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Sanremo: Pros and Cons in Consummate Pros

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No cycling race, and indeed no rider, is without fault, and no race proves that point better than Milano-Sanremo.

Poggio Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

You can point out how many better things you can be doing on a bright and sunny Saturday afternoon than watching the peloton proceed along the coast to the Capi. You can illuminate to us all that the Poggio wouldn't get a mention if it showed up in practically any other classic. You can wonder aloud how this race became such a huge classic, while other Italian races died. You can say all that, and many might have trouble disagreeing with you. I might. I still love the race. I will watch the peloton proceed along the coast to the Capi, and watch it joyfully. I'll be bubbling over with excitement when the peloton arrive at the Poggio, and whoever wins will have their palmarés enriched by a great, great deal.

The same goes for the people vying to have their palmarés enriched by winning — there's no overwhelming favourite: there almost never is. Nobody seems to be the perfect rider for this race, there is nobody you can point to and say "it's him. He's going to win," which is more than you can say for most races that Peter Sagan enters. There are reasons to believe any number of riders can win Saturday's race, as there are reasons to believe that each of those riders will not. So here it is then: a rider preview that seeks to say why the favourites will not will as much as why they will. My aim is for it not to sound like the ramblings of a weirdly specialised schizophrenic.

The Top Favourites:

Fernando Gaviria is, in my opinion, the rider who looks most likely to win on Saturday.

Pros:

  • Gaviria is very probably the fastest sprinter who will get over the Poggio. Having competed in five sprints this season, he won four, beating Sagan, Greipel, Bouhanni and Viviani in the process, but I don't think I need to prove to any of you that he's very fast. I don't think he'll absolutely dominate the sprints at the Giro, but on his day he's quicker than anyone.
  • He will also pretty certainly get over the Poggio. Last year, he not only got over it, but was making moves at the front of the peloton in the closing metres. There's no reason to think that he can't do that this year, which can't be said for any other sprinter of his calibre unless you count Sagan in that number.
  • He won the sixth stage of Tirreno-Adriatico, which served as, to quote Gaviria himself, "a little Milan-San Remo." It was 130 kilometres shorter, but the final kilometres were similar. A short, quickly raced climb peaked with seven kilometres left in the stage, a group forged clear, the sprint began, and Gaviria edged out Sagan. Does that not sound like it could happen again on the Via Roma?
    [Counterpoint: Won't Saturday's harder race give Sagan, who is obviously sprinting well, the edge?]

Cons:

  • "If you're good enough, you're old enough" is a statement that gets peddled like an axiom, but in cycling especially, it's not always true. While Milano-Sanremo has been won by younger men than Gaviria before, they either did it more than a hundred years ago or were named Merckx.
  • Does anyone remember last year's Dwars Door Vlaanderen? Gaviria was right at the pointy end of the peloton in the final kilometre, looking perfectly ready for a sprint but his legs disappeared halfway through his burst of speed and he was forced to sit down, fading to tenth position. The exact same thing happened in the (I'll be the first to admit, almost certainly irrelevant) fourth stage of the Volta ao Algarve.
    [Counterpoint: Does anyone remember last year's Paris-Tours? His legs didn't fade there.]

Conclusion: He's going to win. If he's in the front group in the last kilometre, nobody's going to be faster than him. He's not going to be glass-cranking up the Poggio in terror of an attack; he can stick on Sagan's wheel.

Gaviria pips Sagan in Tirreno Tim De Waele, Getty

Arnaud Démare staked his claim to be ranked among the favourites for this race in Paris-Nice last week.

Pros:

  • Firstly, we know he can win this race: he has, beating Swift and Roelandts in a bunch sprint last year. Last year, with a similar run-in, he had the speed and stamina to win.
    [Counterpoint: A little bird with an Italian accent told me he may not have gotten up the Cipressa on his own power.]
  • There's no reason to think that that has changed. His sign of form coming into the race last year was a victory in stage one of Paris-Nice. He repeated that, only on a much harder stage, showing strength on the late five hundred metre hill. He was no slouch in the bunch sprints either, securing second and third places.
  • If you watch the final seconds of last year's event, you'll notice that Démare, while positioned well late on, does not have the ideal sprint, and takes victory anyway. He's sprinting in the wind, out to the side, out of the saddle, from practically 250 metres out, yet he doesn't fade and gets to the line over a bike length in front. With a more ideal sprint, he could beat faster sprinters than Swift, should they make it to the end of the race in contact.

