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Twenty five teams bring hopes to this weekend’s Milan-San Remo

Milan-San Remo is the season’s first big fish and cycling’s most important one-day race for sprinters never fails to deliver one of the most exciting battles of the year. Changes in both the finish area due to work on the Via Roma and the addition of a new climb called Le Manie with about 100km to go are sure to add new drama to one of the year’s most important contests.

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By Andrew Hood

Milan-San Remo is the season’s first big fish and cycling’s most important one-day race for sprinters never fails to deliver one of the most exciting battles of the year.

Changes in both the finish area due to work on the Via Roma and the addition of a new climb called Le Manie with about 100km to go are sure to add new drama to one of the year’s most important contests.

Some 25 teams of eight-man squads line up Saturday in front of the Castello Sforzesco in Milan for the long, 298km run past the headlands jutting out of the Italian Riviera toward the finish in San Remo. Here are capsules for each team:

Rabobank: All for Freire

Oscar Freire doesn’t win often, but when he’s healthy, his victories come on cycling’s biggest stages. Known for his blinding acceleration, Freire won his first San Remo in 2004 when his stabbed his bike ahead of the celebrating Erik Zabel. Last year, he won a wide-open sprint straight down the heart of the peloton. The Spanish speedster looks to be firing at all cylinders and will be the five-star favorite to win a third San Remo to go along with his three rainbow jerseys.

Rabobank: Marc De Maar (Ned), Juan Antonio Flecha (Spa), Oscar Freire (Spa), Pedro Horrillo (Spa), Sebastian Langeveld (Ned), Koos Moerenhout (Ned), Paul Martens (Ger), Grischa Niermann (Ger)

Quick Step: Second won’t count

Nothing short of victory will count for Quick Step, a team that lives and dies by the spring classics. Tom Boonen has pegged Milan-San Remo as one of his top goals of the season and chose Tirreno-Adriatico over Paris-Nice to prepare quietly on Italian roads. Boonen is so big now he doesn’t have the same pressure to win all year, so long as he rises to the occasion when it counts. Paolo Bettini, meanwhile, knows what it is to win on the Via Roma and will be out to show off the rainbow jersey in Italy’s most important one-day race. Italian national champ Giovanni Visconti will be a third option.

Quick Step: Carlos Barredo (Spa), Paolo Bettini (Ita), Tom Boonen (Bel), Wilfried Cretskens (Bel), Gert Steegmans (Bel), Andrea Tonti (Ita), Matteo Tosatto (Ita) and Giovanni Visconti (Ita)

Milram: Zabel for Petacchi

Milram lines up with two former winners, but many are wondering if their stars have ridden past their prime. Four-time champ Erik Zabel, who’s already admitted he’s not up to snuff to challenge against younger engines, will be at the services of 2005 winner Alessandro Petacchi. Zabel, 37, has evolved into a final setup man for Ale-Jet. Petacchi, 34, looks to be back at his best following his injury-plagued 2006 season, but is always questionable to clear the Poggio in good position. Petacchi promises he will and vows to win to erase the bad memories and frustration of the past two seasons.

Milram: Christian Knees (Ger), Marti Muller (Ger), Alberto Ongarato (Ita), Alessandro Petacchi (Ita), Fabio Sabatini (Ita), Niki Terpstra (Ned), Marco Velo (Ita), Erik Zabel (Ger)

Liquigas: Pozzato steps up

Filippo Pozzato moved to Liquigas to be the team’s outright leader for the classics. Popo wants to prove his 2006 victory was no fluke and show he deserves the marquee attention. Pozzato is one of the classiest riders in the bunch, but likely need to try something on the Cipressa and Poggio to improve his chances in a smaller group rather than a mass gallop.

Liquigas: Filippo Pozzato (Ita), Michael Albasini (Ita), Kjell Carlstrom (Fin), Claudio Corioni (Ita), Murilo Fischer (Bra), Aleksandr Kuschynski (Blr), Franco Pellizotti (Ita) and Manuel Quinziato (Ita)

Crédit Agricole: All for Thor

Thor Hushovd looks to be in his best shape ever for San Remo. A winner of the Paris-Nice prologue when he’d rather be training at Tirreno-Adriatico (his team wasn’t invited), Hushovd was making it over the climbs with the first group in several of the hard mountain stages. Third in 2005, Hushovd is targeting this weekend as one of his season’s top goals.

