The final serpentine plunge down the Poggio into Sanremo is one of the sport's guilty pleasures. - Fotoreporter Sirotti
Milan - Sanremo is a cast of the dice, a toss-up between a breakaway that separates itself from the field on the Poggio and a sprinter's paradise. But as simple as the race seems, beneath it lies a level of nuance that defies simple characterization. Sanremo is beautiful for its unpredictability, for the countless things that must go right without a single thing going wrong for a rider to win. Each section of the route has its own perils and importance, all compiling into a beautiful Monument that is more than the sum of its parts.
The race starts in Milan and winds through the Campo Ligure for 100 kilometers of flatness. Then, a third of the way through - yes, only a third, for Sanremo is the one race allowed to exceed the maximum distance of 260km set by the UCI and is an astounding 298 kilometer marathon - the race truly begins. You see, here is where the first of a number of climbs occurs as riders hit the Passo Turchino. Through the tunnel atop the climb the peloton goes and then they will see the Ligurian sea, which they will keep on their left for the remainder of the race as they wind westwards towards San Remo.
Though the race may start slow, it picks up speed as it progresses. After 50 kilometers of racing along the coast, within which the speed will inexorably climb, the riders hit the climb of La Mànie, a proper climb added to the race in 2009 in the organizer's pursuit to keep the perfect balance between favoring attackers who enjoy the ascents and sprinters who curse them. The descent is treacherous, and afterwards one cannot afford any lapse in concentration even though the race is merely halfway over. The three capi - more lumps than true climbs, except for when they are climbed at 50kph - begin: the Mele, Capo, and Berta. And then, the Cipressa, the beginning of the finale.
Hearty souls, or foolish ones, will attack on the Cipressa, but this is a tactic which has not worked in the past decade. Paolo Bettini, in 2003, was the last true favorite to win the race to try the tactic that once worked when disparities in strength were greater and teams less powerful. But, the ages when riders can defy the masses from an audaciously far distance to the finish is gone, especially since there is 10 kilometers of flat road, usually stricken with a headwind, before the road veers off to the right in that unmistakable narrow ramp that signals the finale of the race.
Some people will believe this is where the best racing begins, as the road tilts upwards, the steepest gradient at the bottom. But the Poggio is a fast climb, its four kilometers ridden entirely in the big ring and not an unsubstantial number of cogs down the cassette. Attacks come late now, in the final kilometer of the climb, a last ditch effort to gain some separation before the descent and use the curves and corkscrews and switchbacks down the other side to pry out more seconds on the chasing pack. The Poggio is iconic, it is special, it is impressive, and it is a battleground, but I will be eagerly watching the kilometers before it just as intensely.
These 10 kilometers are where the race becomes fiercest, where sprinters use their leadout trains to position them at the head of the bunch so they can slide ever so slowly backwards in the pack on the Poggio without dropping off the back. The battle for 10th wheel is as intense as the battle for Mark Cavendish's wheel in a Tour de France sprint finish. Elbows will be thrown, teams will line up and power up to the front before being eclipsed by another matching set of kits that waited. The front of the peloton will look like a washing machine, ever turbulent, and it won't just be the sprinters who are fighting because Fabian Cancellara, Philippe Gilbert, Sebastian Chavanel, and Vincenzo Nibali will want those positions just as badly. Once you hit the Poggio, there is very little moving up.
And once the Poggio summit approaches, there will be desperation in the eyes of the attackers, for they know that they have once chance to distance those with a faster finish, one effort to open up a gap before the descent, and for they know just how harrowing a descent they will need to hold off the chase behind. Three kilometers of descent, three kilometers of flat, straight roads: this is what remains of the 300 kilometer epic. This is where the drag race begins, should any enterprising riders manage a gap atop the Poggio.
Ten seconds, conventional wisdom says, is the minimum gap riders must have at the bottom of the descent to survive to the finish. Start your stopwatch.
A small breakaway trying to hold off a charging pack behind while also trying to position itself for the sprint amongst its members, this is a situation we know well enough. We see this scenario often enough in races during the year to know what to look for and the only difference is now the caliber of riders, for when do you see Simon Gerrans and Fabian Cancellara together in such a situation? The chase, the organizing of leadouts for the sprinters - this is what we know of Sanremo and why we love the race.
But as simple as it may be to reduce the race to the final 20 kilometers, or even the final ten beginning at the turn onto the Poggio, doing so would be a disservice to this fabled race. For, as much as every fan knows how the race will play out, the situation that will unfold over the Poggio and the two outcomes, there is far more nuance along the Ligurian coast than appears at first glance. With 300 kilometers to race and a number of climbs, preserving energy is of the utmost importance. Watch the favorites play duck the wind, watch them glide up and down the inside of the peloton, and try to pick out who looks the most at ease - this is the game we spectators can play.
Sanremo is none too kind in the luck department either, especially with rain forecast for Sunday's race. Mechanicals on La Manie have hurt Mark Cavendish in recent years, as have crashes on its bumpy and serpentine descent. Luck will be crucial, and it will inevitably smile none too kindly on several riders.
So, who will win? Will Peter Sagan, who seems made for this race with his powerful sprint, uncanny endurance at such a young age, and ability to climb with the best on shorter rises, confirm the odds makers who have him 6:4 to win? Will Mark Cavendish prove his 2009 win was no fluke? What about the attackers? Will Nibali get the company he needs to win, without the finishing speed advantage almost every rider has with him? Last year it was painful to watch Nibali pour his heart into the winning breakaway atop the Poggio only to realize he would never be able to out-sprint Simon Gerrans and Fabian Cancellara. Will Sylvain Chavanel run free now that it appears Tom Boonen's top form is still weeks down the road? Really, the possibilities astound the mind, for any number of riders may have luck and power and timing on their side and many will have one of the trifecta missing for reasons inexplicable or easily understood.
You can watch Sanremo to see the winner, or you can watch it to savor the process, the gradual unfolding of the race as it winds down the coastline towards Sanremo and exuberant, negroni-fueled crowds at the finish. Personally, I will be doing the latter.