Sanchez are among those who try to get away on the descent of the Poggio but Petacchi?s Fassa Bortolo squad keep a lid on things to set up the sprint. Erik Zabel thought he had it, but is pipped on the line by Freire.

2003

How it was won: POGGIO ATTACK

Luca Paolini of Quick Step attacks behind Danilo Di Luca of Saeco. Another Saeco rider, Mirko Celestino, and Paolini?s team-mate Paolo Bettini go with it. Paolini, Celestino and Bettini stay clear, with Bettini attacking late to clinch the win.

2002

How it was won: SPRINT

Bettini and Giuliano Figueras attack on the Poggio but Acqua & Sapone bring it back to set up Mario Cipollini for the sprint.

2001

How it was won: SPRINT

Erik Dekker of Rabobank attacks with two kilometers to go but the sprinters prevail, with Zabel pipping Cipollini

2000

How it was won: SPRINT

Bettini and Juan Carlos Dominguez have a go on the decent. Gian-Matteo Fagnini leads out Zabel to win

1999

How it was won: LATE ATTACK

The sprinters are caught napping by Andrei Tchmil, who attacks with 600 metres to go

1998

How it was won: SPRINT

The race splits on the descent of the Poggio and Zabel wins the 18-man sprint

1997

How it was won: SPRINT

A big crash mars the finish but Zabel avoids the carnage to win

1996

How it was won: CIPRESSA BREAK

Four riders, Gabriele Colombo of Gewiss, Alexandre Gontchenkov, Max Sciandri and Michele Copolillo attack on the Cipressa, a little over 20 kilometres from the finish. Colombo attacks again one kilometre from the line. The bunch is 30 seconds back.

1995

How it was won: POGGIO ATTACK

Laurent Jalabert and Maurizio Fondriest attack on the Poggio, with Jalabert edging it at the finish

1994

How it was won: POGGIO ATTACK

Gewiss rider Giorgio Furlan attacks on the Poggio, setting a record time for the three-kilometre climb of five minutes and 22 seconds to solo to victory.


RELATED LINKS

Who will win Milan-San Remo?

Cavendish talks about his San Remo chances

Cancellara opts out of Milan-San Remo

Milan-San Remo 2008: Analysis

Dope testers give Armstrong a haircut

Mark Cavendish: Rider Profile