Crédit Agricole: Eric Berthou (Fra), Alexandre Botcharov (Rus), Dmitriy Fofonov (Kaz), Simon Gerrans (Aus), Sébastien Hinault (Fra), Thor Hushovd (Nor), Jeremy Hunt (GBr), Gabriel Rasch (Nor)

Cofidis: Nuyens, Chavanel double-trouble

Without a pure sprinter, the Cofidis team will try its hand with something over the Poggio. Nick Nuyens, better suited for the northern classics, will be looking to prove his worth to the team with a strong showing. Sylvain Chavanel, buoyed by a stage win and top 10 in last week’s Paris-Nice, might have the legs to spring a surprise attack.

Cofidis: Sylvain Chavanel (Fra), Kevin De Weert (Bel), Frank Hoj (Den), Sébastien
Minard (Fra), Maxime Monfort (Bel), Nick Nuyens (Bel), Staf Scheirlinckx
(Bel), Tristan Valentin (Fra)

CSC: Cancellara a wildcard

He’s not a pure sprinter, but Team CSC’s Fabian Cancellara is strong enough to be a major factor after such a long race. With the final finishing straight almost one kilometer longer due to work on the traditional run up the Via Roma favors, Cancellara could unleash a late attack in the final kilometer and hold off the bunch sprint, just like he did last year in Compiegne in the Tour de France. Stuart O’Grady, third in 2004 and fifth last year, will be the team’s best bet for a bunch sprint. A banged up Frank Schleck, who crashed twice at Paris-Nice, will make a move on the Poggio if he’s not hurting too much.

Team CSC: Kurt-Asle Arvesen (Nor), Lars Bak (Den), Matti Breschel (Den), Fabian Cancellara (Swi), Karsten Kroon (Ned), Marcus Ljungqvist (Swe), Stuart O’Grady (Aus), Frank Schleck (Lux)

Lampre: Ballan, Napolitano with options

Tour of Flanders champ Alessandro Ballan will have license to attack on the Cipressa and Poggio. Banged up from a crash in the final stage at Tirreno-Adriatico, Ballan otherwise looks to be hitting form just in time for the classics. He’ll want to peak on the cobblestones next month, but the lean Italian has the class to be a factor. Danilo Napolitano and Mirco Lorenzetto will be team’s options in the bunch sprint.

Lampre: Fabio Baldato (Ita), Alessandro Ballan (Ita), Marzio Bruseghin (ITa), Paolo Bossoni (Ita), Mirco Lorenzetto (Ita), Danilo Napolitano (Ita), Christian Murro (Ita), Patxi Vila (Spa)

Saunier Duval: Ricco suave

Riccardo Ricco is questionable following his nasty spill in last week’s Tirreno-Adriatico. The precocious attacker is suffering from back and hip pain and will consult a chiropractor before deciding whether he’ll start. Ricco lit up the race last year with a searing attack over the Poggio and promises to do the same until he manages to win Milan-San Remo. If Ricco doesn’t start, Luciano Pagliarini will take his spot.

Saunier Duval: Raivis Belohvosciks (Lat), Alberto Benitez (Spa), Eros Capecchi (Ita), Ermanno Capelli (Ita), Angel Litu Gomez (Spa), Manuele Mori (Ita), Aurélien Passeron (Fra), Riccardo Ricco (Ita)

Silence: With a few options

Robbie McEwen is undoubtedly one of cycling’s most lethal sprinters, but he’s never managed to win a big classic. Call it bad luck or maybe that north of 200km the pocket rocket loses his finish-line acceleration. Either way, he’ll be out to prove something in the sprint. A second option is rising prospect Greg Van Avermaet, who will be keen to make it over the Poggio with the top sprinters, just to learn if nothing else. Yaroslav Popovych, third at Paris-Nice, likes to attack on the Poggio while the rest of the team looks to be on a long training ride for the northern classics.

Silence-Lotto: Robbie McEwen (Aus), Yaroslav Popovych (Urkr), Mario Aerts, Leif Hoste, Maarten Tjallingii, Greg Van Avermaet, Wim Vansevenant, Johan Van Summeren (all Bel)

High Road: Hincapie and Co.

High Road brings a loaded team primed to surprise the favorites. Gerald Ciolek and Vicente Reynes will be team’s cards to play in the sprint while Kim Kirchen, Roger Hammond and a super-motivated George Hincapie, back in the classics after breaking his arm last year, will be champing at the bit to attack on the Poggio.

