2011 Milan-San Remo Preview

Fotoreporter Sirotti


To me, Milan-San Remo is a lot like Thanksgiving: it’s an event you look forward to every year, even though you’re really more excited for the big events a few weeks later. A bit formulaic in how it’s tended to play-out over the past few years, I think the entire race can be boiled-down into one six-word description:

298-kilometers; two hills. Attack, descend—sprint!*

Here’s a run-down of this year’s favorites:

5-Stone Favorites

Get used to seeing Philippe Gilbert at the top of these Previews for the next several weeks. Barring a mishap, he’ll be a favorite in just every race he enters between now and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Gilbert clearly wants to win a spring Monument to go with his two titles in October’s Tour of Lombardy, and Milan-San Remo offers his first chance of 2011. But while he could win the race in any number of ways on his own account, I think his new Omega Pharma-Lotto teammate, Andre Greipel, will be the determining factor in whether not Gilbert takes the victory. If Greipel can stay in the front group when Gilbert attacks, his presence might be just enough to scare some teams from chasing. A moment’s hesitation could be enough to give Gilbert the gap he needs to take the biggest win of his career.

Before you question Oscar Freire’s 5-Stone status, take a minute to compare his pre-MSR results from 2010 and 2011. They’re nearly identical—right down to his overall finish in Tirreno-Adriatico. When he seemingly came out of nowhere to win last year’s race (his third), many of us slapped our thighs as if to say, “How could I have forgotten him?” We won’t make the same mistake this year though—especially with an even stronger team including Michael Matthews (a possible contender himself if he can handle the distance) and Omloop-winner Sebastian Langeveld. Freire’s still four wins away from tying Eddy Merckx’s record of seven, but with a win Saturday he’ll move into a tie with Gino Bartali and Erik Zabel.

Thor Hushovd has finished on Milan-San Remo’s podium twice in his career. He comes into Saturday as the captain of arguably the race’s deepest team, Garmin-Cervélo. Thor has yet to win a race this season, but he’s enjoyed a smooth build-up to his favorite time of year. He looked impressive leading-out Tyler Farrar in Tirreno—and he has that rainbow jersey to show-off. Thor should have no problems with the Cipressa and his team is more than talented enough to keep him contention over the Poggio. In the end, look for Farrar to make the difference—if he can make it over the Poggio with the leaders, he’ll give Thor a lead-out man few can rival.

4-Stone Favorites

Matthew Goss is perhaps the rider most likely to upset Freire or Hushovd in a field sprint. In fact, had he raced and won a stage at Tirreno instead of Paris-Nice, he would certainly have earned a 5-Stone ranking. Goss is one of the sport’s hottest up-and-coming stars, and Milan-San Remo is a race where riders have frequently announced themselves as major players on the world stage. Mark Cavendish could be a bit of an issue for Goss; if the Manxman makes it over the Poggio, Goss will likely be relegated to leading him out. That said, I don’t see Cavendish making the lead group this year. He says he’s in shape, but something tells me the race will be too hard for him. But Bernie Eisel will make the selection for sure; he’ll be the only teammate Goss needs to take his first Monuement.

Like Goss, Garmin-Cervélo’s Heinrich Haussler chose Paris-Nice over Tirreno-Adriatico, opting to follow the program that led him to a second-place finish here in 2009 (one spot ahead of Thor Hushovd). Haussler and Thor complement one another well, and if Thor goes a bit too deep to remain in contention on the Poggio, he’ll have no worries passing the baton to Haussler—and leading him out for the win. Should he make the leading group along with Hushovd and Farrar, look for Haussler to try an attack before the line, forcing their opponents to chase, while Hushovd and Farrar line themselves up for the possible sprint.

3-Stone Favorites

Tyler Farrar’s already won three races this year for Garmin-Cervélo, but he’ll likely find his World Champion teammate blocking his way to a fourth Saturday. Then again, anything can happen on the road and if Hushovd or Haussler isn’t feeling at his best, a switch is likely. Farrar will need to make it over the Cipressa and the Poggio with the leaders—something he proved unable to do last year. If he makes it, look for him to end the day on the podium, possibly as a member of a Garmin-Cervélo 1-2.

Few are talking about Tom Boonen right now. Belgium’s enamored with Gilbert’s exploits, and the rest of the world is looking at the sport’s most impressive teams of the young season: Garmin-Cervélo, HTC-High Road, and Rabobank. In other words, Boonen’s practically an underdog—something he can exploit Saturday if things go his way. But Boonen takes the line Saturday after nearly missing Tirreno-Adriatico with the flu; he might not be as sharp as he would have been otherwise.

Leopard Trek’s Fabian Cancellara won Milan-San Remo in 2008 thanks to a daring move inside the final few kilometers that surprised the rest of the leading peloton. Incredibly talented and clearly on his way to peak fitness, Spartacus is the only rider with the power to make a similar move stick in 2011—even with everyone expecting him to try it. Katusha’s Filippo Pozzato won the race in 2006 and is always a contender, but his cobbled-classic focus might convince him to avoid taking risks.

