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Alaphilippe, Viviani ready to play favorites at Sanremo

On paper, Deceuninck-Quick-Step boasts the strongest team for Milano-Sanremo, but can it control a typically unpredictable monument classic?

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Deceuninck-Quick-Step brings so many cards to play in Saturday’s Milano-Sanremo that the pressure will be on the Belgian outfit to control the uncontrollable and deliver victory.

With headliners Elia Viviani and Julian Alaphilippe, both stage-winners at last week’s Tirreno-Adriatico, the team brings a deep roster into the season’s first monument.

“We go into the race motivated, extremely confident, and with a plan,” Italian champion Viviani said. “The team is in good shape, knows how to handle the pressure, and is prepared for the race.”

What that plan will be remains to be seen, but it’s probably not too hard to figure out. The team will have Viviani for the sprint finale and likely give the high-flying Alaphilippe freedom to try his hand in a late-race attack. Deceuninck-Quick-Step (DQS) also has two-time podium finisher Philippe Gilbert and Zdenek Stybar up its sleeve.

Nearly every major team brings at least one would-be winner to the start line in Milano, and the casino-style racing at Sanremo means that anyone can win. Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) will be back following his thrilling breakaway victory last year to upset the sprinters.

Other eternal favorites include Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal), and former winner Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ). Michal Kwiatkowski, a winner in 2017, is a late addition for Team Sky.

The Italian “primavera” is a traditional tug-of-war between breakaway artists like Nibali and the peloton’s fast men, who count on their teammates to bring the race to a reduced bunch sprint.

All eyes will be DQS to see how its riders handle the pressure of being pre-race favorites. The team has been on a roll so far in 2019, winning the opening three one-day classics on the Belgian calendar. Team boss Patrick Lefevere’s troops haven’t been first down the Via Roma since Filippo Pozzato in 2006, however.

Alaphilippe has been on a tear, winning stages in all three stage races he’s started this season — Vuelta a San Juan, Colombia 2.1, and Tirreno-Adriatico — as well as a tactical victory at Strade Bianche.

Alaphilippe even won a bunch sprint at Tirreno-Adriatico, confirming he has the strength and speed to improve on his third at Sanremo in 2017.

“The team is solid and doesn’t lack options, as you can see,” he said. “I feel good and we have very strong morale … I hope to carry my recent form into Milano-Sanremo, to have a good race, and feature in the finale.”

DQS’s biggest handicap could be if the team cannot pull off its preferred tactic. Neither has won Sanremo, and both Alaphilippe and Viviani believe they have the legs and speed to win. Lefevere’s teams are typically very disciplined and consistently race as a unit rather than as individuals.

“Milano-Sanremo is one of my dreams, it’s at the top of my list actually, and winning it would be really amazing,” Viviani said. “Of course, we won’t be alone over there, as many teams will start with the same goal of taking the victory.”

Milano-Sanremo is one of cycling’s most unpredictable casinos. The house doesn’t always win.