High Road: Gerald Ciolek (Ger), Bernhard Eisel (Aut), Roger Hammond (GBr), George Hincapie (USA), Kim Kirchen (Lux), Andreas Klier (Ger), Thomas Lovkvist (Swe), Vicente Reynes (Spa)

Slipstream: Riding to impress

Slipstream-Chipotle will be out to prove it can fight in the big one-day classics with the big boys. It brings its big hitters, but ex-Paris-Roubaix champ Magnus Backstedt is still on the mend from his broken collarbone suffered at the Tour of Qatar. Chris Sutton and Julian Dean will be the team’s options for a bunch sprint.

Slipstream-Chipotle: Magnus Backstedt (Swe), Julian Dean (NZl), Tyler Farrar (USA), Mike Friedman (USA), William Frischkorn (USA), Martijn Maaskant (Ned), David Millar (GBr), Chris Sutton (Aus)

Caisse d’Epargne: Rodriguez sleeper

Alejandro Valverde is betting everything this year on the Tour de France and the Olympic Games and will skip San Remo to race at the Cholet-Pays de Loire in France instead. The Spanish team will rally around strong finisseur José Joaquin Rojas and let Joaquin Rodriguez go on the attack. Rodriguez, winner of the difficult climbing stage at Montelupone at Tirreno-Adriatico last week, is in top form.

Caisse d’Epargne: Arnaud Coyot (Fra), Imanol Erviti (Spa), Ivan Gutierrez (Spa), Vladimir Karpets (Rus), Pablo Lastras (Spa), Luis Pasamontes (Spa), Joaquin Rodriguez (Spa), José Joaquin Rojas (Spa).

FDJeux: Gilbert to attack

Philippe Gilbert will be the best hope for the French team. Gilbert, 26, has been one of the strongest riders this spring, winning Het Volk in a daring solo raid. Two stage wins and the overall at the Mallorca Challenge in February revealed the Belgian puncheur is on good form this year. Last year, Gilbert tried his luck with an attack over the Poggio and will be looking to improve on his career-best sixth from 2005.

Française des Jeux: Sébastian Chavanel (Fra), Mickael Delange (Fra), Philippe Gilbert (Bel), Frédéric Guesdon (Fra), Gianni Meersman (Bel), Christophe Mengin (Fra), Yoann Offredo (Fra)

Euskaltel: Strangers in strange land

The lean Basque climbers typically get beat up in San Remo’s long distance and brutal speeds. The team’s pure sprinter, Koldo Férnandez, won’t be racing, but newcomer Aitor Galdós could be a factor if he makes it over the Poggio. Riders like Iñigo Landaluze and Egoi Martínez will look to be in the mix over the Cipressa.

Euskaltel-Euskadi: Rubén Pérez, Iñigo Landaluze, Antton Luengo, Aitor Galdós, Juanjo Oroz, Alan Pérez, Egoi Martínez and Javier Aramendía (all Spa)

Ag2r: Few options in sprint

Another team without a sprinter, Ag2r-La Mondiale will try to sneak some of its riders into a late move and drive it to the finish ahead of the pack. Rinaldo Nocentini, fresh off finishing second at Paris-Nice by just three seconds, will test his legs on the Poggio.

Ag2r-La Mondiale: Martin Elmiger (Swi), Sylvain Calzati (Fra), Renaud Dion (Fra), Yuriy Krivstov (Ukr), Rene Mandri (Est), Lloyd Mondory (Fra), Rinaldo Nocentini (Ita), Alexandre Usov (Blr

Barloworld: Hunter, Cooke

Following its breakthrough ride in last year’s Tour de France, Barloworld will be keen to prove it can compete in the big classics. Veteran sprinter Robert Hunter and Aussie fast-man Baden Cooke will be the team’s two options in the bunch sprint. It will be interesting to see if Colombian climber Mauricio Soler tries anything on the Cipressa and Poggio, but neither one of those climbs are truly long enough for his liking.

Barloworld: Patrick Calcagni (Swi), Giampaolo Cheula (Ita), Baden Cooke (Aus), Enrico Gasparotto (Ita), Robert Hunter (RSA), Paolo Longo Borghini (Ita), Carlo Scognamiglio (Ita), Mauricio Soler (Col)

Gerolsteiner: Rebellin dreams

Davide Rebellin still has some unfinished business with the classics, but even he admits he’s a longshot for San Remo. The hills aren’t hard enough and his sprint isn’t fast enough, so watch for the recently crowned Paris-Nice winner to try something on the final two climbs. Fabian Wegmann and Stephan Schumacher will also try to attack while Andrea Moletta is back after breaking his leg last year.

