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Pompieana concerns provoke questions: Froome out, Cavendish in?

Reports that the Pompieana climb might be excluded from Milan-Sanremo have prompted differing reactions from Chris Froome and Mark Cavendish

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Reports that the Pompieana, the new climb added to Milano-Sanremo, might be excluded from the March 23 race due to safety concerns have prompted reactions from two riders who occupy opposite ends of the pro cycling abilities spectrum — climber extraordinaire Chris Froome, and sprint star Mark Cavendish.

With just over a month to go until the Italian classic, organizers may be forced to bypass the Pompeiana, due to heavy rain, landslides, and safety concerns.

“At the moment [the climb] is confirmed and we are monitoring the terrain,” RCS Sport press officer Stefano Diciatteo told VeloNews over the weekend. “We still have over a month to go and all the time needed to verify its feasibility.”

RCS Sport introduced the Pompeiana climb in September, claiming they had made the Italian classic “more spectacular and unpredictable.” The Pompeiana was to become the second of three finishing climbs, sandwiched between the Cipressa and Poggio. The climb of the Pompieana comes just three kilometers after the bottom of the descent of the Cipressa.

And though it has an average gradient of only five percent, a 500-meter section of the Pompeiana maxes out at a very steep 14 percent — making it the hardest climb of this 107-year-old race.

After the summit of the Pompeiana, 20km from the finish, the twisting, technical descent was poised to prove as critical as the climb, with hairpin downhill turns similar to those of the decisive Poggio.

But even if the weather over the next four weeks proves cooperative, safety concerns may force the organizers to stick to the race’s former route, Italy’s La Stampa newspaper reported Friday. “The decision was made even before the recent bad weather,” Michele Russo, engineer for the Imperia Province, told the newspaper. “We reported a number of problems linked to safety.”

The addition of the climb had provoked interest from Tour de France champion Chris Froome (Sky), while others, such as 2007 Sanremo winner Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) and 2008 Sanremo winner Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) had lamented the change.

In December, Cavendish told La Gazetta dello Sport, “If the route stays the same, perhaps I’ll never ride it again. My success in 2009 seems destined to be unique.”

Froome had planned to take the start of the 299km race in Milan on March 23, his only one-day race of the 2014 season.

Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Froome’s key rival at this summer’s Tour de France, is also committed to racing Sanremo, having finished third behind Simon Gerrans and Cancellara in 2012. The addition of the difficult climb had led some to jokingly refer to La Pompieana as “Nibali’s Hill.”

Given the news over the weekend, however, Froome said that if the Pompieana climb is not included, he will not take part.

“I thought I might try my luck because the organisers had decided to make the race more difficult by adding a climb in the final,” Froome told reporters on the eve of the Tour of Oman, where he is the defending champion. “But ultimately, the traditional, less difficult course will be used. It no longer makes sense to start in Milan.”

Meanwhile, Cycling Weekly reported Monday that if the Pompieana is deemed too risky to include, Cavendish would consider returning to the race he won in 2009.

“I think Mark’s open to returning to Milano-Sanremo,” Omega Pharma sports director Davide Bramati told Cycling Weekly. “We need an official press release or something from [organizer] RCS Sport before we make the call and talk.”

Cycling Weekly also spoke with Michele Russo, director of roads and transport for the Imperia province, who said that potholes, landslides, and damaged guard rails forced the province to tell RCS Sport that Milano-Sanremo would be unable to pass. “This road isn’t safe enough to allow an event of this level,” he said. “The race is going to have to use the route it always has. We don’t have a solution unfortunately.”

However several sources close to race organizer RCS Sport, who wished to remain anonymous, told VeloNews on Monday that they believe the Pompieana will ultimately remain part of the course.

“The Milano-Sanremo official race route is the new one, with Pompeiana in it,” an official close to the race organization wrote in an email. “There are some problems, as a consequence of the bad weather conditions of the past months, but the organizer will do the best to solve it and ride the race on the official race route.”

The change is far from the first time the route of Milano-Sanremo has been altered. Race organizers added the Poggio in 1960, and the Cipressa in 1982. In 2008, they added the climb of Le Mànie, in hopes of splitting the race earlier and giving the sprinters more of a challenge ahead of the Capi ramps and the Cipressa and Poggio climbs. With the addition of the Pompeiana in this year’s race, organizers removed La Mànie.

The September addition of the Pompeiana prompted Italy’s leading cycling magazine, Tutto Bici, to publish an opinion piece titled “Voto No alla Nuova Sanremo,” or “A ‘No’ Vote for the New Sanremo.”

“It’s one of the family jewels, one of the few and one of the last,” wrote Tutto Bici’s Cristiano Gatti. “It’s a jewel because it’s different from all the other races thanks to its long, dull hours on the Riviera, for its unpredictability on the Poggio and for those truly thrilling ten minutes from the top of the Poggio to the finish line… These defects, however, are its qualities and make it unique in the world of cycling. There’s no other one like it. And yet, what do we want to do, make it just like all the other races? To find the most complete and strongest rider, we already have a healthy list of races from Lombardia to Liège, from Ronde to Roubaix. Can we not just have one day of madness in the year?”

Omega Pharma-Quick Step team director Rolf Aldag told VeloNews that he was supportive of Cavendish’s decision to sit out the new-look Sanremo.

“I support Mark’s decision not to race,” Aldag said. “It’s crazy to change a course so famous as Sanremo. I know organizers are looking for ways to make the races more interesting. Perhaps they want to see an Italian winner again, and have built something for Nibali. But to change it so much, to completely change the character of the race, well, I don’t like it. And why should Mark go? He knows he cannot win on the new course. He has been quite vocal in his comments, and I support those. A rider like Mark cannot race just to be there. He must race to win, especially as a former winner.”

For the moment, Cavendish, Froome, and the rest of the pro peloton are on standby, awaiting final word from the race’s technical director, Mauro Vegni.