Saturday, 16 March 2013

Milan-San Remo 2013: The Contenders


So, Sunday presents us with the first monument of the season, a real spring classic and by far the longest race on the calendar (at 298km the UCI grant the race special permission to breach it's 250km limit) and if the wider press is to be believed, it's a two horse race. Fabian Cancellara versus Peter Sagan - a war of words is underway between the two, adding to the potential drama on race day but there are plenty of other riders in with a chance of victory. There are plenty of race previews doing the rounds and for a full race preview see here but today I'm going to focus on the contenders...

The Big Guns
There are two main contenders in the frame for this years race and both are enormously talented in form riders - if anybody else wants to beat these two then they will have to put in the ride of their lives. Here are Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan:

Fabian Cancellara (Radioshack)
This race seems to hold something dear to Fabian Cancellara and it's always an early season target of his. With one previous victory to his name and several podium places over the years Spartacus once again believes that this year will be his year. One thing is for sure, he talks a good race as a war of words breaks out between himself and his biggest rival Peter Sagan: "I'll ride my race and he and the Cannondale team will ride their race. I have my ideas how I'm going to race Milan-San Remo but I'm going to keep them to myself. It all depends on how the race goes. He wasn't such a gentleman with me, so I'd probably break it down, I wouldn't pull if we got away. It all depends who is in the group but I don't think I'll take riders to the finish like I did last year. No." Cancellara is always there or thereabouts in these long, hard races - he's a pure powerhouse and capable of beating anybody on his day. The problem is, in recent years he has picked up a habit of dragging everybody to the line, only for one of them to nip out from behind and beat him in the sprint, riders simply aren't dropping off his wheel like they used to. If Cancellara wants to win here, it might require a real change of tactic.

Peter Sagan (Cannondale)
Sagan, a clear race favourite?
This brings us nicely onto Peter Sagan. Put simply, this is Sagans race to lose - he is the clear favourite and for good reason. He's a rider who always seems in form, no task is to big or small and recent comparison's with Eddy Merckx tell us all we need to know. He is young but already a giant of the peloton with riders much older and wiser citing his incredible talents as the stuff of 'superhumans'. Sagan can mix it up in the sprints beating the likes of Cavendish and Greipel (see Tirreno-Adriatico) and yet ride away from pretty much everybody on a 27% climb (see Tirreno-Adriatico). He's the full package and this is where he hit back at Cancellara: "This year if I'm in front with Cancellara, the risk for him is that if we get pulled back, then he won't win the bunch sprint whereas I can still try and win in a group sprint," Sagan said. "I have two chances. So if he doesn't work on the front, maybe I'll just wait for the group with him, I don't know. If he's talking like that about me, saying that he wouldn't do turns with me on the front, then maybe he is a bit afraid and that's to my advantage, no?" The point Sagan makes is a good one, he can win alone or in a sprint. He's certainly going to be hard to beat either way, though this could be his downfall - he will be a marked man and will find it hard to slip away on the Poggio (the final climb before the run in to the finish) so may have to take his chances in a bunch finish.

Next In Line
If we are talking about Sagan then it's only fair to assume some of those with his qualities will be in the running for victory too, so step up Phil Gilbert and Sylvain Chavanel...

Philippe Gilbert (BMC)
After a really rough 2012 Gilbert tells us he's back on form, and an in-from Gilbert is an extremely dangerous prospect. He's not bad in a bunch sprint, especially one that comes at the end of 300km as he handles the distance much better than others but it's on the Poggio where Gilbert will look to make a decisive move. If he can jump away here or drag a select group of riders with him then his chances in a sprint would be far greater - the issue with this strategy is that one of those riders likely to attach himself to the back of Gilberts wheel on the Poggio will be Peter Sagan. Ouch.

Sylvain Chavanel (OPQS)
Much the same as Gilbert above though his form seems a little better. Chavanel made a valiant attempt to take overall victory in Tirreno-Adriatico but just couldn't hang on with the big guns - he might be looking to make up for it here. The distance definitely isn't a problem for the Frenchman and he could eat the Poggio for breakfast. If he's there at the finish and Sagan isn't then he could even be a contender for the sprint victory, showing his sprinters legs on stage 6 of Tirreno.

Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky)
Will less racing, more training
work for Eddy Boss?
We haven't seen much of EBH this year and it took some consideration whether or not to add him to the list. Like those above he has been touted as a future monument winner. He has a kick which will see him over the Poggio and is certainly a powerful rider - it is, though, yet to be seen if EBH really can go the distance, he has target these races before and has struggled more than expected so he's a bit of an unknown entity. He's been hidden away in Tenerife training under Sky's new 'less racing more training' strategy and his performance may be an early indication into just how this well this strategy will work.

The Sprinters
If nobody breaks free on the Poggio then we have to assume the victor will arise from a bunch sprint and there are plenty of dangerous riders who could take aim at the title here...

Mark Cavendish (OPQS)
Last year Cavendish was marked out as the favourite but got dropped on the Le Manie looking a little out of form and carrying some extra weight. The Manxman has of course won here before with HTC and singles this race out as one of his favourites. It's clear in a recent Milan-San Remo documentary just what this race means to Cavendish and though he's talked it down I expect to see him go all out to win this race. Pressure was on last year and it showed but this year his name has been mentioned relatively little which will play into his hands - if it ends in a proper bunch sprint, I'll be backing Cavendish for the win.
Can Cavendish make it two?

Andre Greipel (Lotto)
The immensely powerful German is Mark Cavendish's biggest rival in any sprint and has already racked up an impressive number of wins this year (he was last years most prolific victor) and if the Gorilla looks too big to make it over the climbs then don't be fooled. He made it up the 27% climb in Tirreno last week in a stage described by many as the hardest they have ever ridden and for some it will be no surprise - afterall, he is a former Junior hill-climb champion. If he hangs on to the finish he's as good a chance as any to take the win.

Matthew Goss (Orica GreenEdge)
Another sprinter who can go the difference, Goss did struggle last year and it's hard not to looking at the current crop of sprinters. Goss did however take a fantastic victory in Tirreno-Adriatico last week announcing his return to the top tier with style and showing that if there is a sprinter peaking in form right now, it's possibly him.

Best Of The Rest
Of course, it's impossible to write a definitive list of contenders for a race like this - this is bicycle racing, literally anything can happen and any one of a 100 or more riders could conceivably win here, but here's a few of those with a better chance than most...

Like Philippe Gilbert, team-mate Thor Hushovd (BMC) looks to be coming into form once again after an awful 2012 and there are not many riders stronger than the God of Thunder. If there is one name you will see a lot during the classics but who often goes under the radar it's Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and if the race is long and hard, bet your life his name will crop up again. Other riders who are tipped for classics success include Yoann Offredo (FDJ) who is famed for staying fresh over distances like these to the point where it's now his trademark. Geraint Thomas (Sky) looked good in February and is clear that the classics are his target this year so watch out for him too and finally after Pippo Pozzatos (Lampre) embarrassment crossing the line in Roma Maxima assuming victory when in fact he finished second he will be looking to win for real here and he certainly looks to have the legs.

In the world of sprint finishing, yesterday Daniele Bennati (Saxobank) tweeted his admiration and thanks to Alberto Contador who helped him finish second in the GP Nobili, if Bennati keeps his form he's more than capable of winning a sprint. Another good sprinter who has been tipped for the win is Argos-Shimano's John Degenkob, free of injury and a powerful rider look out for him crossing the finish line.

Even Nibali could do well here.
If you assume this race is one for Classics specialists and sprinters then don't be fooled as a win here could come from those more likely to take stage races and Grand Tours. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) looked supremely strong winning Tirreno-Adriatico ahead of Alberto Contador and Chris Froome and it's short climbs like the Poggio where the Italian rider can make the difference, if he jumps here he could stay away on the descent and run-in to the finish where his strengths are all to familiar and take victory for himself.

Conclusion

It's a long day in the saddle, 298km and 7 hours of riding will sort the men from the boys and the winners from the losers. It's the first monument of the year and announces the start of the really gritty one-day classics. The winner here will be a very strong, in-form rider and it would be worth keeping an eye on them throughout the Flandrian classics too. If I was pushed to pick a winner then for the pure capability and varied scenarios in which he could win then I would have to pick Peter Sagan but that's just one name out of many capable of winning here. Cycling is exciting thanks largely due to it's unpredictable nature and Milan-San Remo really is a race that will hold your attention right to the finish line...

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