BMC’s Alessandro Ballan is enjoying one his best early-seasons in years. He has no wins to show for his efforts, but he’s easily been one of the fastest and most aggressive riders in the peloton. He comes to Milan-San Remo as a co-captain with Greg Van Avermaet, a rider who seems to have been rejuvenated since joining BMC this past off-season. Look for Ballan to be the one instigating or covering moves on the Poggio, while Van Avermaet will rely on George Hincapie and Markus Burghardt to set him up for a possible sprint.

2-Stone Favorites

A bit of a wild card, Team Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen has been tough to read thus far this season. He withdrew from Tirreno-Adriatico before the final stage to nurse a nagging achilles injury, and I wonder if he’s truly ready for a day in the saddle as long as MSR’s. His teammate Juan Antonio Flecha might be a better for a late-race move that sneaks away to take the win.

Injured and a bit overhyped heading into Paris-Nice, Liquigas’ Peter Sagan fell back to earth—literally—after a crash on Stage 3. The Slovakian had already missed 5 days of training prior to the Race to the Sun; his abandon during Stage 7 does little to inspire hope that Milan-San Remo will bring the youngster his first classic. Then again, he has the benefit of a deep team including Vincenzo Nibali and dark-horse candidate Daniel Oss—can they carry him to the line in contention for the win?

Lampre comes to Milan-San Remo hoping to continue its fine start to the season. Saturday the team is depending on Alessandro Petacchi (whose participation is still uncertain) and Michele Scarponi to lead the way. Petacchi has done nothing this season to indicate he’s ready for an event like San Remo, but he’s won the race in the past and has surprised us before. As for Scarponi, he’ll likely spend the final hour of the race glued to Gilbert’s wheel, unless he decides to try his luck a bit earlier on the Cipressa, possibly with another rider—like Liquigas’ Vincenzo Nibali—looking to animate the race.

1-Stone Favorites

And last but not least, Astana warrants mention for its trio of Allan Davis, Enrico Gasparotto, and Maxim Iglinsky. As does Vacansoleil’s Borut Bozic, Romain Feillu, and Bjorn Leukemans.


While many will try to prevent it, this year’s Milan-San Remo will once again end in a sprint with Thor Hushovd taking the win over Oscar Freire and Matthew Goss.

Share your comments and predictions below. And don’t forget to join us Saturday in the Feed Zone for live chatting and commentary!


*For a more detailed explanation of Milan-San Remo’s subtle beauty, take a minute and read The Inrng’s recent post.


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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16 Responses to 2011 Milan-San Remo Preview

  1. Adam says:

    I always think of Boonen for this race. I go Tommeke, Thor, Davis.

  2. Gadi says:

    I'll go with my heart rather than my logic – Philip Gilbert

  3. cthulhu says:

    I say Goss. He has the best lead out and Cav won't make it over the hills this year. And his form is terrific.
    So, Goss, Hushovd and then Tommeke.

  4. limonata says:

    I see Garmin and Lotto running the same play: Gilbert/Haussler attacks within the last few k, and if he's caught they rely on sprinters Griepel and Thor. Garmin/Thor has the benefit of a leadout from Farrar, though.

  5. limonata says:

    I see Garmin and Lotto running the same play: Gilbert/Haussler attacks within the last few k, and if he's caught they rely on sprinters Griepel and Thor. Garmin/Thor has the benefit of a leadout from Farrar, though.

  6. limonata says:

    I see Garmin and Lotto running the same play: Gilbert/Haussler attacks within the last few k, and if he's caught they rely on sprinters Griepel and Thor. Garmin/Thor has the benefit of a leadout from Farrar, though.

  7. michael says:

    This is Garmin's race to lose as far as I am concerned. If Farrar makes it up and over the climbs with the lead group it would be a massive disappointment for one ot the three headed hydra not to take the win. My heart lies with Thor for the win – as crazy as this may sound, I actually believe a win at MSR to be more attainable for him than Roubaix. I like Goss as a podium outsider if he can handle the distance and still have some zip in his legs at the end. Lastly I think Griepel will come out of his slumber for a podium spot.

    Completely wild prediciton that will never happen (but would be oh so fantastic to see) – Garmin 1-2-3. Haussler leading out Farrar leading out Thor and having so much speed that they carry it to the line for something not seen since the days of Mapei!

    It's nice to dream ;)

    • Whit says:

      Great comments and picks, folks! Michael, I was actually thinking of predicting a Garmin sweep myself–they certainly have the firepower, although I wonder if Farrar will make it over the Poggio with the leaders.

      Hope to see you all in the Feed Zone tomorrow–will be great to chat "in person"?


  8. jacob says:

    I partially agree with Michael. Garmin has the strongest team; the big question is whether Farrar can get over the Poggio. .

