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Your New Favorite Race: Milano-Sanremo

Welcome to the VeloNews 2017 WorldTour fan guide. Great news: There are tons of cycling races all season! Less-great news: Like trying to pick an ice cream flavor at Ben & Jerry’s, tons of choices can be overwhelming. So, we’ll try to help out by giving you quick, fun overviews of major races. Stay tuned for more previews.

Need to pick Your New Favorite Team? Here are 11 teams you should follow in the 2017 season >>

Your New Favorite Race: Milano-Sanremo, March 18

Why should you care about this race? Milano-Sanremo is the first of the cycling season’s five “monuments,” the other four being Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and Il Lombardia. For purists, a win in one of these storied, difficult, and long (all over 250km) classics is nearly as valuable as a grand tour victory. Milano-Sanremo stands apart from the others because sprinters often have a chance. It is rare that a pure speedster ever wins Flanders or Roubaix, and Lombardia and Liege are far too hilly. At 291 kilometers, Sanremo is also the longest race of the pro calendar, making it a unique test of endurance and tactics.

Most dramatic edition in recent memory? Fans of bunch sprints will point to years like 2009, when Mark Cavendish blasted clear of the peloton to overhaul a flagging Heinrich Haussler in the finale, or 2004, when Oscar Freire pipped Erik Zabel who raised his hands in celebration too soon.

For my money, however, the most exciting editions were won by daring breakaway moves. In 2012, Simon Gerrans hitched a ride with Fabian Cancellara and Vincenzo Nibali over the Poggio climb (more on that in a second) and sprinted to victory. Naturally, the legendary Cancellara was instrumental in many dramatic Sanremo finishes. I must tip my hat to him for his 2008 performance, which was one of the most suspenseful finales in the race’s 107-year history. He went with an attack over the Poggio, but when that move seemed doomed, the Swiss time trial ace burned his final match, attacking alone, and soloing to victory with the sprinters charging behind.

Your race’s defining feature: Milano-Sanremo is one of the mellowest mornings in pro cycling. We cycling fans have a very lazy Saturday morning ahead with plenty of time to take cat naps, make coffee with complex, time-consuming brew contraptions, and catch up on some bathroom reading. That’s because the race is so long. SO LONG. The first 230 kilometers are an endurance test for the riders, fans, and color commentators alike.

Seriously, apart from the very long route, Sanremo’s defining feature is the Poggio, the last of five seaside hills that put a sting in the race’s tail. By the numbers, it is a modest climb, only 3.7km long with a 3.7 percent average gradient (coincidentally). That little bump feels like the Galibier after 282km of nervous racing. This is why the sinuous Poggio climb distills racing tactics into their purest form: Who has the legs to attack? Should a top favorite follow the move or sit back for the sprint? Will a breakaway work cooperatively? Which sprinters are left in the front group? In stark contrast to the race’s first six hours, the home stretch is must-see TV.

But the thing is … Just to belabor the point, Sanremo is so boring for the first two-thirds of the day (at least).

Another knock against “La Primavera” is that it can be a bit of a lottery. Last year saw a memorable finish — for the wrong reasons — when Fernando Gaviria touched wheels and crashed in the sprint, leading fans to speculate as to whether he would have won the day, or if Peter Sagan might have sprinted to victory. Throughout the years, there are a few names on the winners list that have had little success since Sanremo, indicating that they were simply in the right place at the right time, with good legs, guys like Gerald Ciolek and Matthew Goss.

Ladies first? Nope, no women’s race. But the good news is that the Women’s WorldTour continues with a hilly race in Italy’s Lombardy region, Trofeo Alfredo Binda, which will likely be more exciting to watch from start to finish, due to its challenging terrain.

Who are you betting your beer money on this year? Pure favorites rarely win Milano-Sanremo, due to the race’s unpredictability. This year, Bora-Hansgrohe’s Sagan is a safe bet, just because he is so fit. When pitted against pure sprinters like Quick-Step’s Gaviria, Sagan is bound to have more matches to burn in the final showdown on the Via Roma finish straight.