Assembling a list of the top Milano-Sanremo contenders is perilous. At 291 kilometers, the race is the longest of the five monuments — that’s partly why it’s also the most unpredictable. Throw in a lumpy finale that goes flat a tantalizing 2.2km to the finish, and you have a race that could favor opportunistic attackers just as much as pure sprinters who have endurance and a bit of grit on the final climb, the Poggio.
With that in mind, here are 10 riders we think will (probably, maybe) factor into the finale at Saturday’s Milano-Sanremo.
10. Alexey Lutsenko (Astana)
Among the slate of contenders, Kazahkstan’s Alexey Lutsenko falls into the category of an opportunist. That’s how he won stage 5 at last year’s Vuelta and (coincidentally) stage 5 of the 2016 Tour. When given the chance, the 25-year-old knows how to make an attack stick. He’s also on good form this spring, having won the Tour of Oman in February and factored in the winning move at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. He’s low on our list of favorites, though, because Lutsenko would be better suited for harder climbs, and his Astana team lacks a heavy-hitter for the sprint to back him up if he escapes.
9. Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ)
The 2016 Sanremo winner, however, is decidedly a bunch sprinter. Arnaud Démare, 26, seems on track to be a factor in the spring sprints, with a win in stage 1 of Paris-Nice and second in the Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne classic. The Frenchman benefitted from Fernando Gaviria’s crash in the sprint when he won on the Via Roma two years ago. Unfortunately for the fans, Gaviria has crashed again, and now he’s out of Sanremo. Perhaps another rival will hit the tarmac to open the door for Démare? Otherwise, it would be a bit of a stretch for him to win again at “La Primavera.”
8. Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates)
A blend between a pure sprinter and a classics specialist, Alexander Kristoff has a brilliant resume by any measure — Sanremo in 2014, Flanders in 2015. But the Norwegian is a classic case of ‘What have you done for me lately?’ He won stages in Oman and Abu Dhabi, but can he return to monument-winning form, riding for new team UAE Team Emirates? That remains to be seen. What we can say is that the long, grinding nature of Sanremo suits the 30-year-old, who nearly won worlds last year on home turf, were it not for a certain Slovak star (more on him in a moment).
7. Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida)
In terms of sprinting style, Sonny Colbrelli might be somewhere on a distant, Italian branch of Kristoff’s family tree. He also is good after long, hard days in the saddle, when sprints are less about speed and more about pure grit. His win in stage 2 of Paris-Nice 2017 comes to mind. The 27-year-old also was the surprising winner atop Hatta Dam in the Dubai Tour this year. We slotted him ahead of Kristoff for one intangible but important reason: He’s an Italian, racing on home soil. Everyone will be motivated at Sanremo, but a man like Colbrelli may have a little something extra.
6. Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors)
Retro cycling enthusiasts rejoice! Philippe Gilbert is a throwback in the truest sense. You have to go way back to find a former Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner and former Il Lombardia winner who thought he had a shot at winning Milano-Sanremo. Well, this old Belgian warhorse is serious about collecting his fourth of the five monuments to add to the trophy case. Like any seasoned pro, the 35-year-old was careful to downplay his chances this week. However, he’s finished on the Sanremo podium before, and though he’s yet to win in 2018, his fifth place at Omloop bodes well. Plus, he’s got arguably the best team in the race, Quick-Step, which has a bounty of talented contenders, two of whom we’ll examine shortly.
5. Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors)
And here we have the second head on Quick-Step’s three-headed Sanremo monster. A newcomer to the Belgian team, Elia Viviani has already won five days of racing plus the overall at the sprinter-friendly Dubai Tour. The ideal tactic for Sanremo is as follows: Send an attacker off the front on the Poggio (probably Gilbert, maybe Alaphilippe); keep your sprinter in the bunch as an ace in the whole, in case the attack fails. It worked for Sky last year with the one-two punch of Michal Kwiatkowski and Viviani. Now, Quick-Step has this 29-year-old speedster at its disposal.
4. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing)
Like many on this list, Greg Van Avermaet showed his good early season form in the Middle East, winning stage 3 in Oman. Unlike the others, he’s the Olympic champion, and also, arguably, the best rider of the 2017 classics season. Although the Belgian has been disappointing so far in the early classics, not a factor at Omloop, Kuurne, or Strade Bianche, he should have extra motivation this spring with the future of his BMC team in doubt. Van Avermaet was fifth at Sanremo in 2016. Impressive, considering it was a 31-man field sprint, which isn’t to his liking. Instead, look for him to escape on the Poggio with a couple of willing collaborators like Kwiatkowski did last year with Sagan and Alaphilippe. Then, in the sprint, may the best man win.
3. Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors)
How many more times will Julian Alaphilippe finish second in a major one-day race before he finally gets the laurels? He was second at Liège 2015, second at Flèche Wallonne in 2015 and 2016, and second at Il Lombardia last year. A bit like his teammate Gilbert, Alaphilippe has an uncanny fast finish as well as a knack for climbing. His third place at last year’s Sanremo must have smarted, since it was an ideal scenario for the Frenchman to take that elusive victory. He’ll want to reproduce that scenario again this year: Follow a promising move on the Poggio, and perhaps eat one more gel so he doesn’t bog down in those horribly long final two kilometers of flat. As we mentioned earlier, he’ll have a huge advantage wearing Quick-Step’s white and blue kit, provided Viviani and Gilbert make it to the final climbs with the front group.
2. Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe)
If you set about designing the perfect cyclist to win Milano-Sanremo, he’d look a lot like Peter Sagan, but maybe an Italian instead. Now wearing his third world champion’s jersey, Sagan has proven himself in any scenario that could conceivably play out on Saturday. He won alone with an attack on a final climb to take his first rainbow jersey in Richmond and his Flanders title in 2016. Sagan also won tough sprint finishes at both 2016 and 2017 worlds. Perhaps Sagan hasn’t shown his best form yet in 2018, with three second-place results at Tirreno and just one win at Tour Down Under. It would be foolhardy to rule him out if all goes to plan, though. The only uncertainty is what that plan looks like. Will he attack again on the Poggio? Probably, and if so, he should be a little more measured in his efforts to drive the break. Will he wait for a sprint finish on the Via Roma? Perhaps, and if that’s the case, he’ll be hoping his new teammate Daniel Oss is in the pack to drive a mean tempo in those final two kilometers of flat road.
1. Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky)
Erik Zabel was the last man to successfully defend his Sanremo title, in 2001. In 2008, Fabian Cancellara was the last rider to win both Tirreno-Adriatico and Sanremo in the same season. Michal Kwiatkowski will aim to match both greats on Saturday. Given the race’s unpredictable nature, a repeat win seems statistically unlikely. However, the Pole has checked all the boxes in the lead-up to this first monument of 2018, winning Tirreno as well as Volta ao Algarve in Portugal. Like Sagan, he’s remarkably versatile. However, Kwiatkowski is not quite as handy in a bunch sprint. He’ll be marking dangerous moves on the Poggio and hoping that one will carry him to the finish again for a sprint among a few select contenders.