    I can't see them riding for Thor here, though. The finish favors the fastest guy when it comes to a sprint, and as magnificent as Thor is, when was the last time he won a high-speed, group sprint? Even coming as it does after almost 300k, I don't see Thor having the top end speed to win here, and I don't think Garmin will play that card. In 2009, Thor was perfectly positioned on Haussler's wheel, and lost the wheel to Cavendish when Haussler surged. He couldn't match the acceleration, even in the draft. In 2010, Thor went under the kite in about 8th position, and finished 6th, without improving his position at all relative to any of the true contenders.

    If Farrar makes it over the Poggio, I'd expect to see Hushovd start the leadout for Farrar, giving Hassuler free rein to jump on any other wheels. If Farrar doesn't make, I think Hushovd will ride for Haussler. I love Hushovd, and hope he wins a lot, but this type of finish is about pure speed, and that is not Thor.

    My predicted finish, if Farrar is there: Farrar, Freire, Petacchi, Haussler
    If Farrar is not there: Freire, Haussler, Petacchi

    Also: Why is no one talking about Greipel?

  9. michael says:

    @ Jacob

    those are some very valid points. The only correction I would make is that in 2009 Thor was nowhere near Haussler's wheel to begin with. Haussler jumped from behind Thor and yelled at him to drop in on his way past – his speed was so high at that point that there was no way Thor could grab his wheel. I can't imagine what kind of wattage jump it would have taken (and taken out of his legs!). I agree that the run in is for a sprinter with a very high top end. Based on Thor's displays on lead-out at T-A however I think he may not need a huge surge – steady increase behind the other two + his fitness at the moment = pretty tough to come over the top.

    Great debate!

  10. Mattio says:

    We'll have to wait to see if Farrar can get over the Poggio with the leaders of a sprint-finish situation, but I really see the Hushovd/Farrar combination at Tirreno-Adriatico being dry runs for Milan-San Remo. It makes sense to me: Hushovd works for Farrar through March, and then they switch places for April.

    Petacchi is a confirmed start, but had been talking about how sick he was. Which means either he'll be a non-factor, or he'll win and was doing a smoke-and-mirrors game.

    Why is no one talking about Greipel? In my opinion: he has yet to impress, and struggled with difficult races.

    Can't help but think that Peter "What Can't I Win" Sagan could take it, too.

    Michael, I have to disagree with you – check some youtube videos, in particular, Cyclocosm's How The Race Was Won. Thor was on Haussler's wheel and eased when Haussler jumped – Cav moved over and pursued Haussler in the lane abandoned by Thor.

  11. cthulhu says:

    I also believe nobody talks about Greipel as winner because of his crash at T-A. Sounds a bit like Freire last year, he will be in the mix, but he failed to impress so far, maybe that is a good sign for Greipel?
    Sagan is also a good tip, but there I wonder how well he recovered from his crash, too.

    But as already said, I think it will end in a bunch sprint were Goss is the man to beat, while I concur with everybody Garmin are the ones with the race to lose and that might be too much of a burden.

  12. Pappy says:

    I checked the San Remo forecast for tomorrow: light rain in the afternoon. If it coincides with the descent off the Poggio etc, Cavendish will be down in the gutter having taken out Haussler, Gilbert should be attacking, and Freire waiting to pounce as ever.

    Let's hope for a Ballan attack in the final kms for what's left of Italian honour – Pippo could go with him.

  13. Scott M says:

    Hushovd, Farrar and Bennati (or Boasson Hagen)…my "dream" podium would be Haussler, Gilbert and Pozzato but…not sure if Pippo is targeting this as much as one of the cobbled races. Should be an awesome race.

  14. Garmin have definitely got the odds in their favour with Haussler, Hushovd & Farrar. Three riders that most will say can win, but of those, i think only Hushovd & Haussler are capable.
    If Farrar survives to the finish in the front group, then so will others who are generally faster.

    Goss & Cavendish – difficult one, Cav is supposedly under form, and while Goss is winning, can he ride at the top level of a major classic ?- ( its likely that whoever HTC ride for at the finish will be simply how well either survive, so that could be distracting, if Cav gets in trouble, do they abandon him and ride for Goss, or divide the team? ).

    Boonen almost has the form, he is looking sharp, but perhaps still 2 weeks away from his best level?
    Which leaves Cancellara.
    The man has been relatively quiet, solid form, devastating time trial speed over short distance at the moment (TT Tirreno) kept himself hidden, and if he is looking at Flanders Roubaix, it does not rule him out of MSR.

    finally, Oscar Freire.
    Rabobank have truly hit the ground running this season, they have some new riders, and include Michael Bling Matthews, a phenomenal talent.
    Freire has been ignored before and taken the race easily, so i dont think he can be discounted – just dont tell Fabian..

  15. Mark says:

    Haussler. Love him. Going maturity. If he keeps it upright he'll win the day.

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