Milano-Sanremo might be the longest and easiest of the monuments, but it’s the hardest and most complicated to win. In what Fabian Cancellara described as a lottery — he’s won one and finished on the podium four years in a row — Sanremo proves an elusive target for some of the biggest names in cycling.
For every Eddy Merckx and Sean Kelly who’s won, there is a Greg LeMond or a Johan Museeuw who’s come very close, but never punched first across the tape. A quick glance at the palmares reveals that riders who consistently hit the podium eventually earn at least one victory. Giuseppe Saronni was second three years in a row before he finally won in 1983 (the last world champion to win in the rainbow jersey on the Via Roma). Mario Cipollini was twice second in a decade-long quest to win the “sprinter’s classic” before finally making it over the Poggio to win in 2002.
That’s not always the case. There are plenty of big names that knocked on the Sanremo door, but never broke through to the other side. Museeuw, who won a dozen major one-day classics in his career, was third once at Sanremo. LeMond, a GC rider who could win the occasional one-day race (including two world titles), was second to Kelly in 1986.
Here are five active riders who’ve come oh-so-close to Sanremo glory, but have fallen short.
Peter Sagan (Tinkoff)
The versatile world champion will likely be one of those riders who eventually wins at Sanremo. In five starts, he’s never been out of the top-20, including second in 2013. Sagan, 26, still has time on his side, but just as victories in any of the other monuments have proven elusive, nothing can be taken for granted in Sanremo. This year, he looks strong enough to follow moves over the Poggio. Ideally, a small group would stay clear, because against the fastest sprinters, such as Michael Matthews (Orica–GreenEdge) or Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), Sagan will probably come up short yet again. The Slovak is still looking for his first win in the rainbow jersey, and he couldn’t have a better scenario than Saturday. No matter what happens, barring disaster, Sagan will be in the mix. “The key point of the race? Obviously, I don’t know, because I would have won five times already,” Sagan said this week. “I’m fine with everything. I am humble, coming from poverty, so I never complain. Nothing changes, racing in the rainbow jersey, except that it’s a great pleasure. Nobody gives you gifts.”
Tom Boonen (Etixx – Quick-Step)
Boonen could well join the list of riders who should have won Sanremo but never did. In 11 starts, he’s twice been on the podium, including second in 2010 to three-time winner Oscar Freire. Speaking to Belgian journalists during Paris-Nice last week, Boonen said that when he’s been going well at Sanremo, he’s been a little off in the northern classics. And vice-versa. Even though his fastest days are behind him, Boonen would love to win Sanremo, but in what’s his first start since 2013, he will be third in line behind Zdenek Stybar and Sanremo rookie Fernando Gaviria. “I’ve had good legs before at Sanremo, but it’s a very hard race to win. Maybe I’ve tried too hard,” Boonen said in January. “You either have to be the fastest in the sprint, the strongest on the climb, or the best descender, and so far, I’ve never been any one of those three things.”
Heinrich Haussler (IAM Cycling)
In 2009, Haussler came within a whisker of winning Sanremo. He took a long sprint that surprised the pack, but Mark Cavendish bolted out of the bunch to catch him at the line to win a photo finish. Second at the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) two weeks later, Haussler has never been able to match those promising results. A string of injuries and illnesses knocked him out of contention, but his confidence also took a blow as he tried in vain to replicate his amazing form of 2009. Now 32, Haussler isn’t even the designated captain at IAM. With Haussler’s fastest days behind him, Leigh Howard now has that honor. “I don’t have scores to settle,” Haussler told VeloNews in an earlier interview. “Now, everyone is at such a top level. Everyone is so strong. The whole team is top classics riders now, not just three or four guys. Every race is difficult.”
Vincenzo Nibali (Astana)
The Shark of Messina isn’t your typical Sanremo favorite, but he’s come close, with third in 2012 behind Simon Gerrans (Orica–GreenEdge) and Cancellara. For Nibali to have any chance at all, the race needs to be hard, and with the elimination of La Maniè and the end of discussions to include La Pompeiana, Nibali has all but thrown in the towel on winning on the classic “sprinter’s course” that the pack faces Saturday. Nibali will be back for his ninth Sanremo start, and he knows his only chance to win will be to attack hard. Since it’s a lottery, it never hurts to try. “I’m racing because it’s beautiful. I’m racing because I hope to have a bit of luck,” Nibali told La Gazzetta dello Sport. “It’s not an easy race to win. I can try from the Poggio, but if Sanremo has the Maniè climb, the race would be harder, and maybe I’d have a chance.”
Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing)
Gilbert won’t start what would have been his 13th Sanremo due to a lingering cold he caught at the snowbound Paris–Nice, derailing his dream of winning the Italian classic for at least this year. Twice third, Gilbert is a little bit like his compatriot Boonen. At 33, his fastest years are soon behind him, and he might not have many chances left to add Sanremo to his “monument” haul that includes two wins at Giro di Lombardia and one at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. “Many things have to happen to win Sanremo,” Gilbert said in an earlier interview. “It’s one of the most marvelous of classics, but also one of the hardest to win. At Liège, there might be five or six guys who can win. At Sanremo, there can be 20 or 25 riders who hope they can win.”