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Milano-Sanremo: The ‘Who Will Win’ Piece

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Milano-Sanremo is at the same time the most and least predictable race on the calendar. It’s not every race you can work through every single scenario in which the race can be won and coming up with a manageable number - go on, try doing it with E3 Harelbeke - but then again it’s not every race that can be won by Mark Cavendish, then a few years later undergo alterations that make it notably easier, following which it is won by Vincenzo Nibali. I’m not going to go through all the scenarios in which any given rider can win, Andrew did that expertly last year and much of it is still relevant. What I aim to achieve with this preview is to come up with one name and a set of very plausible reasons why they will be the first person to win a Monument classic in 2019. This is an exclusive party. Podium contenders are not invited. Right of Admission is Reserved. Bring photographic identification. We have a strict pro-drunkenness policy. Invitees will be split into different queues at the discretion of the organiser.

In queue number one we have the sprinters. They’re dressed in their finest Lycra. Elia Viviani stands at the top of the queue. He’s dressed in the colours of the tricolore and his gang stand outside the railings. They’re confident and assured to a man.
“ID please?”

EuroEyes CYCLASSICS 2018 Photo by Alexander Koerner/Getty Images for EuroEyes CYCLASSICS 2018

Everything seems to check out.

Why is Viviani a candidate for victory? Well, that’s a disturbingly good question. I’m still reeling from when his career burst into life out of nowhere, as he manifested a faster sprint than ever before, combined with greater nous (track experience coming into play) and, it seems, climbing ability. Take his performance in GP Plouay in 2017 for example, a few weeks after he told the cycling world to sit up and take notice. Plouay is by no means a race designed for the sprinters. To illustrate this point, Oliver Naesen has won two of the last three. Whatever sprinters have won it have never been scared by a berg and what I find interesting is that between 2006 and 2015, five of the ten winners (Matt Goss, Vincenzo Nibali, Alexander Kristoff, Simon Gerrans and Filippo Pozzato) also have an MSR title to their name. Anyway, Viviani won Plouay in 2017 and in terms of form pretty much hasn’t looked back, recording fourteen World Tour wins since, in comparison to seven previous. Obvious caveat that the World Tour has expanded is obvious, but since two of the seven previous wins were in China, I’m comfortable with the comparison.

I spent all that time giving Viviani a backstory for a reason: there was a cyclist called Elia Viviani who rode for Cannondale and then Sky for two years. The man entered on the startlist is not him, in case you hadn’t noticed or still have a slight tendency to dismiss him (not that I would know of anyone with a tendency to dismiss people, cough). Viviani is a serious sprinter, the Italian champion and he has won in every race he has entered so far this year, not to mention the fact that his most recent win was in a mostly flat but definitely challenging 230 kilometre stage through Italy. Oh, and he has Richeze, an underrated but brilliant leadout man.

Okay, next in the queue is Caleb Ewan. Photo ID?

Caleb Ewan Hatta Dam UAE Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

I’ll take it. Caleb Ewan was on my VDS team for two years in a row because, mainly, for a part of that time I thought he could become the fastest sprinter in the world. A fast-twitch, smaller, Aussie NovoCav. This, as I hope you know, did not happen. Two years on, it seems that he doesn’t have the raw pace of Cavendish and is going to have to get his wins in one of two ways. One of them is shown in the above picture and it is how he won his first of two Grand Tour stages all the way back in 2015: winning on comparatively easy uphill sprints. The other one is what interests me: the well-known Best Sprinter Left strategy. A strategy with limited use in, say, the Tour de France, a race in which Ewan has in fact not yet competed. It does, however, happen to be very useful in MSR, a fact Ewan took almost full advantage of in finishing second to Nibali. Third was Démare and fourth was Kristoff, former winners both. It’s this second place finish, alongside good form that took him to a couple more runners-up spots in a windswept and difficult Paris-Nice, that places him at equal-second favourite with the bookies, a remarkable thing given that he’s never crossed the line first (note the wording) in anything that can be considered a big classic. The bottom line on Ewan, however, a line which I take it the bookies are following, is that he has proven himself well capable of sprinting well on the Via Roma. That’s, you know, pretty valuable these days.

Next in the queue is Fernando Gaviria.

Gaviria UAE Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

ID checks out. Gaviria is an interesting one. It was very recently that he was viewed as a classics star of the very near future and my response to this if I were his team manager would be to push him away from that and get him doing extra sprint training. The sprint field is far easier to put your stamp on than the classics field these days and UAE can direct Kristoff to the classics as a leader with a better sprint than practically anyone else. It’s hard to see how adding Gaviria to their classics lineup actually improves their chances of winning enough races to jeopardise the Colombian’s sprint form. All that’s irrelevant to Milano-Sanremo, however. For the minute, Gaviria is searching for a bit of form, having been soundly beaten by Viviani and Sagan in his sole sprint appearance in Tirreno. Sprinting is not a discipline in which one finds a whole lot of consistency, but Gaviria might be worse than most on that token. He should get over the Poggio and he has the legs to win against anyone in the field.