Gerolsteiner: Davide Rebellin (Ita), Heinrich Haussler (Ger), Bernhard Kohl (Aut), Andrea Moletta (Ita), Stephan Schreck (Ger), Fabian Wegmann (Ger), Stefan Schumacher (Ger) and Peter Wrolich (Aut)

Bouygues Telecom: Florencio

Xavier Florencio won the 2006 Clásica San Sebastían with a long sprint to surprise the pre-race favorites. Bouygues would be happy to see its Spanish sprinter arrive to the finale to fight for a spot in the top 10.

Bouygues Telecom: Xavier Florencio (Spa), Anthony Geslin (Fra), Vicent Jerome (Fra), Arnaud Labbe (Spa), Alexandre Pichot (Fra), Rony Martias (Fra) and Sebastian Turgot (Fra)

Navigare: Breakaway artists

With such riders as Giro-stage winner Emanuele Sella and Luis Laverde, CSF Group-Navigare will want to put one of its riders into an early breakaway. The Richeze brothers have some finishing speed to liven up the bunch.

CSF Group-Navigare: Emanuele Sella (Ita), Francesco Tomei (Ita), Luis Laverde (Col), Tiziano Dall’Antonia (Ita), Matteo Priamo (Ita), Max Richeze (Arg), Filippo Savini (Ita) and Mauro Richeze (Arg)

Diquigiovanni: Hondo comeback

German sprinter Danilo Hondo — second in 2005 just weeks before news broke that he failed a doping control – will be back for a run at the sprint. Now 33, Hondo will be happy to make it over the Poggio with the leaders. The veteran team will be looking to place one of its riders into the early break to satisfy team capo, Gianni Savio.

Diquigiovanni-Androni: Alessandro Bertolini (Ita), Francesco Ginanni (Ita), Danilo Hondo (Ger), Daniele Nardello (Ita), Niklas Axelsson (Swe), Gabriele Missaglia (Ita), Raffaele Illiano (Ita) and Jose Serpa (Col)

LPR: Di Luca outsider

Danilo Di Luca might be under the gun from Italian anti-doping officials, but he’s been able to keep racing. More at home in the hillier Ardennes classics, Di Luca might try something on the Poggio to show everyone he’s still kicking.

LPR: Danilo Di Luca, Paolo Savoldelli, Paolo Bailetti, Riccardo Chiarni, Giairo Ermeti, Raffaele Ferrara, Roberto Ferrar and Daniele Pietropolli (all Ita)

Miche-Silver Cross: Late addition

The modest team will bring sprinter Enrico Degano, climber Massimo Giunti, Polish rider Przemyslaw Niemec and Eddy Serri, winning of the Giro di Mendrisiotto last weekend in Italy. The team was a late addition by race organizers to bring the team count up to 25.

Miche-Silver Cross: Przemyslaw Niemiec (Pol), Krzysztof Szczawinkski (Pol), Massimo Giunti, Enrico Degano, Pascuale Muto, Eddy Serri, Lorenzo Cardenelli, Nicola D’Andrea (all Ita)

NGC Medical-OTC: Modest ambitions

This all-Italian team was picked to give a boost to up-and-coming Italian teams looking to break in against better-funded squads. This young squad (all of its riders are born in the 1980s) would be happy with putting a man into the day’s early breakaway to earn its sponsors to valued TV time.

NGC Medical-OTC: Piergiorgio Camussa, Donato Cannone, Marco Corsini, Massimiliano Maisto, Diego Nosotti, Francesco Reda, Enrico Rossi, Alessio Signego (all Ita)

Tinkoff: Looking to impress

Tinkoff Credit Systems continues to impress with solid attacks and results in its Italy-heavy racing schedule. Mikhail Ignatiev might not start, depending on how his schedule shakes out for the world track championships. Ricardo Serrano and Pavel Brutt can be expected to attack while the team saves Daniele Contrini for the sprint.

Tinkoff Credit Systems: Daniele Contrini (Ita), Luca Mazzanti (Ita), Ricardo Serrano (Spa), Alberto Loddo (Ita), Alexander Serov, Mikhail Ignatiev, Nikolai Trussov and Pavel Brutt (all Rus)