The biggest race of the season so far takes place this weekend in the form of Milan-San Remo (Sunday, March 22).
As the first of the season’s five monuments – the most prestigious single-day races on the calendar – this classic is one of the most exciting and hotly-contested of the year, and has a list of previous winners that includes everyone from past legends Fausto Coppi, Sean Kelly and Eddy Merckx (with a record high seven) to contemporary stars Mark Cavendish and Alessandro Petacchi.
Despite the various types of riders to have triumphed here, La Primavera is renowned for being the ‘sprinters’ classic’ due to its less difficult terrain and the tendency for a relatively large leading group to make it to the finish together.
Recent tinkerings with the route and additions of extra climbs had threatened that label, but this year the organisers have reverted back to a more traditional course, with both La Manie and the Pompeiana ascents dropped.
The most eye-catching change is the reintroduction of the Via Roma finish line, which, despite being synonymous with the race, has not featured since 2007.
This year feels particularly apt for a return to the Via Roma, with the emergence of a new generation of talented sprinters all hoping to win on its iconic finishing straight.
Defending champion Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), as well as the likes of John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin), Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge), Arnaud Demare (FDJ), Ben Swift (Sky) and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) all possess the right balance of climbing, endurance and sprinting speed to win here, and are all still 27 or under.
Any one of them could yet become the next Erik Zabel or Oscar Freire (who between them have won seven times), and would make a strong stake for that label by winning Milan-San Remo.
Then of course there’s Mark Cavendish (Etixx-Quick Step), who has been on fine form this season and has already won here back in 2009, and will be confident of outsprinting anyone if he can make it to the finish in the lead group.
Although the presence of so many talented climbing-sprinters make a sprint finish seem the most likely scenario, Milan-San Remo is never that straightforward. The final 30km still prove ample opportunities for puncheurs to attack, and contribute to what is arguably the most exciting finale of any race on the calendar.
First is the Cipressa, summited 21.5km from the finish. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) attacked here last year and was ultimately unsuccessful, but if a big group of strong riders can get away together here then survival to the finish line is possible.
The most popular time to attack though is the Poggio. Teams approach this gentle yet crucial climb as though it were a sprint finish, setting a fearsome pace in the hope of neutralising the inevitable attacks.
Anyone who can get a gap over the top then must hurtle down the subsequent descent, which is always something of a free for all as riders try to stick to the wheel in front of them.
The finish line greets them 2km earlier this year, due to the closer proximity of Via Roma than the ditched finish line at Piazzale Italo Calvino, which will increase the chances of any attackers surviving. Such fine margins can be pivotal in a race as balanced as Milan-San Remo – sprinters may be happy to see Via Roma back, but perhaps an attacker can surprise them after all?
Milan-San Remo 2015: Route
When: Sunday March 22 2015
To: San Remo
Milan-San Remo 2015: The teams
CCC Sprandi Polkowice
Trek Factory Racing
Milan-San Remo 2015: TV Guide
British Eurosport will be broadcasting the race live from 13.30, with highlights in the evening.
Milan-San Remo: Recent winners
2014: Alexander Kristoff (Nor) Katusha
2013: Gerald Ciolek (Ger) MTN-Qhubeka
2012: Simon Gerrans (Aus) GreenEdge
2011: Matt Goss (Aus) HTC-Highroad
2010: Oscar Freire (Spa) Rabobank
2009: Mark Cavendish (GBr) Columbia-Highroad
2008: Fabian Cancellara (Sui) CSC
2007: Oscar Freire (Spa) Rabobank
2006: Filippo Pozzato (Ita) QuickStep-Innergetic
2005: Alessandro Petacchi (Ita) Fassa-Bortolo
Milan-San Remo: Last year’s top 10 (2014)
1. Alexander Kristoff (Nor) Katusha in 6-55-56
2. Fabian Cancellara (Swi) Trek Factory Racing
3. Ben Swift (GBr) Sky
4. Juan Lobato (Spa) Movistar
5. Mark Cavendish (GBr) Omega Pharma-QuickStep
6. Sonny Colbrelli (Ita) Bardiani
7. Zdenek Stybar (Cze) Omega Pharma-QuickStep
8. Sacha Modolo (Ita) Lampre-Merida
9. Gerald Ciolek (Ger) MTN-Qhubeka
10. Peter Sagan (Svk) Cannondale all same time