Milano-Sanremo 2015 Preview

MSR_2014_Lead VH

Milano-Sanremo, the first one-day race on the 2015 WorldTour and also the first “Monument Classic” of the season, has almost arrived! The grueling event, which will take riders from Italy’s Lombardy region to its Ligurian coast this Sunday, combines an overlong race distance with a few topographic features along the way, and often a sizeable dose of unpleasant weather. Even in a sport that prizes toughness, Milano-Sanremo demands grit and endurance on another level, which is why a big reason why its list of winners includes some of cycling most legendary hard men (one of the many topics discussed in the Recon Ride pre-race show, which you should also check out).

The Route

Though Milano-Sanremo has undergone a number of route changes in the past few years, the 293-kilometer route of the 2015 edition is similar to that of the 2014 edition (lacking a few of the climbs often planned for this race), with some alterations in the final kilometers. The peloton will set out from Milan and enjoy mostly flat roads for over a hundred kilometers. The pavement angles upward for the long, low-gradient climb of the Passo del Turchino a bit before the midway point, and that ascent is followed by a fast descent towards the coast.

293 kilometers in total, the Milano-Sanremo parcours becomes more and more difficult near the finish line.

293 kilometers in total, the Milano-Sanremo parcours becomes more and more difficult near the finish line.

From there, it’s still over a hundred kilometers along the Mediterranean in the direction of San Remo. Things stay flat for a while, but around kilometer 240, the peloton will start to hit a few small bumps, leading into a pair of more difficult late climbs likely to break up the peloton before the finish. First comes the Cipressa, 5.6 kilometers at a 4.1% average gradient. The riders will reach the top with a little over 20 km to go, take on a fast descent, and then speed over flat roads until they hit the foot of the Poggio climb. 3.7 kilometers at 3.7%, the Poggio does have a few steep sections (one stretch of 8%), and its otherwise unimposing gradient is of course made much more intimidating by the fact that the riders won’t reach the climb until they’ve already ridden 280 kilometers. The top of the Poggio is 5.5 kilometers from the finish, and followed by a fast descent that doesn’t even out until there are only 2.3 kilometers to go. From there, it’s a flat run towards the finishing straight on the Via Roma, a classic conclusion to Milano-Sanremo that has returned after many years of being left out of the route. With the reintroduction of the Via Roma, the finish line in this year’s race is almost a kilometer closer to the bottom of the Poggio than it was last year.

As of the day before the race, the weather forecast calls for some rain, though at the moment it seems the peloton may escape the torrential downpours common in the area this time of year.

The Contenders

Given the parcours, the likeliest outcome for Milano-Sanremo 2015 would appear to be a sprint showdown among the more versatile quick men of the peloton. The late climbs will give the opportunists a chance to try to get up the road and stay clear for the victory, and a few riders stand out as particularly likely protagonists in that scenario, but it won’t be easy to hold of the charging pack on these relatively low gradients. On the other hand, there are a few pure sprinters who might be favorites in any other high-speed finale but who might struggle here after such a long day.

Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff is the defending champion, the victor of the 2014 edition in a bunch sprint that saw him well ahead of several very speedy finishers. Kristoff’s ability to survive the grueling distance without losing too much of his kick was crucial to his win over the other sprinters last year, and it remains a strong reason to expect big things from him again this year. Kristoff also has the experienced Luca Paolini to help him navigate the day’s difficulties. He has been in excellent form all season, winning sprints in several stage races, and that only makes him appear a stronger candidate here. The one question mark for Kristoff is whether he’ll be close enough to the front of the race as the Via Roma approaches. The reduced distance between the bottom of the Poggio descent and the finish line will give Kristoff less time to regain ground if he loses position on the last climb. Kristoff is not a bad climber, for a sprinter, but there are other quick men who can go uphill more comfortably, and they look to be Kristoff’s biggest challengers should this come down to a sprint.

Tinkoff-Saxo’s Peter Sagan has been close to success in this race before, but he has come up short at the line. Gerald Ciolek (surprisingly) denied him of a victory in a reduced sprint in 2013, and although he came to the line with the main pack in 2014, he was a nonfactor in the sprint. The altered finish may benefit Sagan, whose climbing legs set him apart from the other quick men. More so than most, he is capable of launching a late attack on the Poggio, or at least holding the wheel of someone who does. If some of top sprinters in the peloton have faded by the time the finish nears, Sagan will be in a prime position to pick up his first Monument win.

Another sprinter with capable climbing legs making the start is Giant-Alpecin’s John Degenkolb. His 2014 MSR campaign was ruined by a late puncture, but soon after, he took 2nd in Paris-Roubaix, proving that distance is not a problem for him. He has continually improved in the top speed department over the last few years, and even against the biggest-name sprinters in the world he can hold his own; when a long day and a late climb enter the equation, Degenkolb becomes even more dangerous. He hasn’t quite had the results he would have hoped for coming into the race, racking up a number of 2nd-places to go with one win early in the season in Dubai, but if he is timing his peak right around now, Degenkolb will be a great candidate for victory.

