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Milano-Sanremo 2020: New date, new twists, same nerve-racking finale

Van der Poel, van Aert, Alaphilippe headline bumper start list for an 'even harder' Milano-Sanremo on Saturday.

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This year’s Milano-Sanremo may have a different date and different route, but Saturday’s La Classicissima promises all its trademark tension and unpredictability.

While it may not have the gravel sectors, steep climbs and gnarly finish of last weekend’s Strade Bianche, Milano-Sanremo offers over six hours of edge-of-your-seat anticipation and a breathtaking crescendo. Think The Sopranos rather than Breaking Bad. To quote Tom Boonen, it’s “a seven-hour race and then it’s decided in two seconds.”

Among those set to fight out the victory on the iconic closing strip of the Via Roma are a veritable whos-who of sprinting and one-day racing, with defending champion Julian Alaphilippe, Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert, Philippe Gilbert, Elia Viviani and Caleb Ewan among a very long list of contenders.

This year’s 111th edition of the Italian monument will take on new twists and wrinkles having been shifted from its traditional mid-March slot after coronavirus uprooted the season.

Rather than cool temperatures and the persistent risk of rain – or even snow, as in 2013 – this weekend’s race is set to play out under an Italian heatwave, with the mercury slated to hit 35C late afternoon. And for this year, teams are one-rider short, with only six starters per squad.

Another major change to the Sanremo formula is an upheaval of the route. Race organizers RCS sport was forced to make late amendments to the traditional parcours after local authorities prohibited the race’s passage along the Italian Riviera for fear of loss of tourism due to closed roads during a key holiday weekend.

The modified route takes a long diversion inland, missing out on the iconic coastal road.

This year, the peloton heads inland from Milan rather than tracking directly south to follow the iconic Ligurian coastal road, only rejoining the “traditional” finish around 40 kilometers from the finish line in Sanremo.

While the race-defining climbs of the Cipressa and Poggio remain, the new route adds a few extra kilometers to make the race a herculean 299km in length, along with an extra 500 meters of climbing.

While the none-too-tricky slopes of the Cipressa and Poggio and flat final five kilometers and favor all but the heaviest of sprinters, the race’s iconic closing salvo of ascents serve as a springboard for attacks for those not fancying their odds in a straight-up sprint on the Via Roma. Add to that the newly-added grind of the Colle di Nava, and race director Mauro Vegni has forecasted an even more open race that will be “perhaps even tougher.

Milano-Sanremo’s news parcours takes in the Colle di Nava rather than the typical Turchino Pass.

A further twist for the 2020 edition will see riders race in six-man teams rather than the standard unit of seven as a result of RCS calling to invite more wildcard teams without overly-swelling the peloton.

While fewer teammates and a tougher course may open out the race, the blazing skies that marked last weekend’s Strade Bianche are set to return Saturday, with temperatures in the mid to high 30’s being predicted. With 300 kilometers to cover, contenders may choose to wait ’til the last possible moment to strike out rather than blowing their top wth an enthusiastic early move.

The race is more open, yet more controlled. It’s hillier, but the sprint finish remains. As always, Saturday’s Milano-Sanremo could be won by almost anyone, at any moment.

Riders to watch and stories to follow

Don’t go gambling your house on them, but the following trio has the chops to win and extra motivation to do so:

Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma):
Van Aert has got the form and he’s got the swagger. Having ridden away from an elite group to win Strade Bianche last weekend and matched up against top sprinters at Milano-Torino midweek, the Belgian knows he’s got the legs for a fast finish and the punch for a Poggio attack.

“Now I know when I go to the sprint with those fastmen on Saturday that I should not be afraid,” van Aert said after placing third behind renowned bunch sprinters Arnaud Démare and Caleb Ewan at Torino Wednesday. “It will be much more difficult on Saturday. That should normally be in my favor.”

The 25-year-old has the wind at his sails and the know-how to make it to the pointy end of the action after finishing sixth in 2019.

Philippe Gilbert (Lotto-Soudal):
The Belgian veteran may not be an odds-on favorite, but the wily fox has the racing acumen and all-round skillset to make the front of the action. He also has a huge motivation – winning Sanremo would give him the accolade of winning all five monuments, a feat only achieved by three riders.

“I am putting a lot of pressure on myself to win Sanremo,” Gilbert said earlier this year. “It’s the one that I really want to win … I know it won’t be easy, but everyone said it wouldn’t be easy to win Flanders or Roubaix, and I’ve won both of them.”

How things would play out should the 38-year-old classics star and his young sprinter teammate Caleb Ewan come to the finale together is another matter, however.

Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix)
When is the multi-faceted rider not a talking point? The Dutch superstar has failed to register since the restarted season, with an untimely mechanical ruling him out of Strade Bianche, and poor positioning leaving him unable to contest the sprint at Milano-Torino.

“Getting some decent results in the last couple of races would, of course, have been great but it’s not exactly the end of the world, and there’s certainly no reason to be concerned,” team manager Christoph Roodhoft said Thursday. “Things might be very different again in Sanremo on Saturday. Mathieu is more than ready.”

Never underestimate what van der Poel can do. He may be making his debut appearance at Sanremo and coming off the back of a pair of unsuccessful races, but it could well be third time lucky for the 25-year-old this weekend.

Honorable mentions:
To write a full list of contenders for the podium for Milano-Sanremo would be to write the names of half the peloton. However, here’s the hottest of the other contenders:

  • Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step)
  • Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-Quick-Step)
  • Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal)
  • Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe)
  • Fernando Gaviria (UAE-Team Emirates)
  • Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ)
  • Elia Viviani (Cofidis)
  • Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo)
  • Michał Kwiatkowski (Team Ineos)
  • Alberto Bettiol (EF Pro Cycling)
  • Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team)
  • Matteo Trentin (CCC Team)
  • Oliver Naesen (Ag2r-La Mondiale)
  • Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)