A long, tense build-up
To the uninitiated, dedicating an entire Saturday afternoon to watching a race in which the favourites only show themselves towards the very end may seem crazy, but part of what makes Milan-San Remo is the gradual build-up of tension throughout the day.
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The 291km of racing that takes the riders from Milan to the Ligurian coast and then westwards along the Italian Riviera before the ascent of the Cipressa – that marks the onset of the race’s finale – is necessary to make the race arduous enough for its Monument status, and ensure that only the most resolute riders are capable of winning.
Like a scene in a Western where the gunslingers take what feels like an eternity sizing each other up, and something as subtle as a raised eyebrow is enough to alter the dynamics of power, this preamble serves to make the frenzy of action that follows once the first shot is finally fired all the more thrilling.
Since the organisers reverted back to a more traditional route a few years ago after experimenting with new climbs like Le Manie and the Pompeiana, the Cipressa has regained its status as the moment the race bursts into life.
Lasting 5.6km and with an average gradient of 4.1% (and a maximum of 9%), it’s an oft stated truism that the Cipressa is not the most difficult climb, but after so many wearying kilometres preceding it, and with just over 20km left after its peak, its significance is amplified in Milan-San Remo.
That said, its role is more to test a rider’s defence rather than their attack – the only riders to go off the front are usually outside bets taking a punt (like Ian Stannard both last year and in 2013), with the real action happening within the bunch, as the favourites vie for the best position, and heavier sprinters trying to keep in contact with the likely searing pace.
This is the climb that makes all the previous build-up worth the wait. Since its first inclusion in 1960, the Poggio has more often than not been a rider’s reckoning, where they either win or lose the race.
Like the Cipressa, it’s a statistically unremarkable climb (3.7km long and averaging 3.7 per cent, it’s arguably even easier); but, peaking at just 5km from the finish line, every rider is by this point fully committed, both on the desperate drag to the top, and on the hectic descent to the finishing straight.
This is the launch-pad for any rider who isn’t a sprinter but want to win, and it is almost inevitable that certain riders will be active.
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) has often made a move in past editions, and Michał Kwiatkowski (Sky) put in the deadliest attack last year, while Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal), Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) and Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) all currently possess the threatening cocktail of great form and a thirst for attacking.
The Via Roma
A fittingly picturesque end to what is a beautiful race, the Via Roma is a vibrant shopping street that has traditionally hosted the finish line of Milan-San Remo.
Following all the preceding chaos, the flattening of the terrain after the Poggio descent coupled with the long, straight road to the finish is helps preserve Milan-San Remo’s status as the ‘Sprinter’s Classic’, despite its overall length and opportunities to attack.
We can expect to see plenty of familiar suspects sprinting for victory here, if all the attacks are reeled in – Alexander Kristoff (Katuha-Alpecin), John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo), Arnaud Démare (FDJ) and Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) are all previous winners capable of triumphing again), while previous podium finishers Michael Matthews (Sunweb) and Ben Swift (UAE Team Emirates) have been eyeing up this race.
Or a new, young name could come to the fore – Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) and Caleb Ewan (Orica-Scott) both have very quick finishes if they can survive to the finish, while Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Merida) and Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) have already surprised the top sprinters at Paris-Nice.
All eyes will be on the world champion Peter Sagan after his storming start to the season, during which time he has sometimes looked unbeatable.
Whether he opts to wait for the sprint, follow the moves on the ascent and descent of the Poggio, or even put in an attack himself, this is a race so perfectly suited to his particular attributes that it’s somewhat surprising that he hasn’t won it already.
His best result to date is second behind Gerald Ciolek in 2013, and he‘s also finished fourth twice.
Even among a palmarès already filled to the brim, a victory here would be one of the biggest.
Fernando Gaviria and the rest of Quick-Step Floors
As is so often the case during the Spring Classics, Quick-Step Floors can call upon a wealth of potential winners at Milan-San Remo.
The on-form Julian Alaphilippe and two-time podium finisher Philippe Gilbert are both capable of making an attack stick on the Poggio, while both Matteo Trentin and Tom Boonen – attempting for one last time the Classic that has always eluded him – could win in a sprint.
The team’s best option however appears to be the prodigious Fernando Gaviria.
The Colombian has already all but proven his pedigree in this race, having put in such a great performance last year before a crash prevented him from unleashing his sprint, and looked in ominous form when he out-sprinted Sagan at the Tirreno-Adriatico.