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Milano-Sanremo: Three potential scenarios

Milano-Sanremo is a race that’s regularly disparaged as boring, predictable, and interesting only in the final minutes. Yet year after year, the season’s first monument delivers surprise after surprise.

It’s true other major one-day classics usually deliver more racing dynamics, but few races can match a longer pre-race favorites list than Sanremo. Of the five monuments, only Paris-Roubaix equals Milano-Sanremo in serving up surprise winners. Sanremo is a race that can be won by sprinters, attackers, and the occasional dark horse, often times battling through horrendous weather.

In fact, looking at Saturday’s start list, there is no shortage of would-be winners, with at least 30 riders (and another handful more) who could barrel down the Via Roma victorious. You can’t say that about the Tour of Flanders, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, or the Giro di Lombardia.

“La Classicissima” is aptly called “the sprinter’s classic,” and after experimenting by adding climbs such as La Manie and an aborted try at La Pompeiana, organizers are back with the traditional course that hugs the Mediterranean Coast, taking in the many dramatic “capi” before hitting the emblematic and decisive Cipressa and Poggio climbs.

Say what you want about Sanremo, but the race is one of the most tense and explosive on the calendar. At nearly 300 kilometers and nearly seven hours, the race’s distance, speed, history, prestige, and nervousness mean it deserves its monument status. No sprinter is a true champion until he adds “La Primavera” to his palmares.

Just like every spring, the race is a duel between the sprinters and riders trying to break loose from the grip of the sprinter trains. Though an early breakaway inevitably pulls clear, the real battle goes down on the Cipressa and Poggio. From there, it’s an intense, all-in effort all the way to Sanremo. The race is all about timing, and small groups have managed to stay clear, usually by just a handful of seconds.

Here are three scenarios, and the likely protagonists, to watch in Saturday’s frenetic final hour of racing:

Where dreamers dream: Poggio attack

Sanremo’s final climb is where the first real potential race-winning moves will take form. The previous climb at Cipressa, added in 1982, is considered too far from the finish, especially with the 9km of flats before the Poggio. The last Cipressa-born move to win was Gabriele Colombo in 1996, and the last rider to try in vain was Vincenzo Nibali (who is not racing this year) in 2014. That’s not to say there won’t be aggression on the Cipressa, but with the speed and velocity of the mass of the peloton bearing down on would-be attackers, most hold their matches until the Poggio.

From what we’ve seen so far this spring, a few names pop up on the radar for possible attackers on the meatier side of the Poggio. First among them is Sky’s Michal Kwiatkowski, who bounded away to win Strade Bianche two weekends ago in dramatic fashion. The Pole has the punch and descending chops to be a real danger man on the Poggio. Others might take the bait, especially in moves designed to set up teammates coming up from the rear, and top among those could be Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors), Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal), or even Rigoberto Urán (Cannondale-Drapac), who would need a head start against the more powerful sprinters sure to make a move.

Reduced group attacking over the top

The most effective way to pip the sprinters is to attack hard coming over the crest of the Poggio, and then drive a wedge between the peloton on the technical, fast descent back into Sanremo. That tactic has been deployed a few times successfully, most impressively by Simon Gerrans in 2012, who beat out Fabian Cancellara and Nibali as the trio fended off the pack. Filippo Pozzato won in similar fashion in 2006, attacking out of a group of six that pulled clear on the Poggio.

Only the strongest riders have the horsepower to escape the clutches of the chasing sprinters, but there should be a few riders willing to take a stab. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) looks to be in top shape and has the engine to make a run over the Poggio. Diego Ulissi (UAE-Emirates), Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo), and even Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step) all might have a go, even if they might be working for other teammates. Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) has attacked before over the Poggio, and will stay vigilant at the front to cover any moves. The safest way down the Poggio is at the front.

Holding fire: Bunch sprint

It’s always a dogfight for the sprinters to pace over the Cipressa, hold their position up the Poggio, defend that position on the descent, and then open up a sprint in the finale. The effort is tremendous and is one of the most taxing and complicated finales of the entire racing season.

The potential winner’s list expands dramatically by the bottom of the Poggio. Nearly every major team is bringing their ace sprinters to what’s the most prestigious scalp of the season. The top-four favorites for a bunch sprint finale are Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin), Arnaud Démare (FDJ), and John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo), all former winners who know the drill. All four have shown glimpses of brilliance this season, and will be within a shout of the podium.

Right behind them will be Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step), Michael Matthews (Sunweb), Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida), Elia Viviani (Sky), Caleb Ewan (Orica-Scott), Ben Swift (UAE-Emirates), and Juan José Lobato (LottoNL-Jumbo). Any one of these guys has the punch to stay in contention.

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