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The Welcoming Arms of Milano-Sanremo

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Over a century and a year of Milano-Sanremo editions, there are inevitably themes that get repeated endlessly, numbingly: it's long; it's the sprinters' race; it's the flipside of the Giro di Lombardia; and for several hours it's quite boring (OK, not everyone says that, but they're thinking it). It's also been said a few times, I'm sure, that the length itself is half the story: last year's preview compared the course to its monument brethren. At just under 300km, it's a war of attrition, or at least it's long enough to dull the edge of even the clearest favorites.

So here's what I came up with for a new way to frame the race for this year: it's the most inclusive of Cycling's  Monuments. The list of people who can win here is longer than any of the other Big Five... which is not only exciting but ideal for March, when none of the season's stories have really been written yet.

I'd say, unscientifically, that you could divide cyclists into a handful of categories: pure climbers, sprinters, classics riders, all-rounders, and freaks. As for which of the monuments are open to the most different types of riders, here's how I'd rank them:

  1. Milano-Sanremo
  2. Paris-Roubaix
  3. Tour of Flanders
  4. Liège-Bastogne-Liège
  5. Giro di Lombardia
The breakdown:

Milano-Sanremo:

  • Includes: sprinters, classics riders, all-rounders, pure climbers
  • Excludes: nobody, really
    Sprinters tend to have their way. Two recent winners include Mario Cipollini and Alessandro Petacchi, guys who have won by cracking the whip on the peloton over what might be generously called the least intriguing finales. This is not a diss: both guys offer a lot of reasons to like them, and there's something cool about being the fastest man alive. But they only win when the competition isn't given any way to get around them.

Numerous classics guys have won on the Via Roma, notably Sean Kelly, Andrei Tchmil, Paolo Bettini, and Filippo Pozzato, to name a few. The Poggio has famously launched both uphill and downhill attacks, and the run-in to the line is long enough for guys to sneak away before the sprint. Even a few climbers have had success here: former maillot pois Claudio Chiapucci and double-Tour winner Laurent Fignon being a couple quick examples. Bottom line: the final 10km offer the greatest variety of ways to win of any Monument... and the first 284km ensure that even the best-laid plans are on the verge of running out of gas.

Paris-Roubaix:

  • Includes: classics riders, all-rounders, freaks
  • Excludes: pure climbers, some sprinters
    Here's a trivia question, to which I don't know the answer: who is the smallest rider ever to win Paris-Roubaix? CW is that the cobbles just pound lighter riders into submission, and a quick scan of the honor roll shows a trend: Cancellara, Boonen, Backstedt, O'Grady... all guys in the 160 to 210-pound range. [And yes, "freaks" is a reference to guys who can win Cycling monuments carrying 210 pounds.] Anyway, there's nothing to climb, so that rules out the mountain goats. And while sprinting is often a good skill to have in the Roubaix velodrome, the pocket-rocket types (e.g. McEwen) have little hope of getting there in one piece. Bottom line: only the strong survive... and if there's more than one, the fastest guy wins.

Tour of Flanders:

  • Includes: classics riders, all-rounders
  • Excludes: Pure climbers, sprinters, freaks
    De Ronde combines the pounding cobbles of Paris-Roubaix with just enough climbing to flush out the freaks and the pure sprinter types. Oh, the odd Boonen type can double as a sprinter, which is why Leif Hoste knows he needs to try something on the Muur or sooner to have any prayer. But what defines the race are the hard-riding all-rounders and classics specialists to whom this race is quite deliberately tailored. Bottom line: Flanders contenders are kind of self-selecting, a multi-skilled specialty all its own.

Liège-Bastogne-Liège:

  • Includes: classics riders, pure climbers
  • Excludes: sprinters, freaks, all-rounders
    I certainly wouldn't call Paolo Bettini, Michele Bartoli, Sean Kelly or Davide Rebellin pure climbers; clearly there's a way for the Classics guys to win here. The climbs -- in the 1-4km range -- are negotiable for a classics guy. But the trick is to have something left for the last 2km after the Côte de Saint-Nicolas, which is where the mountain goats have an advantage. Bottom line: this is a Classic for the Grand Tour contenders.

Giro di Lombardia:

  • Includes: pure climbers, classics riders
  • Excludes: sprinters, freaks, all-rounders
    The Climbers' Classic, for sure. Look no further than the Madonna del Ghisallo, a 10km slog of 5% or so, for proof of who's supposed to win here. There's another 40km of bumpy riding after the Ghisallo, giving the Bettinis and Bartolis a chance to regroup and outkick the pure mountain goats at the line, but the race is long over for the vertically challenged by then. Bottom line: if you can still climb in October, you have a chance.

Anyway, there's your long-winded MSR diversion of the day. Later today: time to start handicapping!