I have previously opined that of all the major Classics, Milano-Sanremo is the most wide-open. Sprinters can and often do win, so you have a half-dozen or so elite fastmen interested from the start. However, the Poggio is a tricky descent, and more than a few adventurors have launched themselves on a downhill assault, holding the advantage to the line... or rather, a small group has gotten away, with various tactics involved for bringing home the win. This type of strategy is open to another pretty large group of riders. And then there's the fact that the race ends with three capes, the Cipressa and the Poggio in the last 50km, plus le Manie about 50km earlier, which opens things up to the climbers, if ever so slightly. Finally, the distance of almost 300km has its own way of reshuffling the deck. Translation: even with Mark Cavendish in the fold, it's still a very dicey race to predict.
If MSR is the most wide-open, you could argue that the GP Ouest-France is second in that distinction. Or at least it appears, though the reality may be different. The perception is that the win is available to the sprinters, and even in the last three editions (after some additional climbing was added to the circuit) the sprinting pack of hounds has forever been hot on the heels of the winners. In 2006, when the parcours changes went into effect, Vincenzo Nibali won a pretty well broken-up race in which the pack rolled in 30 seconds too late, after 18 riders had finished. 2007 was much closer, as a 65-man pack was led home by Thor Hushovd... two seconds too late to reel in Thomas Voeckler's late escape. Last year a three-man group outwitted the sprinters (led in by Allan Davis at 13"), as Pierrick Fedrigo beat Alessandro Ballan and David Lopez Garcia. That's two straight editions where a low-percentage attack worked to thwart what looked otherwise like one for the fastmen. It always seems like the sprinters can win.
And yet they almost never do. Check out the honor roll and tell me when the last true sprinter's win was. Jeremy Hunt in 2002 maybe? Andy Flickinger? Perhaps. Both of these were before the beefed up course. And for every guy there who is arguably a sprinter, there are far more all-rounders and climbers: Hincapie, Nibali, Voeckler, Bartoli, Mengin, VDB, Tchmil, Kelly... The climbing has to be a factor, no? For the sprinters' teams to get to the line so often and fail to close the deal suggests tired legs, more so than the usual degree. The winner is a guy who can take the punishment of the course and its three main climbs, totaling about 3.5km of climbing on each circuit, in the 7% range, and still have something left in the tank. If the results are to be believed, a lot of guys can get tantalizingly close to pulling it off, but it pays to be something of a hardman in the end.
There is one more distinguishable trend, however: the winner is almost certain to be French. In 72 editions there have been 10 foreign winners, including only two in the last six years. So maybe that's the best place to start.
Anyway, having spent the last few paragraphs complaining that it's hard to pick a winner, I'll give it a whirl regardless, and invite everyone to join in. Here's a startlist to work off of. Hot hands: Fedrigo, Ballan, Sebastian Hinault, and Hushovd, for starters. [Nibali is much hotter, but he's at the Eneco Tour, regardless of what the startlist says.] Other persons of interest would include Heinrich Haussler, Peter Velits (a natural here), any of several Columbians (Burghardt, Greipel, Kirchen), Allan Davis, Lars Boom, Philippe Gilbert, and Michele Scarponi. I will go with Gilbert, Haussler and Ballan, in that order. You?