We pick out the leading contenders for Sunday's Milan-San Remo

A spring of top-level racing kicks off in earnest with Milan-San Remo in Italy on Sunday, March 22.

The one-day cycling Monument features a long 293-kilometre route which this year returns to its classic Via Roma finish. Known as a ‘sprinters classic’ the race often finishes with a bunch gallop, but anyone wishing to take a place on the podium has to conquer the punchy hills heading towards San Remo.

Of course, a daredevil attacker or escape group could always prevail to spoil the sprinters’ party.

Here we pick out the leading contenders going into the race, and rate their chances of success.

Alexander Kristoff, KatushaLast year’s victory at Milan-San Remo may have come as a surprise, but since then Alexander Kristoff has established himself as one of the quickest sprinters in the world, and as someone who excels in difficult conditions and lengthy races. Even back in the 2013 Milan-San Remo he won the sprint behind the seven-man breakaway, meaning he has won the peloton’s bunch sprint for two consecutive years – recent form suggests he’s good enough to make it three in three.

Mark Cavendish, Etixx-Quick StepCycling Weekly rating four out of fiveAs one of only three riders to have won more than Kristoff this year, Mark Cavendish looks good to add to his 2009 title. He won when the two went head-to-head in a sprint at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, but is more likely to be drained from the climbing than his Norwegian rival. Help will be at hand from world champion and super descender Michal Kwiatkowksi, who could make for the perfect domestique (or a second option for Etixx should Cav not make it) both up and down the Poggio.

Peter Sagan, Tinkoff-SaxoCycling Weekly rating four out of fiveNo rider has gone on to win Milan-San Remo having not previously won a race that season since Filippo Pozzato in 2006, so Peter Sagan will have been relieved to have finally got off the mark in 2015 with a win earlier this week at the Tirreno-Adriatico. This is the monument that suits him the most, but his tendency to finish runner-up and the improvement of other riders means that he is no longer the outstanding favourite to win.

John Degenkolb, Giant-AlpecinCycling Weekly rating four out of fiveHaving won Paris-Tours and the Vattenfall Cyclassics in 2013 and finished second at Paris-Roubaix last year, victory in the Milan-San Remo would be a logical next step in the evolution of John Degenkolb’s career. He’s not been on top form since wining spectacularly in an uphill finish at the Tour of Dubai in February, but is the perfect rider for this particular classic.

Fabian Cancellara, Trek-Factory RacingCycling Weekly rating three out of fiveIt’s impossible to rule out a rider who has finished on the podium in each of the last four editions of Milan-San Remo, but Fabian Cancellara will rue this year’s altering of the balance in favour of the sprinters. That said, he’s still bound to try something on the Poggio, and the shortened distance from its summit to the finish ought to play into his hands.

Michael Matthews, Orica-GreenEdgeCycling Weekly rating three out of fiveWhenever the young Australian appears in Grand Tours he’s a match for anyone on days with a tough terrain and sprint finish, but Michael Matthews is still something of an unknown prospect in one-day races. He’s on good form, though, having won a stage and the points classification at Paris-Nice, and Australians have won two of the last four editions – the favourites must be wary of his presence.

Alexander Kristoff wins the 2014 Milan-San Remo

Alexander Kristoff wins the 2014 Milan-San Remo

Nacer Bouhanni, CofidisCycling Weekly rating two out of fiveFor the past two years Nacer Bouhanni has been denied his wish to ride Milan-San Remo – through injury in 2013, and through non-selection in 2014. Though he competes this year, and though he climbs surprisingly well, he has not displayed the same form as he did in those previous years and will struggle to land a victory.

Philippe Gilbert, BMCCycling Weekly rating two out of fiveFew riders have animated the finale of Milan-San Remo in recent year as much as Philippe Gilbert, who finished third in both 2008 and 2011. He’s been his usual attacking self this season and will more than likely make a move on either the Cipressa or the Poggio, but has yet to win this year – perhaps on-form teammate Greg Van Avermaet is a better bet.

Ben Swift, SkyCycling Weekly rating two out of five27-year old Brit Ben Swift surprised everyone by finishing third last year, and has since established himself as a specialist in difficult sprints. He remains an outside bet, however, having not won a race since last April, and having been a little off the pace at Paris-Nice.

Vincenzo Nibali, AstanaItalian fans don’t have much to get excited about going into this Milan-San Remo, especially given how lack of both form and hills have diminished Vincenzo Nibali’s chances. He may still have a go on the Cipressa or Poggio, but the Tifosi could be better off pinning their hopes on sprinter Sonny Colbrelli (Bardiani-CSF), who was sixth last year, or perhaps even the cautiously on-form former winner Filippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida).