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Milano-Sanremo preview: Sprinters look to reclaim their coastal classic

A trio of enterprising attackers denied the fast finishers their lone shot at a monument last season. How will things play out this time around?

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Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico are both in the books, and that can mean only one thing: It’s time for the first monument of the season.

Saturday’s Milano-Sanremo is unique among the great classics. The longest one-day race on the WorldTour, it’s also the lone monument that regularly caters to the sprinters. Regularly — but not always.

At the heart of Milano-Sanremo is the unpredictable finale, where the peloton’s top sprinters must drag their heavy frames over the last two climbs and pray their teammates can claw back any late attackers. Often it works. Sometimes, it doesn’t. In 2017, for instance, Peter Sagan jumped away with Julian Alaphilippe and Michal Kwiatkowski and the trio just managed to stay away, with Kwiatkowski claiming the victory on the famed Via Roma. It’s never quite clear how things will play out until the final few moments of the race; therein lies the beauty of Milano-Sanremo.

The Route

Milano-Sanremo runs 291 kilometers from, unsurprisingly, Milan to San Remo. That means the weather often starts out wet and unpleasant before turning more accommodating as the peloton makes its way towards the Mediterranean coast. On other occasions, it’s just wet and unpleasant all day. At least as of Friday, Saturday’s forecast calls for some rain at both ends of the race.

Milano-Sanremo is typically a slow-burn affair. The first 120 kilometers are flat before the road angles upward for the run-in to the Passo del Turchino. From the top, it’s a lengthy, speedy descent into another very long flat section. The excessive mileage will certainly take its toll on the legs, but don’t expect much attrition for the first 240 kilometers unless the conditions are especially foul.

A lumpy finale

The racing should finally heat up with around 50 kilometers to go as the pack arrives at a trio of rollers, the capi. They aren’t especially challenging, but they’ll put the peloton and any survivors from the breakaway under pressure in the run-up to the dynamic duo of finishing climbs.

The first of those is the Cipressa, which begins a little under 30 kilometers from the finish. 5.6 kilometers in length with a 4.1 percent average gradient, it’s not an overly challenging ascent, but the pack will have already ridden 260 kilometers before hitting the slopes. Attacks will fly, especially on the steeper early stretches. Those who do get away will try to stretch their advantage on the tricky descent that follows, and then hold it on the flat run-in to the last climb of the day, the Poggio.

The Poggio di Sanremo is 3.7 kilometers with a 3.7 % average, but it does have a few more demanding sections that always launch enterprising attackers. From the crest of the climb, it’s just 5.4 kilometers to the finish line, and more than half of that is downhill with multiple hairpins.

Things flatten out for the last two kilometers on the scenic, seaside roads of Sanremo. It’s a straight run-in to the finish on the Via Roma, where so many sprinting greats have claimed career-defining victories — but where every now and then, a crafty escapee has held out just long enough to snatch the victory from the fast finishers.

The contenders

The big favorites for Milano-Sanremo are either riders with world-beating finishing kicks, or versatile attacking types with a shot at sneaking clear on the Poggio. Last year’s runner-up happens to be both. Bora-Hansgrohe’s Peter Sagan is fast enough to win a bunch sprint – as he has at the last two world championships – and strong enough to get clear if he plays his cards right. He’s never won this race, but he’s been close on countless occasions. With a few of the potential sprint winners of this race out with injuries, now’s as good a time as any for Sagan to get over the hump.

Quick-Step Floors is one big obstacle standing in his way. Philippe Gilbert and 2017 podium finisher Julian Alaphilippe give the team a pair of dangerous options for late attacks. Fernando Gaviria is out with a broken hand, but Elia Viviani, on blazing form this season, is a major threat for a sprint finish. Matching Quick-Step’s firepower will be a big challenge for any team in attendance.

Sky has the defending champion in Michal Kwiatkowski. He’s got a fast finish, but he’ll need to arrive on the Via Roma with a small group to defend his title. Don’t put it past the Pole — he’s fresh off a Tirreno-Adriatico win and climbing as well as he ever has. He does sometimes run hot and cold, occasionally disappearing from races where you’d expect a big performance, but Sky has Gianni Moscon as another option should that happen.

UAE Team Emirates also sports a former winner in Alexander Kristoff. His classics campaigns haven’t gone the way he’s wanted the past two years, but he’s continued to have plenty of success outside the big spring races. He looks to be in good form, and UAE also has the punchy Diego Ulissi as a foil to send up the road.

Groupama-FDJ brings 2016 champ Arnaud Démare. He looked sharp at Paris-Nice, and has always been dangerous on longer days. That’s probably why he counts a victory in the WorldTour’s longest race on his palmares. He may have been a surprise winner that year, but his success was no fluke and he’s a real contender again in 2018.

Bahrain-Merida will mount a multi-pronged offensive with the in-form Sonny Colbrelli and the always aggressive Vincenzo Nibali. Heinrich Haussler, who came very close to winning Sanremo way back in 2009, is another wildcard.

BMC has Greg Van Avermaet as an escapee to keep an eye on. This is a rare classic that has never seen Van Avermaet on the podium, but he’s got the necessary punch and finishing speed to be in the mix. Rain will help.

Best of the rest

Mitchelton-Scott has a pair of fast-finishing options in Matteo Trentin and Caleb Ewan. Speaking of fast finishers, Lotto Soudal’s André Greipel and Katusha-Alpecin’s Marcel Kittel will both be in attendance as well. On a shorter, flatter day, they’d belong at the beginning of this list of contenders, but Sanremo is too challenging for the German speedsters to start as huge pre-race favorites.

Trek-Segafredo will be without former winner John Degenkolb and his potential replacement, Giacomo Nizzolo, instead hoping Boy van Poppel, Jasper Stuyven, and Fabio Felline can pick up the slack. Dimension Data’s Mark Cavendish, another former winner, will make the start coming off a fractured rib. That could hamper his chances, but the team has Edvald Boasson Hagen as a strong second. Sunweb’s Michael Matthews is yet another coming off an injury. If he isn’t up for a finishing sprint, Tom Dumoulin and Edward Theuns will be riders to watch for the German-based outfit.

Ag2r’s Tony Gallopin, Cofidis’s Christophe Laporte, and EF Education First’s Sacha Modolo are others who could be in the mix Saturday.

Wildcard watch

The peloton allowed Astana’s Michael Valgren to snag a surprise win at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Expect Astana to try a few things again this weekend. Between Valgren, the in-form Alexey Lutsenko, and a very speedy Magnus Cort Nielsen, Alexander Vinokorouv’s team has multiple cards to play in the finale.

Podium picks

As impressive as Sagan, Kwiatkowski, and Alaphilippe were last year, I’m thinking a sprint finale is the more likely outcome at Milano-Sanremo. As such, I see a sprinter-filled podium. Elia Viviani has the team and the form to take the win if Sanremo comes down to a big bunch kick. Alexander Kristoff and Peter Sagan should both be in the mix as well, snagging the other two spots on the podium at the very least.