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Milan - San Remo Preview

Eyes down for the year’s first Monument

AFP via Getty Images

With the re-started season now fully underway and World Tour racing happening in Poland, attention will shift back to Italy tomorrow for the season’s first monument. The much-delayed Milan - San Remo is normally a harbinger of spring but will be run on a glorious summer’s day across Northern Italy. Let’s look ahead.

What’s going down?

I’m going to lean heavily on last year’s preview, in which I set out the course, and the ways the race can be won. There are a bunch of differences in the first chunk of the course, but the basic structure of the race will be the same. I think that preview holds up.

What are the differences? Well, the full guide will give you a clue. (If you’re looking for more references, can I interest you in a startlist, weather forecast, and official website? Streaming will be widely available in all the usual places.) Essentially, the race is inland for more of the journey, only hitting the shore on the run-in to the Cipressa. That means that the Copi and the Turchino won’t be climbed, but two long, very steady climbs will be taken instead. The race still clocks in at a ludicrous 299km. Will things feel different? Possibly, but I’d say the weather will sap the legs enough to make up for the marginally less demanding course. We’ll still see an exciting, and familiar, finish.

Perhaps the biggest change is the reduction in team size. With just six riders per squad we will see a different dynamic, and I suspect it will lead to more conservative tactics as each team will have fewer cards to play in the final stages. Those with multiple leaders on the day (the Wolfpack, of course, plus Ineos, Lotto Soudal and perhaps Groupama-FDJ and UAE) may find this works to their advantage as there might be less competition up front in the earlier stages

Who wins?

Let’s look at some potential winners from each of my possible scenarios, as laid out last year.

From a breakaway (chances: less than 1%)

Won’t happen, but if it did, the Italian pro-conti teams are worth looking at. I dunno… Josip Rumac?

From an attack on the Cipresa (chances: 1%, I said last year, which seems low but is probably about right).

Giulio Ciccone won’t be much use to Trek at the finale so this might be his option. If EF decide to go for many attacks – and they might – I’d expect Rusty Woods to be the first guy sent up the road.

From an attack on the Poggio (chances: 10%)

This is how Vincenzo Nibali got his 2018 win, so he’s worth mentioning again. So too is Philippe Gilbert, for whom this represents the best chance of completing a sweep of the monuments. Alexy Lutsenko looked good enough last week without justifying my support and he’s another who’d like this approach and might be strong enough to make it stick. Giovanni Visconti might want to turn back the clock and I suppose stranger things have happened, though not many. If you do fancy an Italian winner, I’d say Alberto Bettiol has a better chance than Nibbles or Visconti this year, and he could fit in this group or the next one…

From a group going clear on the run-in (chances: 15%)

Lots of guys this year for whom this is the preferred option, and some of them look plenty strong. Top of the pile is probably Mathieu van der Poel, with Strade winner and perma-rival Wout van Aert also certain to be closely-watched as they weave towards the Via Roma. Another tough man with a good record in this race is Olivier Naesen. Also, is this now where Peter Sagan’s name belongs? Perhaps so – and you could say the same for Michal Kwiatkowski, who beat him in 2017 just like this. Longer shots include Magnus Cort, Bob Jungels and (don’t laugh) Eddy Boasen-Hagen. Okay, you can laugh.

From a reduced bunch sprint (60%)

This is the likeliest outcome and the one with the most potential winners. In approximate order of likelihood, as I see it:

In a very reduced group: Michael Matthews, Peter Sagan, Julian Alaphilippe, Greg van Avermaet, Sonny Colbrelli.

In a reduced group: Arnaud Demare, Michael Matthews, Peter Sagan, Matteo Trentin, Alexander Kristoff.

In a somewhat reduced group: Fernando Gaviria, Arnaud Demare, Caleb Ewan, Michael Matthews, Peter Sagan

Now, that trio of lists is very much my ranking, and you might choose to see it differently. Caleb Ewan, for instance, won the group gallop when finishing second in 2018 and might be tough enough to stay in a more reduced group. I suspect others will be sweeter on his chances than I am. Also, am I overrating a first-race-back Michael Matthews? Possibly, but he does have a habit of going well on the biggest stages.

From a bunch sprint (10%)

Add the “pure” sprinters to the list above. That throws names like Sam Bennett, Giacamo Nizzolo and Nacer Bouhanni into the mix.

My feeling, though, is that even if the race does stay together, it’ll be very tough to win without more climbing chops than any of these guys show, especially in a year where very few of these dudes are fully fit for 300km in the saddle. I think we will see a biggish group contesting the finish, because I think it will be conservatively raced given fitness levels, small teams, and heat. I also think we can expect a chaotic sprint with the tougher guys from my “reduced group” lists beating the guys who, on paper, expect to have a faster finish.

That said, don’t sleep on bookie’s favourite (jointly with Caleb Ewan) Mathieu van der Poel who could win from just about any size of group and is box-office enough to enjoy this (though I still have doubts over his ability to husband his resources). Speaking of bookies, if you’re looking for a very, very long-priced guy to shout for, Androni’s Nicola Venchiarutti at just 21 is set up to enjoy this sort of race and is available at a ridiculous 400/1 – which returns 51 times your stake for a top 5 finish.

My expectation is that this goes to a hardman-sprinter. Of those, the ones showing the best form are 2016 winner Demare and Gaviria, the former winning Milan-Torino and the latter grabbing a stage in Burgos. I’ll give the edge to Arnaud Demare who is my idea of the winner this year.

AFP via Getty Images

Who do you fancy?