Next comes Dylan Groenewegen.

Groenewegen Paris-Nice Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Go right ahead sir. Groenewegen makes this list for one reason — he is, at the moment, the fastest sprinter on the startlist. This is a race that can be decided by a fairly sizeable bunch sprint and Saturday will be a calm, warm day. However, Milano-Sanremo is a race where it’s not uncommon to see sprinters literally not be able to keep up by the final kilometres having spent themselves in the previous 290. Groenewegen makes it to the last three hundred metres at the front and he’s the instant favourite.

Fifth in the line comes Sam Bennett.

ID?

Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

I’m sorry sir, I’ll have to deny you admission because I don’t think you’re a contender to win.

Let me defend that. I’ve underestimated Sam Bennett in the past and I might be doing it again, but there’s a number of reasons why I don’t think he should be among the genuine candidates for victory. One of them is his attire — the kit he wears might not be the same livery as Peter Sagan, but it would take a lot to give him leadership over the Bora team. Bennett won a long stage of Paris-Nice, and he won a tricky stage of Paris-Nice, but nothing at anything like the intensity of MSR. I find it unlikely he will be the best sprinter in any front group that reaches the finish.

At the end of the queue are the former winners and I’m just going to say a few words about Arnaud Démare and Alexander Kristoff. It’s hard to outright dismiss people who literally won on the exact parcours but Kristoff is off-colour as anything other than a leadout man (and if Philipsen, Gaviria and Kristoff get over the Poggio, it may be the best Via Roma sprint train in history). Démare’s win is still a surprise to think about. It stands out way above the rest of his palmarés and to win two MSRs would, I can imagine, look like a huge anomaly in years to come. It’s a stretch to think he’ll do it again.

Right, we now move on to our next category, one which I would like to call “people called Peter Sagan.” Only one guy in this queue for some reason. ID?

Sagan Stage 13 Tour 2018 PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Hmm. It’s an old photo, but I’ll take it. Because this is the best cyclist in the world, and the best cyclist in the world gets leniency for things like, say, having only one win since that picture was taken in July of last year, and that win taking place in Australia. He gets sort of let off for looking off-colour at Tirreno after an illness. Sagan is a dynamo who can win in any conceivable scenario and nothing that’s happened in the last couple of weeks is going to change that. However. The other two hundred guys in the race know that, which will make Sagan’s day a real tough one, especially as his sprint is not infallible after a lot of energy has been expended. An attack on the Poggio has failed before and maybe just through impatience, Sagan doesn’t like to trust his sprint from a bunch, as Richmond shows. He’s the bookies’ favourite and it’s obvious why.

Right. Final queue and it’s the attackers. Who have we? Oh, I recognise him, he hangs with Viviani. Julian Alaphilippe, is it?

Alaphilippe Fuglsang Strade Bianche Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Right through here. The Wolfpack has been indomitable in 2019 and it’s been through the use of double/triple/sextuple threats that they’ve had their success. Viviani is clearly the leader for a sprint but Alaphilippe should have carte blanche to attack much like, as I had to be reminded this week, he did in 2017, being beaten in a three-up sprint by Sagan and Kwiatkowski. If there’s a rider who fits the Moreno Argentin, unbelievable form in Tirreno, mould, it’s Alaphilippe. He won a bunch sprint. Like. A sprint. Viviani and Sagan were there. In all likelihood he will try something on the Poggio and it’ll be up to good legs and good fortune to see if he pulls it off.

Next in the queue is Michał Kwiatkowski.

Kwiatkowski Yellow Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Looks like him, and that’s the only one of these pictures that isn’t an action shot. It’s for a reason. Kwiatkowski got to that yellow jersey through intelligence, a strong team, serious legs and not actually winning anything. So it sums up his season so far. Former winner, the first one to actually make my list of favourites and one of the most likely guys to pull off an attack. He’s beaten Sagan twice in a straight sprint at the end of a classic so any group smaller than a peloton is one out of which he can surprise.

So out of all those names, I believe, will come the winner. If it’s a sprint, my money is on Viviani. If an attack is successful, for me it’s Alaphilippe. Patrick Lefevre is very happy. So which then, sprint or break? You know, I genuinely feel the balance in cycling has tipped towards the attacker in recent seasons, I really do. Take Stuyven and Jungels in recent KBKs, Gilbert in his great Ronde win, Nibali and Kwiatkowski of course, the last two victors of this race. That being said, I think the stars are aligned for a sprint win in this MSR. Your victor? Elia Viviani.