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Peter Sagan looks like the man to beat at 2013 Milano-Sanremo

Cancellara, Gilbert and Chavanel seem like Sagan's strongest rivals for "La Primavera" title

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The startlist for Sunday’s Milano-Sanremo, the longest of the sport’s classics, is filled with former winners and world champions, but it is a 23-year-old Slovak who carries the title of top favorite into the 104th edition of “La Primavera.”

Peter Sagan (Cannondale) ★★★★★
Peter Sagan enters the 104th Milano-Sanremo the odds-on favorite for victory on the Italian Riviera. The 23-year-old has proven himself with handfuls of stage wins over the last two seasons and appears set to assume his place among the top classics riders in the peloton. Second to teammate Moreno Moser at Strade Bianche this year, Sagan stormed through Tirreno-Adriatico last week, taking two stage wins that could foretell Sunday’s 298km tilt.

In his stage 3 win, Sagan bested the peloton’s two top sprinters, 2009 Sanremo winner Mark Cavendish and André Greipel in a bunch gallop. Three days later, Sagan followed a Vincenzo Nibali attack on the brutally steep Sant’Elpidio a Mare and aced a dangerous descent to outkick Nibali and Joaquim Rodríguez at the line. Sagan’s two stage wins came in horrendous weather, at the end of stages of more than 200km, and looked similar to what we’re likely to see on Sunday: either a bunch sprint in the wind or a thrilling breakaway careening off the Poggio climb.

With a classics-style win over Fabian Cancellara at the 2012 Tour de France, his fourth-place finish at Sanremo in 2012, and the confidence of his foray through Tuscany last week, Sagan is the man to beat on Sunday.

Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) ★★★★
Rarely in the last half-decade has a healthy Cancellara entered a monument without the top-favorite tag. That is the case this weekend, however, and Cancellara is embracing the role.

“Spartacus” is on a comeback tour, having missed much of the classics season in 2012 after breaking his collarbone in a crash at the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders). Unlike the last two seasons, Cancellara has been relatively quiet in the early classics, either lacking the superhuman form that has lifted him to four monument victories or avoiding the suffocating attention forced on him by commanding wins at Strade Bianche in 2012 and E3 Harelbeke in 2011.

Cancellara is no doubt strong enough to ride away from many of the favorites on the upper reaches of the Poggio and the run-in to Sanremo, but the scenarios in which he comes away the victor are difficult to imagine. He lacks the explosive sprint of Sagan, and unlike Sylvain Chavanel and Philippe Gilbert is not likely to benefit from the presence of teammates in the finale.

That said, Cancellara has made a career out of long-shot wins (remember stage 3 of the 2007 Tour). And his 2010 Paris-Roubaix opus showed us, definitively, that whatever limits we imagine for the Swiss are ours alone.

Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) ★★★★
Gilbert will try on Sunday to become the first rider to wear the world champion’s jersey to victory in Sanremo since Giuseppe Saronni in 1983. After a silent 2012 classics campaign, the Belgian king of the Ardennes has shown glimpses of his old self this winter. Last Saturday, he was second to Sylvain Chavanel in the penultimate stage of Paris-Nice — the most impressive ride he has posted since storming away on the Cauberg in September for his first road world title.

Gilbert has tried in vain at Sanremo in the past. He has attacked on the Cipressa and the Poggio. A year ago, he crashed near the top of the latter and lost his chance. Gilbert’s kick is strong, but he’ll have trouble topping Sagan if the two go head-to-head at high speed on the Lungomare Italo Calvino. Instead, Gilbert will almost certainly have to sneak away on one of the climbs to have a shot at the season’s first monument.

“There are 20 or 30 names and I am just another,” Gilbert told a handful of journalists last weekend at Paris-Nice at the team’s hotel. “The most important thing is [to] not be a favorite, but to have the legs.”

Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) ★★★★
Chavanel is another rider who will need to go on the attack to have a chance at representing his team on top of the podium on Sunday evening. Chavanel has ridden well this spring, forging a long but unsuccessful solo attack in a headwind at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and winning a duel with Gilbert at Paris-Nice a week ago.

“Chava” will benefit from a loaded Omega Pharma squad that includes Tom Boonen, who claims he is still rebuilding from a January mountain bike crash, and Cavendish, who won in Sanremo in 2009. If Boonen makes it to the foot of the Cipressa with the leaders, Chavanel should be free to fire off a more outlandish attack than if he were isolated.

As with Cancellara, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Chavanel pulls off the win at “La Primavera,” but that would have been difficult to do for Simon Gerrans 12 months ago.

Thor Hushovd (BMC Racing) ★★★
Thor Hushovd appears to be back on the level in 2013, winning a stage at Tour du Haut Var in January and finishing with the GC riders in the leg-breaking sixth stage at Tirreno-Adriatico last week. Hushovd didn’t make much noise in Tuscany, but that ride, when he finished in the Chris Froome group in Porto Sant’Elpidio, Italy, spoke loudly of the Norwegian former world champion’s return.

Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) ★★★
Nibali is an in-betweener hell-bent on escaping down the twisting Poggio descent in the final kilometers at Milano-Sanremo. It was Nibali’s attack high on the final climb that freed the winning three-man group in 2012. It wasn’t the first time he’d ridden at the front of the race inside the final 5km. In 2010, Nibali attacked on the descent, but ultimately came up short to the chase group and the victorious Oscar Freire.

“The Shark” is coming off his second consecutive Tirreno overall title and will almost certainly have another go on the Poggio. If the expected rain and snow fall late in the race, and the wind is at his back heading for Sanremo, Nibali could score Italy’s first win at “La Primavera” since Alessandro Petacchi and Filippo Pozzato went back-to-back in 2005 and 2006.

Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) ★★★
Boonen said last month that Milano-Sanremo was not a focus for him and that he would ride “La Classicissima” for training ahead of the cobbled classics that he covets. But Boonen has finished in the top five in Sanremo three times and the race is the last of the three monuments the popular Belgian can hope to win, after three victories at the Ronde van Vlaanderen and four at Paris-Roubaix.

“Tornado Tom” is an unknown quantity heading for Milan on Sunday after his January mountain bike crash and subsequent surgery, but with Sanremo’s high-speed run-in and a loaded Omega Pharma roster, he can’t be overlooked.

Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) ★★★
Edvald Boasson Hagen has long promised to take up the mantle of the next big thing in the classics. He has won Ghent-Wevelgem, Vattenfall Cyclassics, and GP Ouest France and stages in the Tour and Giro d’Italia. Boasson Hagen should be able to key off of Geraint Thomas in the finale, but the fact that the Norwegian is cut from the same cloth as Sagan, only without as lethal a finishing kick, could make it difficult for Boasson Hagen to find the line first.

Filippo Pozzato (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia), Matthew Goss (Orica-GreenEdge), Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge), Geraint Thomas (Sky), John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano) ★★
A number of riders find themselves as lesser favorites — capable of winning the race but without a crystal clear path to victory. Pozzato, Cavendish and Matthew Goss are all former winners of “La Primavera.” Pozzato thought he’d won Roma Maxima and posted up for second, but hasn’t factored in Sanremo since 2010. Goss and Cavendish are obvious threats in a group sprint, and Goss won a stage at Tirreno-Adriatico, but neither is a top favorite to win a second “Classicissima.” Geraint Thomas is coming off an altitude camp and, along with John Degenkolb, represents a young cadre of challengers that could very well pull off a monumental upset on Sunday.

Heinrich Haussler (IAM Cycling), Luca Paolini (Katusha), Moreno Moser (Cannondale)

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