What makes Milan-San Remo a great race – and who will win?

As Mark Cavendish has said, Milan-San Remo is not simply a sprinters’ race. It’s too hard for that. But it is easy for us armchair observers to fall into the trap of assuming that because the winner is often a sprinter it’s a straightforward affair.

In fact, the sprinters have to adapt themselves to cope with the distance and the insane speed on the two most important climbs, the Cipressa and the Poggio. Producing your fastest finish after 180 kilometres and doing it after almost 300, are two very different requirements, particularly when help from team-mates in the final kilometres may be in short supply.

If the race comes down to a sprint, it is because the small hills in the final stretch of the race have not been selective enough, not because people haven’t been trying. The Cipressa, with 22 kilometres to go, is just that little bit too far out to be selective. If it were closer to the finish, it could be a genuine springboard for a small group to go away.

The Poggio has the opposite problem, it is too close to the finish, with the summit coming in the final few kilometres. It’s not particularly selective, either because the gradient is shallow enough for the pace to remain remarkably high all the way up.

So the race comes down to timing and positioning. Being too far back as you go over the top of the Poggio can ruin any chance because it will take too much energy to get back towards the front.

People now talk about the opportunity to attack on the descent of the Poggio or on the last little run-in to the finish as if it’s a genuine possibility for a large number of riders. In fact, this tactic is suited to the very few. Fabian Cancellara made it work in 2008, because that is his forté. Before that, the last rider to spring a surprise so late was Andrei Tchmil in 1999. Filippo Pozzato did something similar in 2006 but that came after he got away with four others on the climb of the Poggio and then, as the bunch was about to catch them, the Italian launched a counter attack with 300 metres to go and stayed away.

Some people feel that the race is devalued when it comes down to a sprint, but that is to ignore everything that has happened before, all those doomed attacks on the capi that send the heart-rates soaring into the red, all that tension make for a fascinating couple of hours’ viewing. We can sit and shake our heads and wonder why a rider is even bothering to attack on the Cipressa when the whole weight of recent history says it is pointless.

In a way, it is precisely the lack of opportunities that makes Milan-San Remo so interesting to watch. Rather like one of those fiendishly difficult fairground games where the apparatus is set up in favour of the stallholder. Throw three bouncy basketballs into a basket tilted at such an angle that it is almost impossible to achieve and win a prize. No one manages it and then, late in the afternoon, as the setting sun begins to cast long shadows, someone rolls up and actually does it.

That is the moment Milan-San Remo is all about. The moment when the sprinter produces the last few pedal revs to inch clear of the rest or, more rarely, the attacker’s bravery pays off.

And that is why Milan-San Remo is all about the victory. There are riders who will finish in the top 10 who we have not considered contenders but it is the winner who has produced the real inspiration.

It’ll be difficult to beat the drama of last year, when Cavendish overhauled Heinrich Haussler (who is absent this year through injury) in such a dramatic finish. Perhaps this year, it’s time for an attack on the Poggio to succeed. Cycling Weekly has divided the contenders into two groups – sprinters and attackers. Oh, and there’s a couple of riders who have a foot in both camps too.

Roll up, roll up, take your pick…

Daniele Bennati (Liquigas)
Best Milan-San Remo:
6th in 2009
If the race comes down to a sprint, the Liquigas rider is our narrow favourite to win. He’s had a decent spring and looked good at Tirreno-Adriatico, where he won a stage.

Tom Boonen (Quick Step)
Best Milan-San Remo:
3rd in 2007
The Belgian champion has enjoyed the best early-season he’s had for years. Has the engine for the distance and can produce a sprint at the end of it.

Oscar Freire (Rabobank)
Best Milan-San Remo:
1st in 2004 and 2007
Some may be surprised we rate Freire so highly this year, but he has had a good start to the season and Rabobank are talking him up. Knows how to win it, too.

Thor Hushovd (Cervélo)
Best Milan-San Remo:
3rd in 2005 and 2009
With Heinrich Haussler missing, The Mighty Thor becomes Cervélo’s best hope.

Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre)
Best Milan-San Remo:
1st in 2005
Not everyone’s cup of tea, but Petacchi is back at a top-level team again and has to be considered if the race ends in a sprint

Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia)
Best Milan-San Remo:
1st in 2009
The big question of the spring has been whether Cavendish is bluffing or not. If you want to know what all this bluff talk is about, read how Cavendish won Milan-San Remo last year. Tempting though it is to think he’s trying to disarm all his rivals again, the numbers don’t stack up. Cavendish has completed nine days of racing so far this year. Last year at the same stage it was 22 days. If he gets to the finish he’ll be a big danger.

Allan Davis (Astana)
Best Milan-San Remo
2nd in 2007
Was also fourth last year and is in an Astana team that has a few cards to play, with Enrico Gasparotto and Maxim Iglinskiy.

Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions)
Best Milan-San Remo:
DNF 2009
American sprinter who has a strong lead-out team behind him – Julian Dean, Murilo Fischer and Robbie Hunter – but will they all be there at the finish? Will Farrar be there?

The outsiders
Jose Joaquin Rojas (Caisse d’Epargne)
Greg Van Avermaet (Omega Pharma-Lotto)
Luca Paolini (Acqua & Sapone)
Greg Henderson (Team Sky)
Matti Breschel (Saxo Bank)

Edvald Boasson Hagen (Team Sky)
Best Milan-San Remo:
94th in 2009
Suddenly fancied for victory after he won the final stage of Tirreno-Adriatico in a sprint. The 22-year-old was part of Cavendish’s team last year so this will be his first stab at trying to get a result for himself. Has the durability for the distance and will surely win the race one day. This could be his year but he will need to be clear with his strategy. Is he looking to attack on the Poggio, or is he waiting for the sprint, because he could do either?

Filippo Pozzato (Katusha)
Best Milan-San Remo:
1st in 2006
Isn’t as fast as Cavendish, Petacchi, Boonen, Freire or Bennati but comes into the equation in this race. Pulled off a surprise in 2006 when his Quick Step team-mate Boonen was the man everyone was watching. Won the bunch sprint behind Cancellara in 2008, so can do a bit of both.

Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank)
Best Milan-San Remo:
1st in 2008
Launched the perfect attack two years ago. Watched like a hawk now.

Stefano Garzelli (Acqua & Sapone)
Best Milan-San Remo:
4th in 1999
Picked Scarponi’s pocket at Tirreno-Adriatico, winning on stage placings. Bound to attack on the Cipressa.

Michele Scarponi (Androni Giocattoli)
Best Milan-San Remo:
46th in 2009
Looked strong at Tirreno-Adriatico and was unfortunate not to win. Will attack.

Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas)
Best Milan-San Remo:
49th in 2009
Had a good week at Tirreno-Adriatico and is climbing well. Part of a ridiculously strong Liquigas team, which has Bennati as the sprinter but also Nibali, Roman Kreuziger and Franco Pellizotti to attack if necessary. The question is, do they want to light the touchpaper with a load of accelerations and risk putting Bennati in trouble?

Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto)
Best Milan-San Remo:
3rd in 2008
Always looking to attack, especially late on. Will be watched though and may realise that leaving it to the run-in is too late.

Might have a go
Maxim Iglinskiy (Astana)
Thomas Voeckler (BBOX Bouygues Telecom)
Alessandro Ballan (BMC Racing)
Damiano Cunego (Lampre)
Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas)
Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas)
Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step)
Mikhail Ignatiev (Katusha)
Serguei Ivanov (Katusha)
Linus Gerdemann (Milram)

Milan-San Remo 2010: The Big Preview

Upcoming events