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Milano-Sanremo will be a very different race due to a mix of route changes, summer heat and a host of other one-off changes due to its placement on the revised COVID calendar, yet the outcome could still follow the traditional, wholly unpredictable plot.
There very well could be a sprinter barreling down the Via Roma on Saturday for the victory, but the race is going to have a radically different look and possibly a different outcome.
“I think you could see a very different winner at Sanremo,” said Mitchelton-Scott sport director Matt White. “The new date on the calendar could really have an impact on the outcome.”
What’s different? Just about everything. Except for the start and the finish, the oldest of the monuments has a new look for 2020.
Rather than spring coolness, the August date means there will be summer heat, with temperatures into the 90s forecasted for Saturday. Gone, too, are many of the traditional highlights of the route, with the Passo del Torchino and the jutting headlands along the coast road eliminated. Six-rider teams will also mean there will be fewer legs among the sprinter teams to control the pace, perhaps opening up the race and allowing would-be attackers on the Cipressa and Poggio to hold sway.
“I think we could see a very different Milano-Sanremo for a number of reasons,” said CCC Team sport director Valerio Piva. “Firstly, we are talking about a race in August, so the temperatures will be much higher than they usually are in March, and most riders only have a handful of race days in the legs in the past week, so a 300-kilometer race is going to be very demanding. As usual, I think the Cipressa will be the crucial point of the race but having one less rider per team can make it harder to control.”
Despite the changes, some veterans of the peloton still expect the sprinters to have their day. It’s just that the in-between parts could add some new spicy to the already wild Sanremo race.
“We no longer see symbols of the Classicissima, such as the Turchino, the Capi, and the passage on the Ligurian Riviera,” said Trek-Segafredo sport director Adriano Baffi. “But I think it remains a [race] suitable for sprinters.”
Riders and teams are creatures of habit. They don’t like surprises. And the most important change for 2020 are tweaks to the course. The rollout and flats across the Po Valley remain intact, as does the final hour of racing over the Cipressa and Poggio.
The route changes mean that riders will not have their traditional postmarks along the course to measure their efforts. Local authorities rebelled against closing down the coast road for hours on an Italian holiday, so race organizers rerouted the race in an alternative course that skips the famed headlands along the Italian Riviera.
“There is a new parcours so it will be a surprise for everyone, plus we are normally used to racing Milano-Sanremo in the classics block. Now we find ourselves with a 300-kilometer race without many race days in the legs,” said CCC’s Matteo Trentin. “Without many tests to see how the condition is, it will be a really interesting race.”
The distance is also slightly longer, at 299km, and there is a bit more vertical climbing. Baffi, who drove the new route this week, said the new course will have unforeseen impacts on the race.
“With the climb of Niella Belbo positioned 140km to the finish, the riders’ legs will be more tired than in the past, while the descent from Colle di Nava is technical and tricky,” Baffi said. “The fight for the best positions will be more intense. It’s possible that this will make the Cipressa and Poggio the ideal terrain for a sharper selection than we’ve seen in recent editions.”
The heat will also be an unknown factor. Last week at Strade Bianche, the peloton raced under equally extreme conditions, and many riders suffered. Forecasters are calling for equally high temperatures, especially for the middle part of the race. The coastal area will see a bit of the sting taken off, but how riders react to the August temperatures will be very different from what they’re used to racing in March, where it’s rain and sometimes even snow that can be the central element.
“There is a big difference racing at 15 degrees compared to 35 degrees,” White said. “Some people don’t perform well in heat and some love it. With those temperatures, I think it could be a little more negative Sanremo. People know after racing six hours in those temperatures there are only so many bullets they can fire.”
Riders got their first taste of Italy’s summer heat last weekend at Strade Bianche. Racers used to Italy’s cooler spring conditions saw a shock in Tuscany a week ago, and that same dynamic could play out this weekend with the season’s first monument.
“I don’t have to find an excuse [for Strade Bianche]. The heat was experienced by everybody,” defending champion Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) told CyclingWeekly. “We have a really strong team, we will be around Sam [Bennett] for the sprint but you never know with Sanremo. Our goal is to win again.”
Attacks on the Poggio
The tension point in any edition of Sanremo is the tug-of-war between the sprinters and would-be attackers over the final two climbs. The Cipressa, with about 30km to go, is too far for anyone to make an attack stick. The short but steep Poggio, topping out about 5km from the finish line, is sure to draw out the likes of Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) and Philippe Gilbert (Lotto-Soudal).
“I really like the new parcours to be honest,” CCC’s Trentin said. “It gives some more ‘pepper on the table’ in the finale.”
The classic finale, with the Cipressa followed by the Poggio, remains intact. The Cipressa typically sees the first attacks flare out without success, but the climb does weed out the field, reducing the front group to about 60 heading into the Poggio. With smaller teams, that could lead to some different racing dynamics, with the sprinters having fewer teammates to chase down any aggression over the Poggio.
Nibali, who won in dramatic fashion in 2018 to fend off the chasing sprinters with an attack on the Poggio, said Sanremo always serves up surprises.
“I’ve always tried to invent something: attacks from afar or close to the finish line, or attacks on uphills or downhills,” Nibali said. “After so many [attempts], I had almost put my mind at rest. And the year I didn’t look for it, it was the race that came to me. When I won, I crossed the finish line laughing. The victory came as an unexpected gift.”
Still, the sprinters are hopeful they will have their shot.
“I’ve been good in training, and it doesn’t all come across in racing. I think my form is good, so I can be confident for Saturday,” said Lotto-Soudal’s Caleb Ewan, second in Milano-Torino this week. “It’s always better to win. It’s my first race back, and I was there in the mix.”