Cons:

  • Yes, he's fast, and yes, he's strong, but is he faster or stronger than everyone in the field? Peter Sagan and Fernando Gaviria were taken out of the running by the latter's late crash, and you'll bet that they'll be there to challenge. While you couldn't say that Démare doesn't deserve his victory, you could say that his victory predicts another as well as Ben Swift's second place does the same.
  • While this will certainly be challenged by the variables brought about by a 300 kilometre race, Démare isn't just being outsprinted by pure sprinters, but also by the sort of people you would expect to be untroubled by the Poggio. In the three sprint stages, he was beaten by Degenkolb (twice) and Kristoff — both former winners. Sonny Colbrelli also beat him after a hard stage.

Conclusion: A good pick, if uninspiring. I will be the tiniest bit surprised if he wins.

Peter Sagan can hardly be left off the favourites list for any race. He notched up Monument number one in 2016, and this is the next one on his list.

  • Sagan's versatility will stand to him in this race. I wouldn't be surprised to see him attack on the Poggio, jump in the final two kilometres, or win a bunch sprint, because he can quite simply do all of those things.
  • He did attack on the final climb on stage 6 of Tirreno, and while that dragged Gaviria clear, he might be able to regain those few centimetres he lost by in the more difficult race. In fact, I think there's a very good chance that he might attack late on. In big races - take Richmond in 2015 or Flanders last year - Sagan will attack rather than take his chances in a sprint against Kristoff or somebody faster. He would be the most capable man in the peloton of pulling such an attack off.
  • Mind you, he's not exactly been a slouch in bunch sprints recently. He beat Viviani and Roelandts in stage three of Tirreno, and to me at least, finishing anywhere level with Gaviria's front wheel is a pretty solid performance on a short stage. Then you've got Kuurne, where he made Jasper Stuyven look like Ambroos the donkey.

Cons:

  • I've always been sceptical of Sagan's sprinting after a difficult race. How many times does somebody have to be beaten by Greg Van Avermaet before that scepticism begins to look valid is a question that I've been pondering. I don't think he's going to fade totally, but I'm not convinced he can turn the dial up to top speed at the end quite as well as some others.
  • His record at MSR is far less than stellar. He has one podium finish, second place in 2013, but that involved losing to Gerald Ciolek, which you can't imagine adding to its value. Sprints to tenth and fourth followed, and then there was last year's disrupted twelfth. Look, I just can't see him winning a bunch sprint. If he wants to win, I think he has to make a selection on the Poggio.

Conclusion: Sagan will not win a boring race. He very likely will win an exciting one.

Alexander Kristoff is another man to have emerged victorious from Sanremo.

Pros:

  • "Previous champion" is a great label for previewers to use. It gives us a ready-made, recyclably-packaged reason to say why someone will win, especially if they haven't done anything for a month. But that's what Kristoff is, having taken victory in 2014 and coming within centimetres of repeating the feat the year after. He only managed sixth last year due to poor positioning, but it's certainly true that this is a race he can win.
    [Counterpoint: Is it a coincidence that the race in which he lost position is the one in which he did not have Luca Paolini to guide him to the front? He won't have him this time, or ever.]
  • I find it difficult to believe that a rider such as Kristoff can lose February form so easily. He won three sprints in Oman - they weren't the best-contested, but they were sprints - but in Paris-Nice he came second to Bennett and ninth in a crosswind stage I would think ideally suited him. Therefore, you might conclude that he's sandbagging, and will thus turn up tuned up for Sanremo on Saturday, because if he does, his sprint just could beat all comers.

Cons:

  • Well, maybe he's not sandbagging, in which case his season's been damn uninspiring so far. Beating Grosu and Sbaragli in Oman looks distinctly unimpressive paired with an anonymous MSR.
  • There's no evidence that Kristoff can beat Gaviria, and even Démare is somebody to whom he seems to lose rather often. I'd certainly question Kristoff's ability to win a bunch sprint, and it's a bunch sprint he will undoubtedly wait for.

Conclusion: The more I think about Kristoff's chances, the less I like them. A podium? Certainly possible. A win? I don't think so.

Amgen Tour of California - Stage 8 - Sacramento Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The Top Maybes

John Degenkolb is yet another with a good history in this race, winning in the 2015 bunch sprint.

Pros:

  • Before his early 2016 crash, it was beginning to look like he was hollowing out a niche: becoming the guy who won sprints after making the front group of difficult classics. If he has rekindled the speed he had in 2015, he can certainly outsprint Kristoff and Démare.
  • Here's another one: he's actually got a pretty good record in sprints against Démare, Kristoff and Sagan. The best example of this was the dragrace he and Kristoff essentially had in 2015, a race where Sagan finished fourth, where he narrowly won out. He outstripped Démare two times out of three in Paris-Nice.
  • His team is really strong. With Felline and Stuyven as foils-come-leadout men, he should have some top-class assistance at the foot of the Poggio.

