[And yes, if you haven't figured it out already, it is now officially MSR week.]
For US fans, one of the more pleasant surprises in a while was the win by Garmin's Tyler Farrar in stage 3 of Tirreno-Adriatico last week. Farrar, all of 24 years old, outkicked Mark Cavendish at the line -- literally, coming around to the left of the World's Fastest Man, where it seemed nobody, even the RAI announcers, saw him coming. This being in Italy, a week before the first Monument of the season, which happens to be a sprinters' affair about half the time, Farrar's win has to make you wonder... can he do it?
Probably not. But there is a chance.
Since 2000, the winners of La Primavera are, in order, Zabel, Zabel, Cipollini, Bettini, Freire, Petacchi, Pozzato, Freire and Cancellara. That's three wins to the clever classics guys, four to the pure field sprinters (including two guys who are hopeless in anything but), and two to the hybrid Zabel. The classics guys who can win will be the subject of a separate post, but for now, let's look at the sprinters. On the flip.
A short list of fast finishers, from the current startlist, includes Farrar, Cavendish, Thor Hushovd, Heinrich Haussler, Koldo Fernandez, Mirco Lorenzetto, Daniele Bennati, Petacchi, Tom Boonen, Allan Davis, Francesco Ginanni, Greg Van Avermaet, Robbie McEwen, Gerald Ciolek, and Matti Breschel. Basically the cream of the sprinting crop. You won't find a better field anywhere, other than maybe here in 2010 when (if) Freire can get healthy and rejoin the fun.
If a bunch sprint materializes, there are a few factors as to who can win it. First, the race is just shy of 300km, the longest single racing day in the saddle all year for most guys. Well, distance-wise; several names on this list will probably take some extra time on, say, the Cuneo-Pinerolo stage of the Giro or the Ventoux stage of the Tour. But anyway, it's an unusually long race, which disfavors anyone who isn't accustomed to/good at lengthening it out. The second biggest factor (or maybe the first) is the Poggio. Topping out at 6km from the line, it tends to stretch the race out quite a bit. Worse, the descent is very tricky and only flattens out a mere 3km from the finish. Nothing good can come of hammering your way to the front from km 295-297, only to try to launch a sprint in km 298, so the trick is to get to the Via Roma before at least a few of your sprint rivals.
Anyone on the list above can do this, and at most all you can say is that the Italians (who know the course) and the veterans (who've proven their ability to descend the Poggio) are safer bets than a 24-year-old American making his first appearance in the race. From this list, rate Tyler a longshot.
Still, just going by finishing skill you would have to pick Cavendish. The World's Fastest Man has won five of his seven sprints this year. His two losses? Last week, to Farrar, and the Modesto sprint in the ToC where he lost to Hushovd, Freire, Mark Renshaw, and Farrar. Boonen hasn't beaten Cav to the line since Ster Elektroer last June. Petacchi has never really gone head to head with the Manx Missile. Hushovd's win in Modesto is the sole instance where he's outdueled Cav, and arguably only when Cavendish was out of position. If beating Cavendish becomes the story, nobody has a better case to make than Farrar right now.
Length of the race doesn't seem like a huge problem for Farrar, though we will see. About the only comparable I can find is Paris-Tours, 250km in hot weather over a demanding course as sprinters' races go. There, Farrar took the bunch sprint for fifth last year, four seconds after the successful breakaway rolled in, so his beating McEwen, Bennati and Boonen to the line comes with some caveats about who was really racing for fifth.
The real challenge will be whether he can get into position. From his recent results against Cavendish, Farrar has an uncanny knack for being either right behind Cav or, on two occasions, just in front. But that alone may not save him, since Cavendish doesn't always get himself where he needs to be. Moreover, while Garmin have matured extremely quickly as a team, MSR is a unique race which they saw for the first time last year, with no discernible results. Farrar could use at least one teammate who's feeling strong and clever enough to shepherd their sprinter into place... not easy when 22 other teams are thinking the same thing. I don't know his every tendency, but Farrar blasted out of a large, fast-moving bunch when he outkicked Cavendish last week, so if he's in the finale with about two dozen other riders, locked onto Cav's wheel, as they barrel down the Via Roma, then he's got his chance.
Conclusion: it can be done, but it will take some magical racing, particularly in the last 20 minutes, and especially in the last 20 meters.