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Milan-San Remo: Break or sprint?

La Classicissimia, La Primavera – whatever you call it, Milan-San Remo is one of cycling’s most electrifying and prestigious races, one of the sport’s treasured “monuments.” Whoever wins San Remo is king of Italy for a day. Twenty-five eight-man teams line up Saturday in front of the Castello Sforzesco in Milan for the 298km run past the picturesque headlands jutting out of the Italian Riviera toward the finish in San Remo.

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By Andrew Hood

Oscar Freire (Rabobank) wins the 2007 edition of Milan-San Remo.

Oscar Freire (Rabobank) wins the 2007 edition of Milan-San Remo.

Photo: Graham Watson

La Classicissimia, La Primavera – whatever you call it, Milan-San Remo is one of cycling’s most electrifying and prestigious races, one of the sport’s treasured “monuments.” Whoever wins San Remo is king of Italy for a day.

Twenty-five eight-man teams line up Saturday in front of the Castello Sforzesco in Milan for the 298km run past the picturesque headlands jutting out of the Italian Riviera toward the finish in San Remo.

Two changes to the route – a new climb and new finish – could have major consequences. But the eternal question remains: Will late attackers stave off the sprinters?

If recent history repeats itself, the sprinters hold the upper hand in San Remo.

Since Erik Zabel’s first of four wins in 1997, sprinters have consistently made it over the decisive Poggio-Cipressa climbs in the closing 28km to play for all the marbles down the Via Roma.

Only Paolo Bettini (2003) and Filippo Pozzato (2006) interrupted business as usual by staying clear over the Poggio while Andrei Tchmil (1999) unleashed a final-kilometer attack to fend off the sprinters.

Otherwise, Milan-San Remo’s reputation as the “sprinters’ classic” remains largely intact, and this year’s field of contenders is heavy with candidates to live up to history’s expectations.

The favorites: Freire tops list

Last year’s champion Oscar Freire (Rabobank) looks in fine condition following two telling victories at Tirreno-Adriatico that put him a notch above his rivals. The three-time world champion is hoping to make this San Remo a hat trick with a third career win.

“I feel good and the preparation is coming along as planned, but you never have guarantees for San Remo,” Freire told journalists at Tirreno. “Last year, I didn’t win any stages here and I managed to win San Remo. In 2005, I won three stages and the overall, yet lost.”

Of the other top sprinters, only Alessandro Petacchi (Milram) looks to be on the same level as Freire, at least based on early season results. The 2005 champ has struggled with injuries but appears to be firing at all cylinders despite his 34 years. Petacchi’s pilot will be none other than four-time winner Zabel.

“I tried the last 100km of Milan-San Remo, in particular because I wanted to see the new climb,” Petacchi told La Gazzetta dello Sport. “It’s quite tough and has a challenging descent, but we’re still 100km from the finish, so I don’t think the race will be decided there.”

Behind these two five-star favorites are a baker’s dozen of sprinters with varying degrees of fitness, experience and expectations.

Tom Boonen (Quick Step) was rather anonymous at Tirreno-Adriatico, failing to take a stage victory, but that shouldn’t necessarily be taken as a sign that he’s not on form. Boonen has selected San Remo as one of his top goals for the season and is motivated to improve on his third place last year.

“It’s nice to win, whether it’s at Qatar or California, but I don’t have the pressure to win in every race I go to,” Boonen told VeloNews earlier this season. “I’ve been looking forward to winning Milan-San Remo every year since I’ve turned pro. I’ve made it an objective. Last year I was close and now I will be there for the fourth year to be in the final, so maybe now I have more experience and I will have a little bit of good luck and I can win.”

Quick Step teammate Paolo Bettini admits he’s not in top shape, but the fact that only four riders have won San Remo wearing the world champion’s jersey (Binda, 1931; Merckx, ’72, ’75; Gimondi, ’74; Saronni, ’83) will give the Cricket extra kick in his legs.

Quick Step is sure to animate the race, perhaps sending Bettini away on the Poggio and saving Boonen for the sprint.

Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole), winner of the opening prologue at Paris-Nice, wants to improve on his third place from 2005.

“Milan-San Remo is my first major objective of the season and I really want to win it this year,” he said during Paris-Nice. “Our team wasn’t invited to Tirreno or the Giro, but I love racing in Italy. I’m optimistic about Milan-San Remo. Every year I’ve learned more about the race. I want to be there for the finish.”

Pozzato will have a top-flight Liquigas team that includes Franco Pellizotti, who may try to emulate his boss with attacks over the Poggio while “Popo” cools his legs for the finale.

There are also plenty of candidates to try to derail the sprinters’ train. Fabian Cancellara (CSC), fresh off overall victory in Tirreno, could uncork a late-race attack like he did during last year’s Tour de France in Compiegne, in the same style as Tchmil.

Riders such as David Rebellin (Gerolsteiner), Frank Schleck (CSC), Philippe Gilbert (FDJeux), Yaroslav Popovych (Silence-Lotto), Enrico Gasparotto (Barloworld), Alessandro Ballan (Lampre), Nick Nuyens (Cofidis) and Joaquin Rodriguez (Caisse d’Epargne) will be champing at the bit to attack on the Poggio or the Cipressa. Riccardo Riccò (Saunier Duval) is a last-minute scratch.

American interests will be defended by High Road and Slipstream-Chipotle, with both teams anxious to put some men into play in the decisive moments of the race.

The course: Two changes could prove decisive

Two major changes to the traditional route are sure to have an impact on the race.

A rockslide prompted the inclusion of a new climb, called Le Mànie, at about 100km from the finish, just before the arrival of three headlands at Capo Mele, Capo Cervo and Capo Berta as the route dips down to the Mediterranean Sea.

The climb is only about 4km, but it’s higher, longer and steeper than both the more famous Cipressa and Poggio climbs. The Mànie is very steep at the bottom and features a tricky, technical descent, and comes just as the peloton is revving up its speed to reel in early breakaways.

Former winner Petacchi said he doesn’t believe the additional climb will change the final outcome of the race. Others said they believed it could soften up the legs of the sprinters and make a difference after almost 300km of racing.

“People say it’s not very long, but it means one more climb for the sprinters to get over,” said Team CSC’s Frank Schleck. “Maybe that gives moves over the Poggio a better chance.”

The other major change is in the final kilometer, where roadwork on the traditional finishing straight at Via Roma is forcing a detour.

Rather than heading directly into a sprint onto the Via Roma after coming off the Poggio, the course will instead loop along the seashore to finish near the old train station at Lungomare Italo Calvino de San Remo, adding about 600 meters of flats after coming off the final decisive climb.

There will be a tricky left turn with about 500 meters to go before a sweeping right-hander ahead of the final straight at 300 meters to go. The detour also brings the peloton into the full brunt of the typically strong winds along the Italian Riviera.

Sprinters like Petacchi say it’s a plus because it will give his train more time to organize itself off the Poggio, while others said it could provide terrain for late-race attacks from the likes of Gilbert or Cancellara.

Others aren’t convinced that the additional kilometer will prove that decisive.

“The changes to the finish really won’t matter, even if it is windy. It might be head winds, but it might be tailwinds, too,” Boonen told VeloNews. “The key is to be in position over the Poggio and have legs to make a sprint. Maybe it’s a little longer in the flats, so maybe that gives you more time to get into position for the sprint. If you’re strong, you can win.”

Otherwise, the route largely remains unchanged. At 298km, it’s the longest, fastest and (some say) hardest of the classics.

The script typically follows with an opening breakaway peeling off the front as the race rolls south across the Po Valley toward the day’s main obstacle at the Passo del Turchino at 142km.

The route then sweeps down to the Mediterranean Coast and hits the new climb at Le Mànie with 100km to go. If the script remains unchanged, breakaways are typically reeled in between the three headlands at Capo Mele, Cervo and Berta packed in a tight 15km run with less than 45km to go.

From there, the peloton switches gears as the attacks come fast and furious on the Cipressa at 23km to go and the Poggio with less than 7km to go.