Milan-San Remo Preview

It’s a bit of shame that when we talk about the favorites for Milan-San Remo we look at sprinters.  Maybe it’s just the way the sport’s evolved over time, but it seems that the likelihood of a true breakaway succeeding gets slimmer and slimmer every year.  And worse, while it used to be that only those sprinters able to make it over the Cipressa and Poggio would have a chance for the victory, now just about everyone has the ability to make it to the final straightaway down the Via Roma with a chance for the win.  Then again, any race approaching 300 kilometers in length has to be taken seriously—no matter how the victor gets it done.

Regardless, La Primavera’s a beautiful race that any rider would be pleased to win. This year it once again looks as if sprinters will rule the day with Quick Step, Katusha, Garmin, Liquigas, and Sky all likely to work to bring a relatively intact group to the line.  Interestingly, many of these teams also possess some of the more dangerous threats to win from a breakaway—I wonder what the result will be should a select group of lieutenants escape before the line.  Would Quick Step chase down a group containing Chavanel?  Would Rabobank bring back a break containing Boom or Nuyens?  What will Katusha, Sky, and Liquigas do if Kolobnev, Flecha, and Kreuziger find themselves with a sizable gap at the top of the Poggio?  And let’s not forget the Acqua Sapone’s and Androni Giocatoli’s of the world—they have no other choice than to attack, attack, and attack some more.  These teams will make things interesting should the bigger squads prove resistant to animating the race.

Truly, the joy in Milan-San Remo comes from watching these scenarios unfold.  So without further ado, let’s take a look at the favorites for Saturday’s Milan-San Remo, the first true classic of the season:

Fotoreporter Sirotti

 
5-Stone Favorites

Tom Boonen – Quick Step only has 4 wins so far this season and they’re nothing to write home about.  But that could change Saturday, as Tom Boonen heads into Milan-San Remo as the odds-on favorite to take the win. Boonen hasn’t been shy about his desire to win Milan-San Remo, and judging from the form he’s displayed over the past few weeks he’s clearly ready to do it.  He’s powerful to make it over the Cipressa and the Poggio with the lead group.  With a unified team dedicated to getting him to the line first, Boonen just might add a Milan-San Remo to his 2 Tours of Flanders and 3 Paris-Roubaix victories—quite an impressive classics resume!

Fotoreporter Sirotti

Filippo Pozzato – Like Quick Step, Katusha’s won only a few races so far this year, but don’t let that fool you—they have one of the most talented squads in the professional peloton. Filippo Pozzato already has one Milan-San Remo win under his belt—he’s hoping to add another.  But while the wins haven’t come for Pippo yet this year, he’s made his presence known at the front of races including the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, L’Eroica, and several stages in Tirreno-Adriatico.  Milan-San Remo is the first target in what Pozzato hopes will be his finest spring yet—one that he hopes will include victories in the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix as well.  Look for this to be the beginning of a terrific duel between Pozzato and his Belgian nemesis, one that could last the next 3 weeks.

Fotoreporter Sirotti

Edvald Boasson Hagen – Of all the teams making splashes this past off-season, Team Sky appears to be getting the quickest returns on its investment. Hagen’s already won several races this year, including the final stage of Tirreno-Adriatico earlier this week, and his powerful sprint makes him a top favorite for Milan-San Remo. Hagen’s also an attacker though—if he looks around after the Poggio and doesn’t like what he sees, don’t be surprised to see him attack before the line in a fashion similar to Tchmil and Cancellara when they won on the Via Roma.

4-Stone Favorites

Tyler Farrar – Garmin comes to Milan-San Remo hoping Tyler Farrar can get the team its first win in a major spring classic.  Farrar will need to make it over the Cipressa and the Poggio in the lead group while hoping some of the competition—like Hushovd and Tom Boonen—does not to have a chance for the victory.  And while he might not have to worry about Hushovd, Boonen appears to be at the peak of his fitness.  Still, Farrar’s beaten Boonen before; if things go right for him and his team, Garmin might just find itself on the top step of the podium.

Oscar Freire – Freire’s had a quiet build-up to this year’s Milan-San Remo, but he’s a rider whose experience cannot be ignored.  With a talented team supporting him, Freire could easily take his third Milan-San Remo title.  Lars Boom and Nick Nuyens are two excellent wild cards; both would make excellent decoys in the race’s later phases.  Look for one of them, likely Boom, to attack on the Cipressa, ultimately forcing other teams to chase.  Freire’s greatest strength is his ability to handle the hills; he’s usually the last of the sprinters to be dropped on climbs like the Cipressa and Poggio.  He’s also extremely cunning; of all the riders to have received little press this week, he’s the one to take most seriously.

Philippe Gilbert – Omega Pharma – Lotto’s Gilbert won two classics in a week last autumn when he rode to dominating victories in Paris-Tours (a race for the sprinters) and the Tour of Lombardy (a race catered to climbers).  Like many riders, Gilbert’s had a quiet season thus far, slowly riding himself into form in Qatar, Oman, and Paris-Nice.  A true all-rounder, Gilbert’s a legitimate contender in just about every major classic save Paris-Roubaix.  His team’s full of strong men capable of keeping Gilbert fresh for the two climbs late in the race.  If he makes it over the Poggio in a group with a gap to the pure sprinters, he could add a third classic to his resumé.  He’s also candidate for a last-second dash for the line before the sprint has started.

