Was pondering MSR on the ride in this morning, coming over the Poggio di Ravenna (which is much trickier to descend). There will be more to say on this subject next week -- all next week -- but monuments deserve more than a brief window of attention, and it's time to set the stage.
To do so, I have tasked DS Little Bear to create a computer program with which we can simulate the race and accurately predict the outcome. He assures me it's done -- its name is CafeBot -- and he's run 10,000 simulations, but that's a small sample, so we will continue that task and break down the data before we start making predictions as to what type of race it will be.
However! We can start the task of laying a baseline, and that's what today's Power Poll is about: assuming it's another sprint finish, who is looking primed for the task? This doesn't include non-sprinters and doesn't look to settle the question of who is primed for the best season; it's just about the next ten days.
1. (tie) Tyler Farrar/Heinrich Haussler,* Garmin, and Peter Sagan, Liquigas
Why I'm not hopelessly biased, and video of today's sprint... on the flip!
[* I have been hastily informed that maybe Haussler is the designated finisher for MSR. Frankly, the analysis below works for whichever of Farrar or Haussler fills the role.]
Farrar is what his record says he is: the second- or third-best sprinter in the world (for now), with no hope of vaulting past Cavendish until he wins a Tour stage or six, and/or a monument. One race in March doesn't change that. He hasn't had a blistering spring so far, but guess what? Spring doesn't officially start for two weeks, and look who's suddenly winning races? Of course, every sprinter tries to come good by MSR, regardless of when they open their account, so suffice to say that Farrar is likely to be as primed as everyone else, more or less.
But I'm bullish about him based on what I saw today because of his team. Garmin have been trying to make the leap as a stage-team for a year now, and while last year was better, today was the first time I looked at them and saw a dominant powerbroker. The front of the Tirreno stage was chaotic, to say the least, and yet Garmin managed to form a leadout and put Farrar in the perfect position, thanks to the laser-like focus of Andreas Klier and Thor Hushovd. It was Klier who headed up the three-man team in the last 2km, constantly hovering just off the front despite movement to his left and right. Hushovd sat on Klier throughout, and Farrar was glued to the World Champion -- a truly enviable position for any rider. With 800 meters Klier pulled through and the leadout was on. At maybe 600 meters Hushovd executed a perfect final turn, arrow-straight and very fast. Farrar was good enough to win anyway, but in those circumstances he's going to be extremely hard to beat.
[Update] If Haussler is the man for Vaughters' crew, the situation hardly changes. He has two wins in Qatar and a second in Paris-Nice with nothing like the cushy leadout we saw today. He's more than fast enough to finish off the victory. My question is whether Garmin put him in a big leadout or use him in more of a wild-card role. I guess he's being tipped as the sprinter but we shall see.
Sagan, meanwhile, leads the top division in victories, as well as conversations about those victories. How can you not love a guy whose personal website contains the greatest banner photo ever? He even posts his calendar, and is it an accident of sporadic editing that MSR is the next item... or something more? I can't recall if I have previously written this down, but in my head at least I called Sagan for the MSR win sometime last week. His awesomeness seems pretty boundless, for now anyway.
It's worth throwing out a few notes of caution, however. Those four wins in the Giro di Sardegna happened in mid-winter and didn't feature an all-star cast, by any means, so their value is limited. Also, Sagan has never raced MSR -- I know, in all of his 21 years, he's never bothered to take the start. Shameful. Anyway, like the other Monuments MSR is not a young man's game. Cavendish proved that it can be done on your first meaningful attempt. Speed is speed. But it's probably too soon to go sizing up Sagan for... aw hell, he's going to win.
3. Oscar Freire, Rabobank
Of the Usual Suspects, Oscarito has been the friskiest cat in the bunch so far. His two wins at Andalucia weren't particularly noteworthy except to say that Freire will be the same guy he always is. The guy has no offseason, no age limit. He's either injured or poised to strike. With
two three wins on the Via Roma already, fit Oscar has to be a prime, prime suspect.
4. Mark Cavendish, HTC
Cavendish dangled off the back today and missed the sprint, raising questions about his fitness for next week. Well, if there are two things we know about Mark Cavendish, it's that he's the world's fastest man when he's fit, and that he's not above trying the Long Sandbag around a major race objective. Of course, this is precisely the sandbag -- sagging on the climbs -- that he pulled two years ago at Tirreno when he had people doubting his chances of surviving the Poggio and winning the sprint... right until the last two meters of the race. So there's no way he'd be foolish enough to think that people would fall for the same trick twice.
Which is why it's such an awesome sandbag.
5. Alessandro Petacchi, Lampre
This is the portion of the power poll where, if I were handicapping the entire season, I would turn to Hienrich Haussler and Matt Goss, two more guys who have been tearing it up lately (by winter standards, at least). But this poll is limited to bunch sprints at MSR, and for now I assume their chances will be more along the lines of "stunning attack" or "leadout duty".
Petacchi hasn't had a good spring, but that didn't stop him from mounting a credible challenge to Farrar today, great leadout notwithstanding. Not everybody needs to do something at Tirreno-Adriatico to be ready for MSR, but you do need to be racing, and my guess is that whatever rust Petacchi is getting over will be shaken off by next week. I suppose the length of MSR could put a dent in him, but then I'll believe that when it happens.
6. Andre Greipel, Omega Pharma
The Gorilla was undoubtedly relishing today's stage, until he crash-landed on his face in warmups yesterday. His injuries aren't likely to set him back, but they have cost him eight precious days of racing. Bad timing, because his form wasn't there yet. He looked good in K-B-K, but not great, and the other stuff he's done -- TdU, Algarve, etc. -- is at distances of barely half the length of MSR. So any disruption of his training right now is probably enough to keep him off the top step, and probably the entire podium.
7. Edvald Boasson Hagen, Team Sky
The Next Eddy seems to be taking things slowly for now, though he can be seen trying to get to the front of the pack today in T-A. His all-around qualities might serve him well in a hectic sprint, but I haven't seen Sky launch him much, and that scenario is only worth contemplating if he's coming into his peak.
8. Tom Boonen, Quick Step
Tommeke is coming off a flu-ridden weekend, so don't read much into his results over the next few days. And his second-placing at MSR last year was his best ever, meaning it's not his ideal event (because if it was, he'd have won it multiple times by now). I've argued recently that his sprinting chances have only diminished due to the increased quality of the field, and after 300 kilometers the strongest guy might beat the fastest guy.
9. Allan Davis, Astana
Off the back today. Not a good sign. But he never really disappears for long, and his sprint at the end of a hard day is a tad underrated, at least by me.
10. Daniele Bennati, Leopard
If Leopard are the Miami Heat of cycling -- people don't tend to root for money unless it's their own -- then Bennati is the Chris Bosh, the star who gets thrown into the conversation with the others but only if you don't stop to think too hard about him. He nudges Haedo for the last spot on the poll on the strength of past performance in MSR, fith and sixth the last two years, but until Cancellara fires up the engine (cough) I don't fancy the Letterhead Boys too much.
Honorable mention: JJ Haedo, Greg Van Avermaet, Sacha Modolo, Borut Bozic, Chris Sutton, Francisco Ventoso. Haedo is the dark dark horse, lurking in the shadows. Modolo hasn't done anything so far. Van Avermaet... convince me. Bozic and Ventoso are good, but this good? Sutton is a zippy plan B, and unlike the other plan Bs I've left out (Goss, Haussler, etc.), there's a pretty good chance his number will be called.