The smell of cut grass. The days lengthening. The Masters from Augusta. The sound of [insert local fauna as appropriate] [insert distinctive sound] in/on/beside [insert recognisable local architecture or flora as appropriate]. Milan-San Remo.
Yes, spring* is coming, folks, and so is the season’s first monument. Italian cycling, never without a poetic narrative, has the first big race of the year, starting in a corner of Europe where winter isn’t too far forgotten, and finishing in the glitz, colour and sunshine of the Mediterranean coastline. Well, that’s the theory, anyway – the weather doesn’t always align with the narrative.
* In the Northern hemisphere.
Chris has given us the colour and the history of the race. Conor feels confident that he can tell us all the winner. Which leaves me to look at how the race will unfold. It is a pretty familiar story, to be honest. One of the season’s longest races, the peloton will cover 291km, rolling out from Milan at 0945 local and heading over the Passo del Turchino after 142km. It is the biggest climb of the day but it is early and relatively straightforward.
With little difficulty on the route, only awful weather likely to make a difference early. On that note, the forecast is currently excellent at both ends of the course and, so far as I can see, in the middle of it. With such a long day in the saddle, poor conditions can make a massive difference to the race, and a sunny day makes things easier for the riders and increases the chances of a bunch finish.
Soon after Turchino, the race hits the coast just west of Genoa and hugs it all the way to San Remo. This is a pretty day and heli shots are always worth watching. We’ll have live TV from, I think, 1430 local in all the usual places (potential timings are in the surprisingly useful official guide). Cycling fans can name the obstacles en route; first the three capi – Capo Mele, Capo Cervo and Capo Berta, the last of which is crested with 45km to go, and then the Cipressa, five and a half kilometres at 4%, but taken with 265km in the legs and at a fearsome pace, and finally the Poggio.
Ah, the Poggio. No hill in cycling manages as lofty a reputation on as straightforward an ascent. It is less than four kilometres of climbing at less than four percent, with even the steepest sections only reaching 8%. It proves that estate agents are right, and location really is key. This climb peaks 285.6km into the race, and has a fast and technical descent, meaning that there’s only 2.5km of flat road to close any late breaks down.
From the foot of the Poggio and into San Remo, the field take a pair of tight bends and then have 750 metres of straight road to the finish on the Via Roma. It is wide enough and flat enough to allow for a bunch sprint with proper leadouts, if the field is somehow all together by that point.
That’s the course, then, in all it’s familiarity, and with the weather and TV information thrown in just because I’m a generous and helpful man. The reason I love this race, though, is all about the things I didn’t say, but that you know already. The steadily escalating tension in the peloton, mirroring the increasing pace and the growing fatigue. The ever-present risk of lead riders being lost to the pace of the race, to the climbs, or to the all-too-common crashes. Familiar landmarks and achingly perfect houses (can we, please, just buy one of these villas? To go with the Tuscany farmhouse, the Waregem townhouse and the Dolomite chatlet, obviously) glimpsed in the background. Most of all, I love how every minute of the last hour is critical, because, however well we know the race, we don’t know how it’ll be won.
How to win Milan-San Remo
From a Breakaway.
Chances: Laughable. Less than one percent, but I suppose nothing is impossible.
Recent winners: Nope.
Likely to try it: Take your pick, especially from the smaller teams. Jan Barta has made a specialty of being in the break, but he won’t be there this year. Pro-conti squads include Bardiani, Androni and Neri Sotolli, all Italian, and it’d be a surprise if they weren’t represented. Every year, this race vies with the World Champs for the title of “most doomed breakaway.”
From an attack on the Copi or the Cipressa
Chances: Remote, especially given the weather. One of those ideas that seems more realistic than it proves. I guess one percent.
Recent winners: Nothing to see here.
Likely to try it: Well, there’s a few teams who’ve got a couple of good climbing options and no real prospects of winning in a sprint. They might send someone on a speculative one. seem like a good possibility here – Mikel Landa, maybe?
From an attack on the Poggio
Chances: Now we’re talking. These attacks will come and will matter. Still, history shows that, more often than not they’re brought back. Let’s say ten percent?
Recent winners: You only have to go back to 2018 for Vincenzo Nibali’s glorious win.
Likely to try it: Well, Nibali might well want to see if lightning strikes twice. In the absence of Tim Wellens, other good candidates include Alejandro Valverde, Romain Bardet, and Gianni Moscon. In this context, “likely to try” it means “good climber, good descender, good legs and good luck.”
From a small group going clear on the run-in
Chances: You need extraordinary speed and power to go clear when the peloton are rampaging, but there are riders in the field with extraordinary speed and power. The difficulties of the Poggio descent help a little here. Let’s go with fifteen percent
Recent winners: I’m going to put Michal Kwiatkowski’s 2017 win in this category. Your milage may vary.
Likely to try it: Demon descenders and tough puncheurs. I could see Valverde or Julian Alaphilippe going clear either just before the Poggio summit or just after. Others may have chances depending on where their sprinters are – the likes of Diego Ulissi and Matej Mohoric. If the right move goes, bank on Peter Sagan following it.
From a reduced bunch sprint
Chances: This is, I think, the platonic Milan San-Remo. The finish that looks a bit like a sprint in a photo, but doesn’t feel like a sprint in the last kilometre. No real leadouts, the fastest guys in the field dropped on the Poggio or barely back with the field, and a degree of chaos. I’d but the chances at sixty five percent.
Recent winners: Most recently, Arnaud Demare in 2016. You could argue, and I would, that this was the case every year from 2010 to 2016, and that we’re overdue for another one, with the weather helping the cause.
Likely to try it: Sagan would still like his chances. In a heavily reduced bunch, the likes of Sonny Colbrelli, Matteo Trentin, Alexander Kristoff and Greg van Avermaet may well be to the fore. If it is a larger bunch, expect to see Demare, Sagan, Fernando Gaviria, Elia Viviani, John Degenkolb and Caleb Ewan fighting for the win.
From a bunch sprint
Chances: The difference between this scenario and the reduced sprint is one of degree. I guess this suggests a lower level of chaos and more of the field’s “pure” sprinters making it to the sharp end, possibly even with some semblance of a train. The remaining chances are just under ten percent, which sounds about right to me.
Recent winners: Now, I’m saying this is Mark Cavendish’s position (2009). You might say I’m being harsh on Cav, or indeed generous to Oscar Freire (2010). Either way, it has been a while.
Likely to try it: Well, if this scenario plays out, everyone will try it. It’d be Christmas come early for Jumbo-Visma, for whom Dylan Groenewegen makes a debut. Ewan, Viviani, Gaviria and Sagan will still be up there, and you may even see the likes of Giacomo Nizzolo and Niccolo Bonifazio fighting for glory.
Six scenarios, then, and we can expect all of them to be in play at some point on Saturday. There are far more potential winners than I’ve mentioned. All we know for sure is that the last 50km of the race make for the most reliably exciting, chaotic and harum-scarum hour’s racing in cycling.