Getting Back to Basics in La Classicissima di Primavera 2014
2014’s Milano-Sanremo harkens back to a past age, in which La Primavera was a marquee goal for the tougher sprinters in the peloton. The race was supposed to finish with a climb of the Pompeiana, making it even more climber-oriented than it has been in recent years, but damaged roads forced a route change. The climb of Le Manie had already been taken out to make way for the new ascent up the Pompeiana, and it has not been returned to the route, meaning the sprinters suddenly have a chance to contend again. Still, there are some lumps to overcome, and it’s a 294 kilometer race, and as might be expected of the already grueling spring Monument, rain is in the forecast for Sunday; suffice it to say, there are enough variables to leave this race wide open for the taking.
VeloHuman will be live tweeting analysis of Sunday’s action, so be sure you’re following @VeloHuman on Twitter. And if you’re looking for straight predictions, as usual, my top 10 contenders are at the end of the post.
The flat-enough parcours is drawing some of the peloton’s fastest finishers to Milano-Sanremo, and with so little data to draw on in the early season, it’s hard to name a favorite for the race. The most obvious candidate is last year’s runner-up Peter Sagan. If a bunch sprint arrives, Sagan has shown an ability to hang with the best on a good day, especially after a few tough climbs. If an attack goes, Sagan will be sure to follow. In either eventuality, Sagan can nab a victory, and that’s what makes him the most likely winner here. Working against him is the simple fact that he is not the fastest sprinter in this race, and in the event of a mass gallop, he may be facing Andre Greipel and Mark Cavendish, with their elite leadouts. He’ll look to keep a brutal pace over the few climbs that remain in this race, the Poggio and Cipressa, in an effort to whittle down his opponents.
2008’s winner Fabian Cancellara will be sure to join in on the fight to drop the likes of Cavendish and Greipel, as he’d be even less likely than Sagan to win if they were to make it to the line. The 5.6 km, 4.1% average grade Cipressa and the 3.7 km, 3.7% average grade Poggio are not the most challenging summits on Earth, but after 250 kilometers, they’ll hurt a lot more than you might think. Cancellara, like Sagan, will look for a winning move, and a chance to divebomb a rainy descent on the way to the finish line.
For the first time in years, Cancellara and Sagan face the possbility of the high-powered sprinters making it to the finish. Milano-Sanremo is still the longest race on the calendar, and there are still some climbs to manage, and it’s going to be raining, so nothing will come easy to the sprint teams, but a battle royale among the gallopers is more than just a possibility. Giant-Shimano’s John Degenkolb has the form and the versatility to be in contention to the very end. Of the riders not named Sagan with the firepower to beat Cavendish and Greipel in a straight up sprint, he is probably the least likely to be dropped on the climbs, or whittled down by the pace to a point of overwhelming late fatigue. He’s had success in the classics in recent years and he looks good so far this year, with his Paris-Nice stage win and points jersey serving as ample evidence of form. Moreover, he’ll be able to take advantage of the well-marshalled GSH leadout that so often pulls Marcel Kittel to the line. Unfortunately for Degenkolb, some of Kittel’s main rivals might make it to the finish as well. In the event that no late attack stays away, all eyes will be on Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Mark Cavendish and Lotto-Belisol’s Andre Greipel. Tom Boonen withdrew from the race after a family tragedy, but OPQS still has a typically elite squad to support Cavendish here with a world-class leadout, which includes former winner Alessandro Petacchi and Mark Renshaw (who, in the event that Mark Cavendish misses out on the bunch sprint for whatever reason, suddenly become contenders themselves). Meanwhile, Andre Greipel has a great chance to take his first big one-day win. He has shown improving ability to get over harder ascents in recent years and he showed blazing form early on in 2014. The past few weeks, he has quieted down somewhat, but Milano-Sanremo is sure to elicit a high octane effort from the German and his top-flight leadout squad.
