The big addition that caused the commotion was the Pompeiana climb , with some nasty 14% grades, in between the Cipressa and the Poggio climbs. This threesome of climbs looked to make the race a near impossible task for the heavier fastmen who historically have had a fair chance to make the finale of the race. We previewed the changes here. During the weekend news stories emerged that the winter rains have aggravated an already dodgy condition of the descent of the climb back down to the Via Aurelia, making it unfit to host a major race. Or so say the local police and transportation officials at least. As yet there hasn't been any official word from RCS who organize the race.
There seem to be two outcomes of this. Either the problem is truly serious and the race will presumably be forced back into it's old course, taking back the early Le Mánie climb and do the traditional Cipressa-Poggio finish or these warning calls are simply a plea to RCS from the local government to fork over some cash to help fix the road. Whether RCS has any such funds is hard to say, worst case scenario they spent all the money in their piggybank to convince Movistar to send Quintana to the Giro. The video of the Pompeiana from about a month ago seems to indicate that the concerns about the roadconditions are pretty well-founded. (The dodgy bit starts at 16 minutes)
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Horrible setback or a gift from the gods?
Well, you be the judge. The move to include a tougher climb was quite blatantly a move to make the Italian riders more competitive. The major Italian star Vincenzo Nibali has tried and failed to make a mark on the old course and there aren't really any Cipollinis or Petacchis around to make the locals a factor at the moment. Make it tougher and a few more Italians look likely to be in the mix and you can't underestimate the importance of Milano-Sanremo to the italian cycling fans.
Along with more competitive Italians we would of course see a whole bunch of climbers targeting the race now that they saw their chances of adding the monument to their palmares. Most notably both the Sky TdF-winners Wiggins and Froome have announced the intentions to ride the race. At the other end of the spectra we have seen sprinters like Mark Cavendish air their disgust and disappointment. Of course the move also fitted nicely in the trend of later years to try and make races more spectacular, most often by including some version of extreme climbing. MSR has also gradually made these moves along the years to keep the race balanced as the capabilities of the pro peloton have risen, so it's not as if this was unprecedented. Last time they did it was when they introduced Le Mánie in 2008.
Problem this time around as I see it was that the race was fairly perfectly balanced at the moment as the list of recent winners indicates. We've had pure sprinters, we've had Ardennes type riders and we've had cobbles specialists win. No other major race is as inviting to a wide group of riders as the MSR has been in later years. Poor descenders and pure mountain-goats are pretty much the only ones who had no business on the starting line in Milano. What the Pompeiana would/will do to disrupt that balance remains to be seen of course, these things are hard to predict precisely before the race has actually been run. Rumors and speculation isn't always matched by what actually happens on the road. New courses are always fun but in this case it did seem a bit of a shame to abandon a winning formula. The finale in Sanremo has "always" been thrilling. If there was any change that could lift the race it would be to introduce some features between the Passo Turchino and the Capi-climbs so that there was a reasonable opportunity to launch race-winning moves from further out instead of always delaying the action to the final 10 kms.
And now we wait and see what actually happens. Hopefully for the riders the decision is made fairly soon so that teams and rider have decent time to prepare for whatever course we get. In this case it will probably have quite dramatic impact on some teams in what riders they send to the race. Some reasonable advance notice would be preferable. The good news for spectators is that either way we are assured an intriguing race. As long as Sagan has 33 flat tires and screaming butt-cramps. That should make the race wide open.