Milan San Remo Preview by James Hyatt
La Classica Di Primerva is racing in its purest form. At over 294km, it takes one back to the very roots of our sport, where the sheer brutality of race directors knew no limits. In the relative comfort of the modern day peloton, it is the riders who keep this race as hard as any of its peers. No cobbles? No problem. This race will still split the men from the boys.
The 2014 edition see’s the race return to its rightful owners, the sprinters. With the exclusion of the Pompeiana due to landslide concerns, expect to see a large pack screaming down the Poggio and into San Remo. Having written this race off earlier in the year, Cavendish is just one of many sprinters licking their lips at the prospect of bagging a major classic.
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Eugengio Costmagna, the then head of the Gazzetta Dello Sport, first proposed this race in 1907 without even knowing if it was humanly possible to complete the distance. When the legendary Lucien Petit-Breton (THAT moustache) rolled into San Remo that year as victor the benchmark was set, for what was to become one of the 5 most iconic one day races in the professional calendar over 100 years later.
Throughout the 104 editions of this race (breaking just 3 times due to the war), the race has veered back and forth between larger sprint finishes and smaller selections, normally made on the Cippressa or Poggio. The one thing that has never changed is the quality of riders who come to the fore when the race gets serious. The roll call of this race is a beautiful homage to the sport’s greats, including Coppi, Bartoli, Merkxx (7 times) and even some of our own in Tom Simpson and Mark Cavendish.
A 4 time victor, Eric Zabel can testify to the cruelty just as much as the beauty of this race, after he lost what would have been a remarkable 5th title. It was 2004 and with less then a meter to go the race was won, a jubilant Zabel threw his hands into the air in celebration, unaware that the wiry Oscar ‘The Cat’ Ferire was in fact sneaking past him to steel the win (the first of his 3). Proof that this race is truly alive until the very last.
Last years race was heavily affected by atrocious weather conditions, a prologue perhaps for the rest of the season. Despite rolling out on time, the RCS were forced to pull riders off the road and back into the buses for a 2 hour break, as many parts of the route were left impassable by driving snow.
In true classics style, a weathered and depleted peloton approached San Remo. With rain still falling and dusk creeping in, the stage was set for an epic battle between Spartacus himself; Mr. Fabian Cancellelara, and the sports young pretender: Peter Sagan. However, a certain Gerald Ciolk of the new African team MTN Quebeka was able to sneak onto their tail and an upset was suddenly on the cards. Whether conscious of Ciolk’s strong sprint or just over-confident, Sagan kicked all too early and Ciolk, in fine predatory form tracked him down and ripped victory away from the young Slovakian. Despair for Sagan but unparalleled joy for the German and his new African team. In a sport so often (and rightly so) criticized for its lack of diversity, this was a historic win.
2014 is shaping up to be a vintage year for Milan San Remo. The course change has opened up the list of winners dramatically and it will be fascinating to see the battle between the true classics riders (Cancellara, Sagan, Phiney, Gilbert) and the sprinters (Cavendish, Griepel, Degenkolb).
More then ever I think this will be a race between the teams as much as the individuals. Multiple times this year we’ve seen Omega Phama Quickstep dominate races emphatically and we expect them to factor heavily here. Much like Wiggins, Cav’ has utmost respect for this sport’s past and he knows more than anyone the importance of winning this race again. His form has been slow starting but impressive nonetheless and his recent win at Tierreno highlights that. A ‘best of the rest’ 9th last year shows he can still cut it over this distance and I expect a big performance from the ‘Manx Missile’.
Team Sky are another team who will certainly be strong and present at the front of the pack but as ever the question over star quality remains. Yes Ian Stannard produced a ‘coming of age’ performance at Omloop, adding to his impressive display at last year’s Milan San Remo but it is a huge ask of the essex boy to pull this one out the bag. Geraint Thomas is another who’s strong & capable but after last weekend’s crash it’s tough to see him coming out on top here.
Cancellara is always high on the favorites list but with few signs of form so far this year and his sights firmly set later on in the season, I do not expect him to ‘ride away’ with this as we’ve so often seen from the strongman. Former winner Simon Gerrans (Orica) and Classic specialist Philippe Gilbert (BMC) are another couple of riders who have penciled this race as a major target this year, expect to see them play a part in the finale but again I feel a win maybe a tall order for both.
Giant-Shimano will certainly be interesting to watch this year . Marcel Kittel has gamely agreed to allow John Degenkolb to remain in the sole leadership role despite the change of route suiting him, a mature decision that reflects the harmony and good will in that team. Whilst not performing outstandingly in the classics, he has produced a series of strong top 15 performances over the last couple of years and is a rider who gets stronger as the race gets longer. Couple this ability with the fine form he has already showed this season and a strong team, he is my outside bet for Sunday’s showdown.
So that leaves us with the wonder boy himself, Peter Sagan. Is there anyone that can stop him this year? Despite a series of mistakes + near misses in 2013, his hit rate in these races is outstanding. One year on, expect a wiser & stronger Sagan to be formidable and there are very few people looking past him for this year’s title. Cannondale will also be looking to prove a point to Sagan that they can support & deliver him to victory on the grandest scale, with his contract expiring at the end of this year.
If there is one thing we can confidently predict for this year’s Milan San Remo, it’s that it is going to be one hell of spectacle. Thunderstorms are forecast for Sunday and whilst the cold won’t be as much of a factor as 2013, rain + wind can dramatically change the complexion of this race. The era of Eugengio Costmagna, fixed gear bikes and zero feeding may have past but the sentiment remains, this truly is, ‘the hardest race to win’.