By Andrew Hood
If the cobbles belong to the Belgians, then the Via Roma finishing straight at Milan-San Remo belongs to the Italians.
The current king of “La Classicissima” is Alessandro Petacchi, who returns as the heavy favorite and all the pressure that comes with it. His win in the final stage at Tirreno-Adriatico revealed “Ale-Jet” is right on target.
“If everything goes right, I know I can win Milan-San Remo for a second time,” Petacchi told reporters. “The final Poggio climb will be the key to the race. If I can get over it with the leaders and with a couple of teammates, I’ll have a great chance in the sprint.”
Petacchi earned his breakthrough victory last year with an emotional sprint to dispel the notion that he was some sort of stage-race specialist who couldn’t pop in one of the long, grueling one-day classics. At 294km and nearly seven hours on the bike, Milan-San Remo is the longest on the calendar and Petacchi’s emphatic victory a year ago erased any asterisk next to his palmares.
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Nothing will be easy this year for Petacchi, however. More pressure will be piled on him following his meltdown at last year’s world championships in Madrid, where Tom Boonen and the Belgians out-maneuvered the Italians on the frenetic final lap.
His new Milram team is still finding its way, especially in working out the kinks of its set-up train for the sprint finishes. Though less of a factor in Milan-San Remo, where the Cipressa and Poggio climbs separate the wheat from the chafe, Petacchi is hoping to at least count on teammates Erik Zabel and perhaps Marco Velo for a friendly wheel.
Then there’s always the question of early season form. Petacchi has rattled off a half-dozen victories, but Milan-San Remo is the first real test of the season. No one truly knows their fitness until they hit the final 50km run along the Mediterranean.
The route is unchanged from last year despite threats from race organizers to add an additional late-race climb to break up the peloton. If the script from recent years is repeated, an early breakaway will clear the Passo di Turchino before slipping down to the Mediterranean Coast and eventually be reeled in.
A string of headlands juts into the sea, marking the principal skirmish zones in the final approach to San Remo where strong winds can be a decisive factor. The route turns inland for the Cipressa climb (at 22km to go) and the Poggio climb (at 6km to go), always the scene for intense in-fighting among challengers trying to pull away from the top sprinters.
If Petacchi is the heavy favorite, Boonen has somehow managed to take all the pressure off himself yet again.
Ahead of last year’s world’s, Boonen said he had nothing left to prove after doubling at Flanders-Roubaix earlier in the season, and then sprang back to life in the final two laps to steal away with rainbow jersey.
“The pressure begins for me in April,” Boonen told VeloNews. “Yes, of course I’d like to win San Remo, but the races that most important to me are the northern classics.”
Boonen’s best finish on the Via Roma is eighth last year, but he’s obviously on form with already 10 wins in his pocket, dispelling any myth of a rainbow jersey curse. Quick Step-Innergetic comes with a stacked team and this could be the year the super-ambitious Boonen pops for the win.
Boonen has regularly criticized the race, most recently calling it a “kermesse” in the Belgian press, but as one of cycling’s monuments, it’s hard to imagine Boonen not anxious to add it to his overflowing trophy shelf.
Riding with pride in the rainbow jersey will help. No world champion has won on the Via Roma since Giuseppe Saronni did it in 1983.
Behind the heavyweight favorites of Petacchi and Boonen come another dozen candidates. Here’s a quick look at who to watch:Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole) was third last year and could be the dark-horse for victory. The green jersey winner from the Tour de France recently concluded an intense training camp ahead of the race with key teammates, including USA’s Saul Raisin.The 2004 Milan-San Remo winner Oscar Freire (Rabobank) should never be counted out. The three-time world champion won a stage in last week’s Tirreno-Adriatico to herald his comeback after not racing since last June with injury and teammates say he’s stronger than he’s putting on. Juan Antonio Flecha and Erik Dekker will likely go on early sorties over the Cipressa and Poggio. Spanish sensation Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne-Illes Balears) is another outsider who could be a factor, especially if a relatively small group gets over the Poggio. The two-time world championship silver medalist is building his form for the Ardennes classics, but “Balaverde” could deliver the knock-out punch. Erik Zabel (Milram) should have won his fifth Milan-San Remo in 2004, but he celebrated too soon and allowed Freire to squirt past his right shoulder as Zabel lifted his arms in triumph. Officially riding to support Petacchi, the cagey Zabel will gladly step in with any sign of weakness from his Italian teammate. Especially if Petacchi gets dropped over the Poggio, Zabel will have freedom to unleash. Robbie McEwen (Davitamon-Lotto) has never shone on the Via Roma and will be taking the start with a cracked rib following his crash last month in the Three Days of West Flanders. Paolo Bettini (Quick Step-Innergetic) is another starter from the hospital ward. The 2003 champion is still licking his wounds from a nasty downhill crash in Tirreno-Adriatico last week, but promises to at least try to make it to the finish. Whether he will have his attacking legs to try something over the Poggio remains to be seen. Luca Paolini (Liquigas), long Bettini’s sidekick at Quick Step, will be keen to make the most of his start as team captain after making the jump to Liquigas. Paolini can go the distance, evidenced by his third behind Bettini in 2003 and his bronze medal at the 2004 worlds. Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) is another classics strongman who’s never been able to crack Milan-San Remo. He’ll play his card trying to sneak away over the final climbs rather than wait for the finale. A young, but ambitious Gerolsteiner team will be on the attack, with such riders as Fabian Wegmann, Heinrich Haussler and Stefan Schumacher ready to go over the final climbs. Allan Davis (Liberty Seguros) was the only sprinter to give Boonen a challenge at Paris-Nice, finishing second three times to Boonen’s wins. Davis abandoned Paris-Nice with a bad stomach, but should be at full-strength to play his card in the finale. Watch for Andrey Kashechkin and Jorg Jaksche to give it a late run. Philippe Gilbert (FDJeux) always carries early season form. The Belgian product popped for a win at Het Volk and quietly finished sixth last year. Damiano Cunego is starting for Lampre-Fondital, but sprinters Alessandro Ballan or Danilo Napolitano could be their best bets if they can make it to the line with the front group. Fabian Cancellara (Team CSC) will pick up for the injured Stuart O’Grady, who cracked five ribs and broke his clavicle in a spill in Tirreno-Adriatico. Leif Hoste (Discovery Channel) has form after a strong TT in T-A and could try to work into an early breakaway. George Hincapie decided not to start after coming down with a cold at Tirreno, but Michael Barry will ride in Discovery’s solid lineup. T-Mobile, riding without the services of Zabel for the first time in more than a decade, will try to unleash the likes of Lorenzo Bernucci in late attacks over the Cipressa and Poggio. Other outsiders include Anthony Geslin (Bouygues Telecom), third in Madrid last fall, and Igor Astarloa (Barloworld), who’s showing glimpses of a return to form which carried him to the 2003 world title.