La Primavera - always the same, never a surprise, but always full of suspense. Perhaps the most renown of the battles between the fast men and the strong men who try to steal their trophies. Jen explained the course for you in delicious terms, but who can actually win on it?
A standard preview will break things down into sprinters and attackers. After all, that's how the race plays out, year after year. But, really, is that a sufficient distinction? Not everyone who is a sprinter can win here, and not everyone who is an attacker can sustain an attack from the Poggio. What sets apart our champions this spring?
If you attack, it takes a swaggering amount of confidence.
Everybody chasing you has been focused on this race with laser-like precision for months and wants it just as badly as you do. Sure, you may be able to gap them at the top of the Poggio, but do you really think you have the right stuff to hold them off for that excruciating three kilometers at the bottom of the climb? And that twisty serpentine descent - do you think you can fly down it faster than all the others? It takes nerves of steel and few are so brazenly confident about laying their body on the line.
There once was a man who was so confident. His name was Sean Kelley and you know the story by now. But who can do it this year?
Out of today's stock, there are a few gladiators. Fabian Cancellara descends like a stone, unwaveringly confident in his bike. And you need no reminder of how sure of his power he is. And there is Phillipe Gilbert, though he's limited to an attack on the uphill part of the Poggio; unlike Fabian, he doesn't have the power to hold off a group of fifty charging riders on the flats by himself.
Vincenzo Nibali also has the class, especially when going downhill. If he can get a gap, he'll hold it on the plunge to the streets of San Remo. He did it last year, after all. But Vincenzo, he's going to need company if he's to hold that gap the final three kilometers. Who might join him? He has a teammate, a virtual kid, who is a demon descender. You may have heard of him, his name is Peter Sagan. But! He's a sprinter, right? He has a wicked sprint, but my money is on him being aggressive instead. Not many people can beat Cavendish in a full-on drag race. Damiano Cunego might join in the fun as well, as he's intimated that he and Vincenzo are natural allies. And Edvald Boasson-Hagen, he may dump his sprinter title and be Sky's designated attacker. These guys all have unquestioned confidence, and that's what sets them apart from the others.
If you don't have all the class or descending confidence, you must be a gambler. Not in the same was as Gilbert or Cancellara. No, you must throw all your chips on the table far before anyone else is willing to, before you learn to read their faces, before you know the count is high. All or nothing is a daunting prospect, and many choose to save their powder for just that reason. It has been more than 10 years since a winning move formed on the Cipressa, but the true gamblers will always try.
Remember last year on the Cipressa? Offredo, Chainel, O'Grady, and Van Avermaet escaped. The latter, he made it part way down the descent of the Poggio before he was caught. This is where the Hoogerlands, the Lars Booms, and the Vladamir Gusevs will go. They will fizzle, inevitably, but they will hope they make a point in the process.
If you sprint, you need grinta.
Translated directly, grinta means grit. In English, that is "courage and resolve; strength of character." But grinta, it means a little more. Ordinary toughness is a prerequisite to even be competing at this level of the sport. Grinta is that ephemeral character present in those who look like they would rather pedal until they die than give in and let someone else win the race. Grinta is performing the impossible out of sheer tenacity.
Grinta to fight for position over la Manie and tame its treacherous descent, to get over the Capo at breakneck speeds, to fight for every meter of pavement leading into the CIpressa and the Poggio. And, most importantly, the grinta to hold the wheel of the attackers as they pour every last ounce of remaining energy onto the afterburners.
You need the grinta to be the only sprinter who can hold on when Philippe Gilbert attacks.
It's not a term thrown around loosely, but three fast men on Saturday can lay claim to that characteristic. First, there is Mark Cavendish. Every year people state matter-of-factly that he cannot hold on over this or that climb near the finish. This is not pure sprinter territory, Mark - go find the grupetto. He puts out horrible test numbers, he looks pudgy this year... the reasons never cease. But these critics, they forget that he has grinta. He's won la Primavera before, but to really see his inner character, go back to the 2009 Tour de France. There was a long drag up to the finish, but before that there was a proper climb, a category 2 beast. And there, in a group of no more than fifty riders, was the little Manxman.
Oscar Freire, el gatto. Sneaky, almost invisible until the final hundred meters. He's won this race three times before and definitely has the grinta. He also won a stage at Andalucia this year. And Matt Goss, who was the only sprinter to make the 8-man lead group last year. He's a canny one, this Matthew Harley, but he's not looking as sharp this year. He says he's training better than last year, which makes me inclined to believe him - I mean, who reverse sandbags?
And Tom Boonen. No pure fast man any more, much more a strong man. But, at the end of 300 kilometers, sometimes the two are one in the same. If the race is hard, it's his to lose. And if Heinrich Haussler is on the same form as 2009, he'll be just as good as Tom. You see, these two cut their teeth on cobbles, where you have no choice but to stare into your soul and see how much it is willing to sacrifice to win. These two - not ordinary fast men.
Yes, there are other sprinters. But - I think at least - they lack the grinta, that extra characteristic which is necessary to win a race of such monumental lengths. Andrei Greipel is strong, yes. Exceedingly so. But he admits he does not enjoy the fight for position, he does not have that ability to turn off his brain and squeeze through impossible gaps. His power may let him overcome that in shorter races, but San Remo is not a race where you can waste an ounce of energy.
If there are other sprinters around - the Bellettis and Degenkolbs, if you will - they will be near the top ten. Maybe even fifth, or fourth! But this is as far as they'll make it. I could very well be wrong here, but history is on my side. Few surprises occur in la Primavera, and that is one of the reasons we love it. We know who the players will be, but we will not know how things will play out til the end. Five seconds, maybe eight. This is the difference between a fast man or hard man victory, and those few seconds are the most suspenseful of the season.