Cons:

  • All of those things in the "pros" column seem to be far better portents of a second place finish than of a win. Often beating three of the favourites in sprints and doing things in 2015, but only taking one victory (a poorly contested stage of the Dubai Tour) this year is not something I can use to say that he can win this race.
  • He just doesn't have the sprint of Gaviria, and if Sagan or Démare get away in a group, there's no guarantee that he can outsprint them, even if he's in that group.

Conclusion: I simply can't see him being the fastest man in whatever group comes to the finish, and I thus can't see him winning.

Nacer Bouhanni will go straight from Sanremo to Callela for the first stage of the Volta a Catalunya, and it's not inconceivable that he could win both.

Pros:

  • Well, he's certainly hitting form at the right time. While Joeri Stallaert and Adam Blythe are, with all the respect in the world, not quite at the calibre of his MSR opponents, Bouhanni sprung back to some semblance of form to take his first victory of the season in Nokere Koerse, a Belgian semiclassic which has somewhat unpromisingly never predicted the winner of Sanremo.
  • He's another top sprinter who will pretty certainly get over the Poggio. Bouhanni - as evidenced especially in a few successful days in Catalunya - is more than capable of sprinting having surmounted some considerable obstacles.
    [Counterpoint: Last year, he ran out of steam a hundred metres from the line.]

Cons:

  • He is incredibly inconsistent. In Paris-Nice, he missed every split save the depart reel before climbing off in the middle of stage two, but a week later he won a semiclassic. For all we know, he'll start a fight with a mailbox on the Turchino pass or pull somebody's jersey five hundred metres from the line.
    [Counterpoint: Then again, he could be on a good day and sprint faster than anyone.]
  • I have no confidence in his team. Senechal and Claeys are both there for him, strong riders both, but I don't expect to see them stringing the peloton out going through the flamme rouge.

Conclusion: I'm tempted to say I like his chances better than Degenkolb's: I can see him winning a sprint. However, I can see him losing one far more often.

Criterium du Dauphine - Stage Four Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Michael Matthews usually makes more headlines in Paris-Nice than he did this year, but that doesn't mean his performance wasn't promising.

Pros:

  • There were no late-on collisions or stage wins for Michal Matthews this year, but his performance in Paris-Nice is encouraging nonetheless. It's dangerous to predict someone's form based on a time-trial, but seventh place on the fourth stage of the French race is extremely impressive. Couple that with a sixth place on the Col d'Eze stage and you've got an MSR contender.
  • The length of MSR is a variable of which it's extremely difficult to predict the consequences, but you'd assume it would level the sprinting playing field from Matthews to guys like Sagan, who you would normally consider faster. This holds true: Matthews finished third to Sagan's fourth the last time they sprinted for the wind in this race.

Cons:

  • He's not the only guy I'm going to say this about, but Matthews just isn't fast enough. There's no way he's going to get in a group where he's the fastest man, and that's pretty much what he's relying on. That's essentially my only issue with him. His team is fine, he climbs perfectly, his form is okay, he's just not going to win the sprint that he would have to win in order to leave Sanremo with silverware.

Conclusion: As I say, a top ten? Sure. A podium? Very possibly. Just not the win.

The Attackers

Greg Van Avermaet will have to attack to win. Using the strategy dubbed (by me, just now) "the 2014 Cancellara" or not attacking however strong he is and waiting for a sprint, he's just never going to get anywhere.

Pros:

  • He's probably the non-sprinter most capable of pulling off an attack, which is pretty useful when you're looking for a group to work with you on the Poggio.
  • He's proven that if he makes the race hard, he is capable of outsprinting almost anyone. By which I mean Sagan. If the race pans out the way he wants it to, which involves fewer than ten people fighting for the win at the end, there's a decent chance he'll be the best-equipped man in those ten.
  • His team is pretty strong, but most importantly it doesn't contain a sprinter. Van Avermaet doesn't have a great chance of winning the race, but he has a better chance than anyone else in BMC colours. They'll have to commit to whatever he does.

Cons:

  • This goes for all the attackers, but do you know how unlikely a move is to succeed? Le Manie has been gone for the last three editions, and it scared the sprinters far more than any other climb in the race. The trains are too good to let any move that isn't huge and doesn't contain at least two favourites get away, and it's no coincidence that attacks have been winning less and less recently.

Conclusion: Van Avermaet is the guy most likely to win this outside of a bunch sprint, but there will be a bunch sprint.

8th Tour of Oman 2017 - Stage Five Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Michał Kwiatkowski has taken home one trophy from Italy this year, but it'll take something special for him to make it two.

