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Red-hot Sagan looks for a victory at Milano-Sanremo

Cannondale rider will face stiff competition in 2012 winner Simon Gerrans, Fabian Cancellara, Mark Cavendish, and Matt Goss

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MILAN (AFP) — Slovakian Peter Sagan (Cannondale) will be among the big names to watch when Milano-Sanremo kicks off the season of major cycling classics this weekend.

Although only 23 years old, Sagan is already regarded as one of cycling’s next big stars and could take his stock further with a maiden, historic victory in “la Classicissima” on Sunday.

The Slovakian highlighted his form with two stage victories in Tirreno-Adriatico race last week when his former Liquigas teammate Vincenzo Nibali, now at Astana, triumphed for the second year in succession.

After a fourth-place finish last year, when Australian Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) edged Swiss star Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) at the line, Sagan went on to win three stages and the sprinters green jersey at the Tour de France.

Having beaten British sprint king Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) in last week’s outing at Tirreno, Sagan is confident in his chances.

“I think the team will ride to support me in the race,” Sagan said.

In the event the race does not finish in a small group sprint, Cannondale has another option in Moreno Moser — the recent winner of the grueling Strade Bianche, another one-day Italian race.

“If it turns out a different race, Moreno gives us another guarantee and that means I could be even more comfortable and confident,” Sagan said.

The first of the season’s five “monuments,” the race is a near 300-kilometer slog that begins in Milan and heads south towards the coast where the first of eight climbs begin taking a steady toll on the peloton.

Usually it is on the Cipressa, the race’s penultimate climb, or the Poggio — whose summit is barely 6km from the finish — where decisive attacks and counter-attacks occur as the dwindling bunch races towards the flat finish.

Although Sagan is riding strongly, the Slovakian will not be without tough competition.

Despite failing to win a stage in the past week, 2009 champion Cavendish remains a threat — if he can manage to stay near the front of the peloton when the going gets tough later on.

Cancellara won the race in 2008 and his runner-up result last year suggests the Swiss rider still has the legs to challenge for what would be his second win.

Meanwhile, for the first time the race will welcome an African-registered team. While MTN-Qhubeka’s leader for the race is German sprinter Gerald Ciolek, all eyes are likely to be on Sozengo Jim.

“Songezo Jim will become the first black South African to participate in a [UCI] WorldTour race,” team manager Doug Ryder said. “Songezo and the other riders will be working in support of Ciolek.”

Team Sky’s hopes, meanwhile, will be shouldered by Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen — a strong all around rider who is well suited to the race’s climbs and has a fairly strong sprint-finish abilities.

Gerrans recently said he was not in the shape of his life and that his teammate Matt Goss, the winner of a stage at Tirreno and the 2011 champion, would be a better bet.

“With Gossy’s Tirreno win late last week, he’s shown that he’s in fantastic shape at the moment,” Gerrans said on his team’s Web site. “If the race comes down to a bunch sprint, which is the most likely scenario, he’ll be our man.

“The team will line up with the plan to support Gossy. I’ll have a bit of free reign in the final. That was our approach last year, too.”

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