How will Peter Sagan choose to ride?
There are generally only two ways of winning Milan-San Remo. One is to preserve as much energy during its huge 291km duration, and bank everything on a climactic group sprint. The other is to attack on the Poggio, and try to hold off the raging peloton over a fast and furious 5.5km run-in to the finish.
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For most riders, their particular skill sets make it obvious which approach they should take, but Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) is the rare kind of rider that could conceivably win it either way.
The Slovak has attempted both over the years, but so far to no avail.
He won the bunch sprint in 2012, but only for fourth place as the breakaway group formed on the Poggio was not caught, and also finished fourth in a large sprint at the 2015 edition.
In 2013 he escaped with six other riders on the descent of the Poggio, but could only sprint for second place, and last year he instigated the move on the climb, but was mugged on the line by Michal Kwiatkowski.
That leaves Sagan facing something of a dilemma – should he attack again, and, like last year, risk being followed by other riders happy to sit on his wheel? Or would he be better off trying his chances in a sprint finish against similarly fast finishers?
There’s no obvious answer to that, but whichever strategy Sagan adopts could be the decisive factor as to how the race unfolds.
A depleted field of sprinters
Numerous injuries and illnesses have ruled out or tempered the chances of some of the sprinters who would otherwise have been among the favourites for victory.
Ruled out are Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors), who broke his hand last week, former winner John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo), who has been struck down with bronchitis, the same affliction that will prevent Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) from riding.
Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) and Michael Matthews (Sunweb) will both start, but are unlikely to have the shape necessary to win such a big race having had their seasons considerably disrupted by injuries sustained in crashes.
That leaves a handful of on-form sprinters who enter the race as clear favourites. 2016 winner Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) enjoyed a stellar Paris-Nice, where he demonstrated both the sprinting and climbing form to suggest he’s in excellent shape for Milan-San Remo.
Alexander Kristoff is an ever-present in La Primavera, having finished in the top six in each of the last four editions, and has a few wins to his name this season to suggest he’s on good enough form to win.
In the absence of Gaviria, Elia Viviani will be Quick-Step Floors’ designated sprinter, and has been on great form all season with five wins to his name already – the question will be whether he can remain in contention for the finishing sprint.
And, though he has by contrast not won at all this season, Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott) showed strong enough climbing legs at Paris-Nice to suggest that he’ll likely be in the mix come a finishing sprint.
Riders to attack at Poggio
There are certain usual suspects to look out for when the Poggio arrives, the elite few puncheurs and rouleurs capable of at least attempting to fly off the front of a raging peloton with nearly 300km in their legs.
Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) has attacked on the climb in both the previous editions – successfully so last year – so it seems inevitable that we’ll see him make a similar move this year.
Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) went with him last year, and will be again one to watch on a climb that suits him to a ‘t’.
His teammate Philippe Gilbert, meanwhile, has often tried to make a similar move but so far to no avail, but has singled out victory at Milan-San Remo this year as a primary target.
Finally, Greg van Avermaet (BMC) put in the strongest attack on the Poggio in the 2015 edition. Recent weeks suggest, however, that he may lack the form to do so again – after all, to even attempt a move on the Poggio requires a top rider to be on top form.
As you might have noticed, it’s been a pretty grim spring weather-wise. That applies not just to to the UK and the ‘Beast from the East’, but also to the continent, where races have regularly featured riders wrapped up in several layers battling rainy conditions.
That looks set to continue this Saturday at Milan-San Remo. The weather forecasts predict an uncomfortable ride for the peloton, with rain expected to fall throughout the day.
That could shake-up how the race unfolds, making things harder for the sprinters’ teams to control, and rendering the super-fast descents of the Cipressa and Poggio potentially dangerous.
You only have to look back to the 2013 edition, when the course had to be shortened due to snow, to see how much of an effect bad conditions can have on the race. This year won’t have the same extreme freezing temperatures as then, but will nevertheless likely have a big influence on how the race plays out.
Marcel Kittel makes his debut
Marcel Kittel, the quickest pure sprinter in the world, has played down his chances of winning Milan-San Remo, insisting that his debut ride of the Classic will be more of learning curve.
If that sounds familiar, it might be because in 2009 Mark Cavendish – then the quickest sprinter in the world who was also making his Milan-San Remo debut – also dismissed the idea that he was a contender, before sprinting to victory.
Kittel has similarly gone under the radar as a potential winner, with the consensus being that the climbing in the finale (the Poggio, Cipressa, and three ‘capi ascents) will be enough to rule him out of contention.
But in a race that has been known to throw up some surprising winners (remember Matt Goss in 2011, or Gerald Ciolek in 2013?) he should not be written off, especially now he’s built some form following two sprint wins at Tirreno-Adriatico.