Pros:

  • He rides for Sky, and even they can't think Elia Viviani is going to win, so he must thus be the leader of Sky, a position which often comes with a high placing.
  • It might take him a long solo attack to gain anything from this race, and that's exactly what he did in Strade Bianche. Alright, it was Greg Van Avermaet and Tim Wellens chasing him down there, rather than a rotating cast of sprint trains, but he's clearly up for a solo attack if the chance presents itself.
  • He's yet another person to have beaten Sagan in a sprint at the end of a classic. That could come in useful.

Cons:

  • Y'know, the whole thing about attacks not working.
  • In a race like Sanremo, it's unlikely that Kwiatkowski can end up in a group without a faster sprinter in it. The forecasted headwind on the Poggio will sound the death knell for small groups.

Conclusion: It's just not his race. Not enough fast-twitch muscles.

Jurgen Roelandts is rated far more highly by his team than by practically anyone else, an attitude he vindicated with third last year.

Pros:

  • His DS confirmed that the team were riding for him - Greipel has decided to skip the race, evidently feeling he can't win it - so he must be in some way tuned up for it.
  • You might also get that idea from his Tirreno performance, managing third in a sprint behind only Sagan and Viviani. He managed to beat sprinters Sacha Modolo and Luka Mezgec, and one thing I do know is that the distance of the race will stand to his advantage.
  • He's an excellent candidate to get away in an attack — strong, but not a huge name, and not going to win a bunch sprint.

Cons:

  • There's a reason he's in the attackers category, and it's - again - he's just not fast enough. If this race had gone ahead with adding the Pompeiana he'd be a far better candidate.
  • Team tactics might force him to stay in the peloton and sprint to sixth if Lotto decide they need to attack with Benoot or Wellens instead.

Conclusion: Excellent outside pick. Not a favourite.

There's ten riders for you. Now to the bit in a preview where you get to the people who you don't consider to have a prayer. For them, I'll abandon the bullet points.

Is two Brits with a good history enough to make a category?

Ben Swift seems to specialise somewhat in this race, but it's not a good race to specialise in. Having left Sky, he'll have all the members of the UAE Emirates team not named Sacha at his disposal, but it's very difficult to believe that he's going to be the fastest man left in the peloton at the end of the race. He's perhaps the person with the best chance of winning that you simply can't imagine being a Monument winner.

Mark Cavendish has won this race before, and not only that, he's won it when it was more difficult than it is now. So why do I (and most others, by the sound of it) think he'll be dropped on the Poggio? Cavendish of 2017 is an inferior model to Cavendish of 2009, and perhaps one who cares less about winning Milano-Sanremo. Even if he does make it over with the peloton, the chances are it will have taken too much out of him if he is to beat Sagan or Degenkolb in a sprint.

Cavendish 2009 MSR GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images

The Home Favourites Outsiders

Sonny Colbrelli is a rider of whom I like the chances perhaps a little too much. In the past three editions, he has scored results of twelfth, sixth, eighteenth and ninth, so he's no slouch if not jet-propelled by the end of the race, but his victory in the difficult second stage of Paris-Nice, beating Degenkolb, Démare and Kristoff really proved to me tht he'll bring his sprinting legs to Milan. He's the best chance of an Italian vicoty.

Sacha Modolo made his name with a fourth place in the 2010 MSR, but there's no chance of him living up to that result. UAE will likely ride for Swift in any case.

Elia Viviani will be dropped on the Poggio, and once you recognise that there's very little to say about him. Maybe that he wouldn't win a sprint even if he weren't?

Niccolo Bonifazio is Andrew's outside pick, but as he says, will likely be leading out Colbrelli. I don't think he'd be able to match the sprint of the favourites in any case.

Anybody Else?

Caleb Ewan is a rider I'm having quite some consternation over. I have a feeling that he may be faster than anyone in the peloton. He made Cavendish and Kittel look second-rate in Abu Dhabi — essentially, he's won all but one sprint he's contested this season, and he was the fastest in that one. He's won a classic of over 200 kilometres (Vattenfall Cyclassics, 218km) before. However, you don't expect a sixty-one kilogram, twenty-two-year-old sprinter to win Milano-Sanremo at his first attempt. I don't think he'll get over the Poggio, but if he does I'm going to watch him with some interest.

Edvald Boasson Hagen managed to attack on the flat late on at the end of last year's race, but nothing came of it. The last four words of that sentence will describe his performance this year.

Magnus Cort is Orica's other hope for this race. He's got a decent record of sprinting with Bouhanni and other second-tier sprinters. No chance of a win this year, but he might show up somewhere near the end.

Matteo Trentin finds himself in the unenviable position of being on the team of both the fastest sprinter and a former winner. Expect to see him get in a move as early as the Cipressa. He can convert a chance, in the unlikely event of its arrival.

Tim Wellens will almost certainly attack. His lack of a sprint, and the lack of rain, will ensure it comes to nothing.