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2011 Milan-San Remo preview: Will the sprinters have their day?

LUCCA, Italy (VN) – Milan-San Remo is a lot of things. La classica di Primavera is the first monument of the season. At 298 kilometers, it is the longest one-day race on the UCI WorldTour. Milan-San Remo is the sprinters’ classic and it is multiple races in one seven-hour day, with the early attacks and the slow build-up to the climax of the Poggio and Cipressa climbs before the lights-out run-in to San Remo.

Milan-San Remo is this Saturday.

Fabian Cancellara (Leopard-Trek) won the race in 2008. He’ll line up alongside three-time winner Oscar Freire (Rabobank) and 2009 champ Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad). Also on the startline will be former winners Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) and Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-ISD), and world champion Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo).

The most lauded favorite headed into Saturday is Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto). The Wallonian winner of two classics a year ago will look to unleash his well-timed attacking style on the peloton along the Mediterranean coast late in the race. But can he get a gap and stay away? Cancellara was the last breakaway winner in San Remo.

2008 Milan-San Remo: Fabian Cancellara
Cancellara stunned the field with a late solo attack in 2008

“Have you seen in the past that a rider can go away on the Poggio? Is a rider so super strong that he can go away alone or make a difference?” Cancellara asked a group of reporters Monday night. “The last few years that has not happened. I believe that once this comes again, I believe that I can win alone and I believe that something can happen on Saturday.”

Despite the addition of the Manie climb 100km from the finish three years ago, no break has survived the peloton’s chase over the Poggio and Cipressa since. George Hincapie delivered Cavendish to the line for his surprise win two years ago, while Freire outmaneuvered all comers for his third title in 2010.

The favorites

Cancellara and Hushovd were particularly strong in the final Italian build-up race, Tirreno-Adriatico, earlier this week. Hushovd’s leadouts for Tyler Farrar were picture perfect — even a little too good in stage 3 — and both riders took a crack late in the approach to Chieti the next day. They’ll have a third card with Heinrich Haussler, fresh of his points jersey and apparently unaffected by his late-race crash at Paris-Nice.

Gilbert was the winner of the last Italian monument, the Giro di Lombardia, the climber’s classic, in the fall. But he said over the weekend that he’ll arrive to the start Saturday with little pressure, as he is focused on the Tour of Flanders and the Ardennes classics. “I have hope because I’m well, but Milan-San Remo is not a problem for me and I don’t have stress,” he said. “For San Remo, I need to be quiet and have a lot of force… I hope my team will be able to help me, but I don’t want to stress the team and my friends on the team.”

Petacchi and last year’s runner-up Tom Boonen (Quick-Step) have been sick and Cavendish is off to his second slow start in as many seasons, having won only once in 2011. That win, at the Tour of Oman, is as many as Cancellara, but short by the Manxman’s standards.

2009 Milan-San Remo: Mark Cavendish and Heinrich Haussler
Cavendish caught Heinrich Haussler on the line in 2009

Cavendish’s leadout man Mark Renshaw told VeloNews this week that the team is not frustrated and when the wins come in the top events, “No one will remember Tirreno-Adriatico or Tour of Qatar.”

A number of second-tier favorites should also be in the bunch if it makes it to San Remo on the point of the race. Matthew Goss (HTC), JJ Haedo (Saxo Bank), Alessandro Ballan (BMC Racing) and Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) should all be there and with La Primavera’s penchant for drawing out surprises, one of them may make it their day on the Riviera. First though, they’ll need to survive the 298km from Milan.

Will the sprinters have their day on the coast? Or will this be the year that a brave attack on the Cipressa or even the time the Poggio springs a winner? We will see Saturday night.

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