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MTN-Qhubeka punching above its weight in Sanremo

The South African Pro Continental team will ride into the season's first monument with two former winners on its roster

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It’s not too often that a Pro Continental team lines up for a WorldTour race with realistic ambitions to win. It’s also uncommon for a second-tier team to toe the line at one of cycling’s five monuments with two former winners wearing its colors.

Despite those improbabilities, MTN-Qhubeka heads into Sunday’s Milano-Sanremo with a squad that could shock the WorldTour heavies — after all, it did just that in 2013.

Two years ago, Gerald Ciolek sprinted to victory in a race that was shortened by snow atop the Turchino climb. It was a huge coup for MTN-Qhubeka in its first year as a Pro Continental squad.

Like many others, Ciolek was honing his form at Tirreno-Adriatico last week, and he came close to winning his first race of the season, sprinting to second behind Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) in stage 6. The 28-year-old German could only manage ninth place last year at La Primavera, though he did figure into the final selection, showing that his 2013 result was no fluke.

“I have enjoyed some good results at Milano-Sanremo, winning the race two years ago and placing in the top 10 last March,” Ciolek said in a team press release. “This year, we come back with a very strong team.”

Alongside Ciolek is another former Sanremo winner, Matt Goss, who won the flowers in 2011 with the HTC-High Road team. That day, Goss sprinted out of an eight-man group, getting the better of Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), and Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing). Goss was also racing Tirreno last weekend alongside Ciolek, but he has yet to notch any podium results in 2015. In fact, Goss has not won a major race since stage 2 of the 2013 Tirreno-Adriatico.

MTN-Qhubeka will also bring Edvald Boasson Hagen, Reinardt Janse van Rensburg, Kristian Sbaragli, Serge Pauwels, Steve Cummings, and Jaco Venter to the 293-kilometer monument in Italy.

“We showed at Tirreno-Adriatico that we can play a lot of cards, and we’re definitely looking forward to it. We want to perform well,” added Ciolek.

The one knock against MTN-Qhubeka’s odds is this year’s course, which has a decidedly more sprinter-friendly flair. If a large group comes to the line, it’s unlikely that any of the South African team’s riders will be able to go head-to-head with the likes of last year’s winner, Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), or Etixx-Quick-Step’s Mark Cavendish, who won in 2009.

Nevertheless, the first — and longest — major classic of the season is often unpredictable, and if a small group escapes on the Poggio, which is fairly common, don’t be surprised to see MTN-Qhubeka’s black and white stripes in the mix on the Via Roma.