The Classicissima, as the Italians call their beloved monument, has perhaps been tinkering more anxiously with it's course than any other big race in the last years. De Ronde made their big move to Oudenaarde and Lege and Lombardia are always changing climbs around but they are basically working on variations of the same type of race. MSR has made changes since 2008 drastically messing with what riders can actually win in the end.
After a long period (basically the entire post-war era) of a finale on the Via Roma after a series of smaller climbs culminating in the Poggio climb/descent. It was primarily the domain of the sprinters due to the distance from the Poggio to the finish and that was the race basically. A day when the big sprinters had a shot at a really big classic, something that the cobbles-guys, the climbers and the puncheurs had plenty of. Now we can have endless debates on whether it is as noble to win by making a 300 meter burst after hiding in the bunch all day as it is winning by powerful attacking and working in escape groups all day but the fact remains that it is an art and a speciality just as much as any other.
Somewhere along the line the race was becoming formulaic though. Maybe it was riders getting stronger, maybe it was just the massive amounts of EPO the domestiques were pumping into themselves that made the Capi, Cipressa and Poggio into mere speedbumps on the way to an ever-growing bunch sprint? Either way the organizers felt a shake up was needed in 2008 to spice it up. A new climb, Le Manie, was added and for practical reasons the finish was moved from Via Roma (where roadworks were taking place) to the a road slightly nearer the Poggio. The result was a finale that demanded stronger climbing and a made it more difficult for sprinters teams to reel in attackers and create a controlled sprint. Even greater changes have been planned with a steep climb that would totally rule out the sprinters but bad winter weather in 2013-14 put an end to that and instead RCS made a 180 degree turn for 2015. Le Manie is out and the finish is back on Via Roma, we're back to the pre-2008 course and the sprinters are squealing with delight.
The re-discovered finale for 2015
So will this automatically mean that we are in for a sprint on Sunday? Well, pretty much every one of the top pure sprinters, with the exception of Kittel for team-harmony reasons, are now electing to take the start. Even guys like Greipel, Guardini and Bouhanni who have little history with Sanremo are here as is of course most notably Cavendish who has been at the center of most of the course-change debates over MSR. Clearly they can smell an opportunity and it is going to take some hellacious efforts to wrest the race out of heir hands, which is not to say it can't be done. A clearer challenge also means a clearer sense of what needs to be done to cause an upset. With a less tricky finish more people will know that they will need to commit earlier or harder in their attacks, work with others rather than play games and just gamble harder in the end to have a shot at winning. A guy like Philippe Gilbert for instance, you could argue that he has missed his best chances to win MSR if this swing in balance lasts for a few years but what's to say the new deal doesn't make it easier for him and a few likeminded to establish a better cooperation and really put the dagger to sprint teams? The reality is that riders still have an absurd number of kms in the legs when they hit the Cipressa and those climbs are no joke if they are attacked with full commitment. Getting a sprinter with band of helpers over the Poggio within striking distance of the front can still be made into a difficult task, it just requires more cohesive effort. In the end it is just clearer ground rules. Or at least that's what it is until we've seen the actual outcomes for a few years.