Movistar’s Juan José Lobato sports an excellent combination of climbing legs and sprinting prowess, and he has used that skillset to pick up several wins already this season (denying Degenkolb on multiple occasions). He will hope to build on his 4th-place here last year, and with the form he has shown so far in 2015, that seems like a real possibility. Should Movistar feel that Lobato’s bid is in doubt near the end of the day, the team could try to send Alejandro Valverde up the road on one of the two late climbs.

Michael Matthews of Orica-GreenEdge has a similarly fine-tuned skillset combining climbing legs and a vicious finishing kick. His Paris-Nice victory suggests that the form is there as well. For Matthews, the main question mark is whether he can handle the distance. He doesn’t really have any results to speak of in overlong races. He could certainly change that at this year’s Milano-Sanremo, but it will be a foray into new territory.

Mark Cavendish headlines a collection of elite pure sprinters in attendance who will hope that their explosiveness is not too diminished by the time the peloton reaches the finish in San Remo. Cavendish has of course won this race in the past (in 2009) but it was a much younger Mark Cavendish taking the victory then. On last year’s parcours, similar to this year’s, Cavendish was with the main pack at the end of the day, but was unable to come away with more than a Top 5 after the long journey from Milan. With the Via Roma finish coming closer to the bottom of the Poggio, Cavendish will have to work even harder to maintain a strong position and his energy in the finale, making his candidacy as a top favorite questionable despite his legitimate claim to the title of fastest field sprinter on the startlist. Etixx-Quickstep does have alternatives on the roster in Michal Kwiatkowski and Zdenek Stybar, both on blazing form and capable of putting in a strong attack on a late climb in a one-day race.

Like Mark Cavendish, André Greipel is another powerful pure sprinter hoping to survive the long day with his strong kick intact. Coming off a sprint stage win at Paris-Nice, Greipel clearly has the sprinting form to contend in a bunch gallop, and in fact, he has made it a stated goal of this season to finally pick up a big one-day victory after years of near misses. If his pursuit of such a target has led him to improve his power and endurance, he will be a real contender here. Lotto-Soudal may look to Tony Gallopin as a second card to play near the finale.

The very long list of other quick men with a chance in a potential sprint, all of them with varying levels of versatility, includes Cofidis’s Nacer Bouhanni, the MTN-Qhubeka duo of Gerald Ciolek and Edvald Boasson Hagen, FDJ’s Arnaud Démare, Sky’s Ben Swift (3rd last year, though entering the race with uncertain form this year), Cannondale-Garmin’s Ramunas Navardauskas, IAM Cycling’s Heinrich Haussler, Lampre-Merida’s duo of Niccolo Bonifazio and Davide Cimolai, Astana’s Andrea Guardini, and Bora-Argon 18’s Sam Bennett.

Fabian Cancellara headlines the list of riders who could be looking to jump clear of the peloton in the final few kilometers. This parcours, without some of the uphill challenges of past editions, will make it very difficult for anyone to get away from the pack, but if anyone can do it, Fabian Cancellara is a prime pick. His time trial victory in Tirreno-Adriatico suggests that he is in formidable soloing shape at the moment, and he has done a great deal to work on his sprint this year should he come to the line with a small group. Cancellara was a surprising 2nd in last year’s bunch sprint, suggesting that he’s even a danger if he can’t shed the pack on the Poggio or the Cipressa. Having landed podium results each of the last four years, another strong placing seems practically guaranteed this year. Giacomo Nizzolo, fresh off a GP Nobili victory, offers Trek another option.

BMC’s duo of Philippe Gilbert and an on-form Greg Van Avermaet, Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali, Sky’s Geraint Thomas and Ian Stannard, IAM Cycling’s Sylvain Chavanel, and Lampre-Merida’s Pippo Pozzato and Rui Costa are other riders to keep an eye on when the attacks start to fly around the Cipressa and the Poggio.

VeloHuman Top 10 Favorites

Winner: Alexander Kristoff
Podium: John Degenkolb, Peter Sagan
Other Top Contenders: Fabian Cancellara, JJ Lobato, Michal Kwiatkowski, Greg Van Avermaet, Mark Cavendish, André Greipel, Michael Matthews

Be sure to follow @VeloHuman on Twitter for live commentary and analysis of the race, and don’t forget to listen to the Recon Ride pre-race show for plenty more on the year’s first Monument. Check back soon for previews and roadside coverage of the upcoming Volta a Catalunya!

-Dane Cash

Photo by Martin Mystère.

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