In a potential bunch sprint finish, other names we could see matched up against these blue bloods include last year’s winner Gerald Ciolek of MTN-Qhubeka, Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff (who top 10ed in MSR, Flanders, AND Paris-Roubaix last year), Lampre’s Sacha Modolo (who is coming off of brilliant performances in a number of early season races), FDJ’s Arnaud Demare (who is focuing hard on the classics and can handle a climb or two), Movistar’s JJ Rojas, Michael Matthews of Orica-GreenEdge (a rider who has shown Degenkolb-style versatility in his first few years in the peloton, and who looked quite capable of managing tougher hills in the recent Paris-Nice), and Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen (who was one of the strongest riders in March’s Omloop Het Niewsblad). Outsiders in a heads-up sprint, reduced or otherwise, include Europcar’s Bryan Coquard (a bit disappointing in Paris-Nice, but a candidate to surprise everyone with his elite top speed), BMC’s Thor Hushovd, Tinkoff-Saxo’s Daniele Bennati and Michael Morkov, and Bardiani-CSF’s Filippo Fortin, Sonny Colbrelli, and Enrico Battaglin (hard to say who gets the nod among the young Italians), IAM Cycling’s Heinrich Haussler (2nd in 2009) and up-and-coming Matteo Pelucchi, and AG2R’s Davide Appolonio.
A number of teams come to Milano-Sanremo packed with riders hoping to get separation and avoid a bunch sprint. Astana’s roster seems built purely for this goal. Vincenzo Nibali had hoped this year would give him a chance to nab a victory in the Italian monument, but without the big climbs, his bid for glory took a serious hit. Still, he’ll be sure to put pressure on the fast men and he’ll appreciate the bad weather making it harder to follow him on the descents. Enrico Gasparotto, Borut Bozic, Francesco Gavazzi, and Maxim Iglinskiy are all legitimate options for a win from a small group of escapees. BMC’s Philippe Gilbert is guaranteed to be looking for the same opportunities. Had the route planned for 2014 remained unchanged, Gilbert would be in a great position to nab an MSR win, but as it stands, he’ll have to up the aggression to drop the faster finishers. Greg van Avermaet and Taylor Phinney are also likely to fire off attacks to keep the tension high. Belkin’s Bauke Mollema, Garmin-Sharp’s very hot Tom-Jelte Slagter and wily Ramunas Navardauskas, IAM Cycling’s Sylvain Chavanel, Tinkoff-Saxo’s Roman Kreuziger, and Neri Sottoli’s Simone Ponzi are likely looking to double down on late attacks as well. Orica-GreenEdge’s Simon Gerrans is an interesting case; he’s a former winner of this race who looked very strong early in 2014, but, like Gilbert, he would probably have favored a tougher course. As it stands, he’s likely to attack, but OGE might suspect that Michael Matthews presents a better opportunity to win the race. Lampre’s Diego Ulissi and Filippo Pozzato (a former winner), OPQS’s Jan Bakelants, Michal Kwiatkowski, and Zdenek Stybar, Movistar’s Fran Ventoso, Sky’s Geraint Thomas, Katusha’s Luca Paolini, FDJ’s Arthur Vichot (hot off of Paris-Nice) and Lotto-Belisol’s Tony Gallopin may look for similar opportunities to get involved in late attacks, even if their teams may see their bunch sprinters as the first option.
The late climbs are likely to bring out some of these opportunists, but they will have to work very hard to leave the fast men in the dust (or mud, as it were, given the likelihood of rain). Whoever wins this race, after 294 kilometers of riding, he will have truly earned the Monumental honor.
Winner: Peter Sagan
Podium: John Degenkolb, Andre Greipel
Top 10: Mark Cavendish, Alexander Kristoff, Fabian Cancellara, Arnaud Demare, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Michael Matthews, Sacha Modolo
Don’t forget to follow @VeloHuman on Twitter, and check back soon for the Volta a Catalunya preview!
Photo by Marianne de Wit.