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