Analysis: The real favorites for Milan-San Remo and what March says about July

Anthony Tan looks past Gilbert to his true Milan-San Remo favorites, and considers what the March races told us about the Tour de France

“I’ve always been aware that what I was doing was exceptional; each one could potentially be the last victory I’d get, so I enjoyed every moment as if it was the last. I’m well aware that sport is unpredictable; we’re always on the edge. Next year, I can have a season like Fabian Cancellara in 2011: podium at Milan-San Remo, Flanders, Roubaix, the worlds… but no great win.”
– Philippe Gilbert at the end of the 2011 season, having won the Velo d’Or as the best cyclist of the year

Gilbert also said that “after winning big, there’s a huge difference between winning and coming second,” but so far this year the Walloon wunderkind has not managed either. In stark contrast, Cancellara, after a relatively uninspiring 2011 compared to his three seasons previous, appears to be on a blinder.

The same time last year, Gilbert had won the Montepaschi Strade Bianche and the fifth stage of Tirreno-Adriatico; this season it was Cancellara who dominated the white gravel roads of Tuscany, going on to repeat his Tirreno TT performance of last year with another win against the clock.

Granted, there still remains time for the man born in Verviers (though he grew up in Remouchamps, at the base of arguably the most famous climb in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, La Redoute) to come good before the triplet of Ardennes races that suit him best, and which he will enter this year as defending champion.

Gilbert has said while he may never win the Tour of Flanders or Milan-San Remo, he’ll do everything he can to try. With the changed parcours for the former that a number of riders have said suits an Ardennes specialist more than one with a proclivity for the pavé, this year and next may his best chance, particularly with the 29-year-old expecting to “be stronger in 2012 and ever stronger in 2013.” After that, he says, “It’ll be a question of remaining at the highest level of the sport as long as possible. Motivation will be a key factor to determine for how long I can perform.”

It’s a little surprising, then, that in his quest to motivate himself, Gilbert continues to brush aside any thoughts of riding GC at the Tour de France. At 67 kilos (150lb), standing 1.79 meters (5’10”) tall and housing a McLaren F1-like motor, it would seem he possesses the physiological characteristics to prosecute such an objective; Eddy Merckx reiterated only this January he feels he could do it, even if it remains not his wont. “It was surprising to finish the Tour de France so fresh,” said Gilbert after riding only his second Grande Boucle last year, adding: “I don’t know what my limits are. The 2011 season hasn’t given me any indication of my limits because I’ve achieved things I never previously thought I could.”

Nevertheless come Saturday, for the winner of 18 races last season — the most winning cyclist of 2011 — to win La Classicissima, well, that would be a truly rabbit-out-of-the-hat performance.

The favorites
For a number of others it won’t be surprising at all if they win the 298-kilometer-long spring classic.
The top of that list is 2009 San Remo champ Mark Cavendish (Team Sky), who must surely enter as the biggest favorite. Right from the get-go, Cavendish has shown the ‘rainbow curse’ has little veracity and has already tallied four solid wins this season, most recently the second stage of Tirreno-Adriatico. The only concern I’ve seen was a small rough patch between the end of the Tour of Qatar, where he crashed on the final stage, and the Tour of Oman, where throughout the week he was clearly off his A-game. With Edvald Boasson Hagen as co-leader, Team Sky’s dual-pronged strategy is arguably the most lethal on paper, the Norwegian near top-form after his stage 3 win in T-A.

Also right up there with a shot are Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan), Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and the Liquigas-Cannondale duo of Peter Sagan and Tirreno champ Vincenzo Nibali.

Is Cancellara in the same indomitable early season form that won him La Primavera four years ago? It’s hard to say, but if not now he will be by the time we arrive at the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix on April 1 and 8, respectively. At the very least Boonen is back to his 2008-2009 level. Whether he’s back to his 2005-2006 best, only time will tell, although the signs are encouraging for the 31-year-old Flandrian. As for Sagan, the Slovak continues to impress and ride well beyond his 22 years, though perhaps Saturday’s marathon-like distance may get the better of him; Nibali, on the other hand, has the miles and multiple grand tours under his belt, but a lack of a fast finish will force his hand on either the Cipressa (km 276) or Poggio (km 292) climbs.

