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Preview: Milano-Sanremo turns back the clock

Milano-Sanremo’s 293-kilometer fuse, lit in Milan, burns slowly south from the Italian city before making a right turn along the coast, where it winds off the Mediterranean and sparks into a flame. A string of short, punchy climbs set off a final round of desperate fireworks.

Milano-Sanremo is said to be the sprinter’s classic, but the climbs, beginning with Capo Mele at 51km remaining and ending with the peak of the Poggio at 5.5km to go, set up a tension between fast finishers, climbers, and classics strongmen found nowhere else on the pro calendar.

In between Capo Mele and the Poggio are Capo Cervo and Capo Berta, both relatively small and useful mostly for softening legs, and the Cipressa, 5.6km long with an average grade of 4 percent and a peak of 9 percent. These five, combined with the weather and the motivations of the peloton, determine the winner in Sanremo.

For Sunday’s 2015 edition of MSR, the first of the five monuments, what’s old is new again. The finish lies on Via Roma, a finale used between 1982 and 2006 that hasn’t been seen since. It’s a shorter and straighter run off the Poggio, the final climb of the day and the one that most often sets the outcome of this predictably unpredictable race.

The new (old) finish tends to favor sprinters. Mario Cipollini, Alessandro Petacchi, Paolo Bettini, and Erik Zabel all took wins in Via Roma around the turn of the millennium, most often in groups of 40 or more.

A sprint win is not a foregone conclusion, of course. There will be attacks on the Cipressa, and again on the Poggio. Those without a sufficient kick will pull out every trick to rid themselves of the fast men.

“Despite its length, everything is at stake in a very short period and it’s very easy to make mistakes. There is a segment of 7-8km between Il Poggio, the descent and the finish, where the race is nearly always decided,” Tinkoff-Saxo sport director Bruno Cenghialta said.

The last winner on Via Roma, Filippo Pozzato, did just that. “Pippo” followed an attack from Alessandro Ballan on the Poggio and held off the sprinters by just a few meters at the finish line. Riders like Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo), and Edvald Boassen Hagen (MTN-Qhubeka) will seek to replicate such a move.

If it’s a sprint

The heavy favorites, nonetheless, are sprinters. Defending champion Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) can win out of a large bunch or from a smaller, more select group, as he did last year. And if it’s a bunch sprint, the smart money is on Mark Cavendish (Etixx-Quick-Step), who will certainly still have a number of his strong teammates around for a leadout.

Cavendish is recovering from a virus which almost saw him skip Tirreno-Adriatico, but if he’s recovered the Via Roma finish suits him perfectly. “This finish is the Sanremo I dreamt of when I was a kid,” he said.

Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) favors the same conditions as Kristoff, and his stage win at Tirreno-Adriatico proved his form is good and, equally important, that his team is more than up to the task.

“It’s difficult to point out a favorite. In the last three years, we haven’t seen the favorites taking the victory and instead it has been outsiders, who crossed the finish line first. It’s a special and unpredictable race due to many factors such as the length of the race and the tactical situations. All I can do is to try my best knowing that I’m backed by a strong and motivated team,” Sagan said.

A pile of strong finishers sit behind the leading three, all capable of victory in the right circumstances.

Arnaud Démare (FDJ) is on good form, as is Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol), who just won a stage at Paris-Nice. Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) has not had a great start to his season but can’t be counted out of any bunch sprint.

John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin) is particularly adept at tricky finishes, and has a good chance of getting over the Poggio even if the pace is particularly high and other sprinters fail to maintain contact. Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge) falls into the same category of versatile sprinters.

Strong men prevail

Cancellara, Boassen Hagen, Sep Vanmarcke, and Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) need to disrupt the sprinters’ teams on the Cipressa and Poggio to take victory.

That means attacks, and lots of them. Expect to see lieutenants going early, perhaps on the Cipressa, and big moves setting off on the Poggio itself.

The danger, of course, is that a group of classics favorites slips off the front but refuses to work together. The composition of a late move is what determines its success or failure, and predicting those who will be able to make the split is all but impossible. With the shorter run into the finish from the bottom of the Poggio, a small group — two or three riders — is perhaps the most likely to succeed.

Climbers on the Cipressa

Even though he has admitted to being slightly softer than he will be at his peak, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) will almost certainly make a go of it on the Cipressa. It’s something of an Italian tradition; the nation often sends its leading GC man off the front on the climb’s winding slopes.

However, Nibali’s teammate Andrea Guardini will be looking for the sprint. If Nibali keeps his guns holstered, it will likely be on team orders to protect Guardini.

The addition of Alejandro Valverde to Movistar’s roster provides the team with a long-range option, as well as a rider who can almost certainly make it into any select group that forms over the Poggio or Cipressa.

Weather

Cavendish and Kristoff are the heavy favorites on the new course, which also dropped the Le Mànie climb found in previous editions. The difference between them could be determined by the weather.

“The return to the finish in Via Roma changes everything, although what it changes, we don’t know. The weather is the crucial factor,” Cancellara said.

A fine day helps keep the group together and tips the scale toward Cavendish. A miserable one — always a possibility in northern Italy in March — brings Kristoff to the fore. He won a meteorologically dismal edition of the race last year and is a stronger all-around rider, more capable of winning a tougher race.

The current forecast calls for temperatures in the mid-50s with a 50 percent chance of rain.

Ideal preparation

Historically, riders coming off Tirreno-Adriatico have faired better at Milan-Sanremo. But recent years have seen a trend toward Paris-Nice, which has seen better weather and, in general, more consistently difficult stages.

The terrible weather found in the later stages of Tirreno this year caused large groupettos to form, containing most of the Sanremo favorites, which did not ride particularly hard into the finish. Paris-Nice, in contrast, had excellent weather most days and hard racing for the entire peloton throughout the week.

The winners of the 2011, 2013, and 2014 editions of the race all came from Paris-Nice.

Sagan, Cavendish, Cancellara, van Avermaet, Gerald Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka), and Boassen Hagen all raced Tirreno.

Kristoff, Matthews, Degenkolb, and Ben Swift (Sky) raced Paris-Nice.

VeloNews’ darkhorse pick

Ramunas Navardauskas (Cannondale-Garmin) has won in reduced bunch sprints and taken solo victories, and a well-timed move could provide enough separation for him to use his huge engine to hang on for the win. He has the advantage of being mostly off the radar of the premier favorites.