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Studying Sanremo 2008: Cancellara outfoxes the hounds

With Milano-Sanremo only days away, we are taking a look back at some of the most memorable editions of “La Primavera,” the season’s first monument. The race has been won in a variety of ways, ranging from bunch sprints to bold solo attacks. What can we learn from the history of this long and unpredictable classic race?

Fabian Cancellara started the 2008 season with a bang, beating Bradley Wiggins in the prologue of the Tour of California, then snatching his first of three victories at Strade Bianche two weeks later. Fresh off overall victory at Tirreno-Adriatico, where he won the stage 5 time trial, Spartacus was bristling to take aim at the 99th edition of Milano-Sanremo. It was three kilometers longer than in 2007, at 298 kilometers, following the addition of the Le Mànie climb. The race finished on Lungomare Italo Calvino and not on the traditional Via Roma due to construction and the Easter weekend.

How it happened: With four kilometers remaining, Cancellara was among a group of favorites and reluctant to do all the work to keep the gap from the main field. At three kilometers out, small groups started to attack the front of the race. It wasn’t long, though, until it all came back together and the major players sat up. Except one. Cancellara attacked and used his time trial prowess to immediately open a gap on a small bunch that seemed unwilling to chase. Inside one kilometer and his lead was a tenuous five seconds, and still the chasers couldn’t organize. With 500 meters to go, Cancellara looked back, then swiveled his head forward and down, powering to the line. With 200 meters to go, he knew he would win, and sat up, covered his face, pointed to the sky, and crossed the line alone, four seconds ahead of a sprinting Filippo Pozzato, Philippe Gilbert, and several others.

What we learned from the race: The element of surprise helped Cancellara get away. Negative racing by the peloton helped him stay away. And, of course, a well-calculated effort to the line, by one of the greatest time trialists of all time, led Cancellara to his second m onument victory. It took all three to make it stick.

Could it play out this way again? Few riders have the ability to put in such a powerful, sustained effort after seven hours of racing like Cancellara. Of the favorites in this year’s race, only Sagan has shown that ability, in his Tour of Flanders victory last year. But why would Sagan attack from distance when he has, arguably, a better shot winning in a sprint? Perhaps an undercard with strong TT chops could pull off a coup, someone like Stephen Cummings (Dimension Data), who has won two stages at the Tour de France with bold solo attacks.