Defending Milan-San Remo champ Matthew Goss (GreenEdge) has been assiduously chipping away, but I would’ve liked to see him post at least a podium result in the early season races (GreenEdge’s team time trial victory in Tirreno-Adriatico aside). Still, on the back of no results of note he almost won the worlds last September, so one would assume he’s capable of finding that form again, which he says he’s confident of unearthing.

Marching toward the Tour
Before they become a distant memory, a few postscripts from Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico.

If you didn’t already know it, July is shaping up to be the Cadel and Wiggo show. The only thing that will prevent it from being so is the same misfortune that took Bradley Wiggins (Sky) out of last year’s Tour or Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) the year before; quite honestly, Andy Schleck (RadioShack) seems better off riding the Giro given the amount of time trialing kilometers and his insouciance at doing anything to noticeably improve in this discipline. And by virtue of his overall victory in Tirreno, Nibali, a noted chrono rider/demonic descender who as the years go by has metamorphosed into someone more complete, has now emerged as a dark horse.

If there was one criticism with Wiggins it is that he appears to treat every climb as a time trial. While he may be able to adopt such an approach at Paris-Nice or the Dauphiné, if he is to win the Tour, he will need to be more dynamic and responsive in the high mountains, as he discovered in 2010.

That year, Garmin-Barracuda CEO Jonathan Vaughters told me in Pau: “I don’t really see any sort of massive error that Brad made or anything else like that — I just think that he performs better when he can sort of isolate himself a little bit. Brad’s got one really big bullet. Some guys have six little bullets — they can go over this climb, this climb — and they can all do those climbs well. Brad’s like one of those guys like in a Verbier situation (a climb used in the 2009 Tour, where Wiggins finished fourth overall); Verbier’s a 20-minute climb and for him to go rrrrupp! for 20 minutes, he’s great at that – that’s perfect. And there’ll be another Tour like that (in 2009) — the race was formed by the team time trial, Verbier, and the (final) time trial in Annecy. Before Brad retires there’ll be another Tour like that.”

Vaughters, who was Wiggins’ boss in 2009 before he left on less than civil terms, also outlined another trait of his former pupil that is similar to Evans, in that their intensely private nature is at odds with the very public and protracted pressure-cooker scenario that is unique to the Tour de France.

“He’s just a little bit of a unique personality in that he does not like a lot of distractions… he likes to just live his life without much peripheral distraction. And I think when you are touted as a potential Tour winner, that’s just going to lead to a lot of distraction, that’s all,” said Vaughters.

“In a way, he can handle athletic pressure — think about the Olympics. You’re sitting there, the minute leading up to your start in the pursuit for the gold medal; there doesn’t exist more pressure than that anywhere in life, but it’s a day or two of intense pressure and then it’s gone. This (the Tour) is grinding day after day after day and people trying to figure out your personal life and this and that and the other thing. I just think that it’s hard for him. He’s a private person.”

However, like BMC has successfully done with Evans, the staff at Sky has managed to tame the beast that is Wiggins, shielding him when necessary whilst still allowing his idiosyncratic, often charismatic, personality to come through.

Meanwhile, Vancansoleil-DCM continues to prove it is the most underrated team in the peloton, taking a hat trick of stages at Paris-Nice. Jens Voigt (RadioShack), in the same race, showed that 40 is the new 30. And at the other end of the age scale, Taylor Phinney (BMC) displayed plenty of promise when he found himself part of the winning 21-man escape on Stage 2, demonstrating a natural ability to read the right moves and having the strength to stay in them.

At Tirreno, Cameron Meyer (GreenEdge) missed out on the best young rider prize by eight seconds, but perhaps more importantly, showed some early signs that he may be Australia’s next grand tour star, along with Sky’s Richie Porte.

Realizing life in advertising was nothing like Mad Men and buoyed by the Olympic Games in his Australian hometown of Sydney, Anthony Tan turned his back on a lucrative copywriting career in 2000 in pursuit of something more cerebral. Combining wordsmithing with his experiences as an A-Grade club racer and an underwhelming season competing in Europe, a career as a cycling scribe beckoned… More than a dozen Grand Tours and countless Classics later, it’s where he still is today. He has been a contributor to VeloNews since 2006. In 2010, he won Cycling Australia’s media award for best story. Follow him on Twitter: @anthony_tan