Daniele Bennati – Tom Boonen’s pick for victory, Daniele Bennati comes to the race in peak form.  He won Stage 3 of Tirreno, beating Petacchi, Farrar, and Flecha in the process.  Like Freire, Bennati has a talented team of men surrounding him, two of them—Vincenzo Nibali and Roman Kreuziger—are perfect candidates for peloton-weakening attacks on the Cipressa and Poggio.  Were I driving the car, Nibali would be given the task of attacking and/or covering on the Cipressa while Kreuziger would give it his all on the Poggio.  The rest would ride support for Bennati, keeping him out of trouble and making sure he’s well-placed for an ensuing sprint.  If Bennati hits the Via Roma in good position, he could bring home the win for the tifosi.

Thor Hushovd – The Mighty Thor finished 3rd here last year—he essentially won the “field” sprint behind Haussler and Cavendish—but this year his fitness has been a bit of a mystery.  He was all but absent at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, but then practically rode himself into the ground at Kuurne.  In Tirreno he failed to wow us, but that might just be a smokescreen.  Without the injured Heinrich Haussler, Hushovd loses a valuable ally—other teams will be able to key on him exclusively should he find himself isolated.  Still, Thor’s not someone to ignore, especially in a race often ending in a bunch sprint.

3-Stone Favorites

Marcus Burghardt – At this point in the season, Burghardt seems to be BMC’s best shot for victory tomorrow.  He rode a solid Tirreno-Adriatico, even making an appearance in the break with Tom Boonen during Stage 6.  With Hincapie, Kroon, and Ballan riding support, he could be granted a relatively stress-free ride to the finish where he could surprise everyone in a sprint.

Alessandro Petacchi – Petacchi’s gracefully entering into the twilight of his career having made the move from LPR to Lampre.  With Danilo Hondo providing lead-outs, he seems to have regained some of the speed that saw him win this race in 2005.  That said, despite several early-season successes, I think Petacchi’s a step below riders like Boonen, Hagen, and even Oscar Freire—especially after his crash before Tirreno.  A top-5 finish might be a more reasonable expectation for this aging star.

2-Star Favorites

Bernhard Eisel – I might regret it by tomorrow afternoon, but I don’t consider Mark Cavendish one of the favorites for tomorrow’s race.  He’s had an inconsistent season thus far, with no wins having been added to his name.  HTC’s best chance for a win might just be one of Cavendish’s lead-out men, Bernhard Eisel.  Eisel’s career lacks a big win, but don’t let that fool you; he’s a talented sprinter who often is often asked to ride for the bigger names within his team.  Can he win?  That might be a bit of a stretch, but a good result is certainly well within his reach.  Watch for his teammate Matthew Goss as well, the young Australian is on the way up and could mix it up at the finish as well.

Matti Breschel – Saxo Bank’s had a quiet season thus far, and while many think Cancellara’s their top man for MSR, I think he’s a better bet for the cobbled classics in a few weeks time.  Saxo’s better challenge might come from Matti Breschel, someone who has proven abilities in a sprint.  Like Petacchi and Eisel, Breschel’s a bit of a long shot, but surprises have happened here before.

Maxim Iglinski & Enrico Gasparotto – Don’t be fooled into thinking Astana’s a one-trick pony.  They have men not named “Alberto” who have scored wins so far this season and the team has ridden aggressively in every race it has entered.  Two riders deserve mention as outside favorites for Milan-San Remo: Maxim Iglinsky and Enrico Gasparotto.  Iglinsky won this year’s L’Eroica, Italy’s version of Paris-Roubaix, and Gasparotto won a stage in Tirreno-Adriatico.  A win in San Remo would certainly be a surprise—but then again, stranger things have happened.

Mattia Gavazzi & Sacha Modolo – Colnago’s talented pair of sprinters scored some top finishes in Tirreno, look for one of them in the top-10 on Saturday, particularly if other riders sit-up once they feel they’re out of contention.  These aren’t necessarily riders worth placing bets on, but when you’re on the Sunday group ride, you can say you weren’t surprised to see them in the front.

Stefano Garzelli & Michele Scarponi – It’s been a while since we saw an attack from the Poggio survive to the finish, but if it were to happen this year, I expect one or both of the top-2 men from Tirreno to be involved.  Their teams don’t possess the sprint strength of other contenders and they’ll have free rein to try their hand in a breakaway.  In Italy’s most important one-day race, look for both to attack in front of their home audience.

Final Prediction?

Certain races start to follow scripts over time, and Milan-San Remo’s proven no different over the past decade.  This year I think we’ll see a race similar to 2009, but with different players in the leading roles.  I think Boasson Hagen will play Heinrich Haussler, perhaps trying a last-second move rather than take his chance against a large group of field sprinters.  Like Haussler last year, he’ll be caught just before the line—by Tom Boonen.  Tyler Farrar will take advantage of the chaos to take third, taking Hushovd’s place from last year.

As for Pippo Pozzato, I think he’ll descend the Poggio with the leaders, but might not feel comfortable taking chances to take the victory.  They’ll be too many riders, and he’ll perhaps be isolated or poorly positioned coming off the Poggio.  In the end he’ll play it safe, lest he risk his chances in the cobbled classics still to come.

So that’s my Top-3: Boonen gets the win over Hagen and Farrar.

What about you?  Who are your picks for tomorrow?  Share them below.

About Whit

My experiences might easily fit many cycling fans' definitions of “living the dream.” Since getting hooked on the sport watching Lance Armstrong win the 1993 U.S. Pro Championship, I've raced as an amateur on Belgian cobbles, traveled Europe to help build a European pro team, and piloted that team from Malaysia to Mont Ventoux. As a former assistant director sportif with Mercury-Viatel, I've also seen the less dreamy side of the sport – the side rife with broken contracts, infighting, and positive dope tests. These days, I live with my lovely wife in Pennsylvania and share my experiences and views on the sport at Bicycling Magazine, the Embrocation Cycling Journal, and at my own site, Pavé.
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