2015 Milan-San Remo preview

by Mikkel Conde


It’s time for the first Monument of the season. Milan-San Remo is one of the most unpredictable races on the calendar. Both attackers and sprinters will claim they have a good chance to win but anything can happen come Sunday. Mikkel Conde put together this preview of “La Primavera” looking at the course and the favourites.

The route

The course for Milan-San Remo never differs much from year to year. The organisers already took out the climb of Le Manie last year and without adding the infamous Pompeiana ascent, there isn’t much climbing left to do in this year’s edition.

From the start in Milan, the first 120km are flat. In Ovada, the road gently starts to kick up. The gradients are very low and no riders should really be in trouble as the peloton crests Passo del Turchino, the summit of which comes with 150km still to go.

The following 100km are more or less flat but this ends when the riders take on Capo Mele, Capo Cervo and Capo Berta within the next 15km. This is when the team leaders start to move up in the peloton. From the top of Capo Berta, there are just about 10km until the peloton starts on the Cipressa climb.

The 5.5km towards the top have an average gradient of 4.1% with parts of 9% halfway through the climb. This is most likely where we will see the first serious attacks in the peloton.

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Coming down from the Cipressa, the route is flat for about 9km until the final struggle of the day begins. The Poggio is only 3.7km long and while its average gradient of less than 4% may not sound so hard, it will have a huge impact on the final outcome.

The riders start on the climb after 283km on the bike. For those riders who are not fast on the line it’s the last chance to attack, meaning the pace will be furious. The maximum gradient of 8% comes just before the top, making it an ideal place to attack for strong riders who can’t win in a bunch sprint.

The descent is very technical. A good descender should be able to hold off the chase group before hitting the flat part.

The ‘new’ old finish on Via Roma is located just 2km after the descent from the Poggio. On paper, it favours the opportunistic riders. However, the last time it was used, in 2007, the peloton still managed to catch the front group (Philippe Gilbert and Riccardo Riccò) just before the last-kilometre banner to make sure it all ended in a sprint, which was won by Oscar Freire.

In the past two years Milan-San Remo has been raced in horrible weather conditions. Snow and rain have followed the riders and, unfortunately, it seems the tradition will continue this year. The temperatures will not be as bad as in 2013 but 30km in the rain can, psychologically, ruin the race for many riders even before the start is given on Sunday morning.

The favourites

As mentioned earlier, this is one of the most unpredictable races of the season. No matter the course, the question “will the breakaway make it”, always dominates the discussions about Milan-San Remo. On one hand, you can argue that the lack of climbs favours the sprinters. On the other hand, however, the attackers now have a better chance of making it with only 2km to go after the technical descent from the Poggio.

It all depends on how hard the race has been when the peloton starts on the final climbs and whether there is a headwind on the slopes towards the top of the Poggio. In case this year’s race ends in a sprint, the two top favorites must be Mark Cavendish (Etixx-Quick-Step) and Alexander Kristoff (Katusha). Both have won the race in the past; Cavendish in 2009 and Kristoff last year.

Winning on the traditional finish on Via Roma has always been a dream for Mark Cavendish. All his focus in this first part of the season has been on Milan-San Remo. He has already won five bunch sprints this year, beating most of his main rivals. However, a stomach virus just before Tirreno-Adriatico did set him back a little. He never got to sprint for the win in the Italian stage race and decided to withdraw on the penultimate day, in order to not get sick in the rain.

It’s hard to say if Mark Cavendish is on the level he needs to be to win this race. What is certain though, is that he has a very strong team to support him. Zdenek Stybar and Michael Kwiatkowski are both among the top outsiders to win this race.

Mark Cavendish pips Heinrich Haussler on the line to win the 2009 Milan-San Remo.

If Cavendish feels good as the peloton starts on Poggio, both should probably stay with him. However, if the Manxman is not on top of his game, Kwiatkowski will probably try an attack over the top. The Pole is an excellent descender and fast on the line too. He has a huge motor and he will be very difficult to catch, should he get a gap on the descent.

While Etixx has a few cards to play, Katusha should put all their focus on Alexander Kristoff. The big Norwegian has had a great start to the season, winning bunch sprints in all three stage races he has taken part in.

Katusha didn’t give him much support in Paris-Nice, but Kristoff still managed to win stage 1. It must have given him a huge confidence boost, knowing he’s capable of winning even with very little help. Imagine what he can do with a full team backing him.

Few riders are as strong as Kristoff after more than 250km on the bike. This is what makes him such a hot favourite for the Classics. While many of the sprinters will lose their edge in these long races, Kristoff’s raw power gives him a huge advantage. Coming from Norway, the bad weather won’t hold him back either. It will be very tough to beat Alexander Kristoff in a sprint this Sunday afternoon.

In case a breakaway does make it all the way, my prime pick would be Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing Team). The Belgian knows he has to attack on the Poggio in order to win. He has tried many times before but never managed to pull it off.

Phillippe Gilbert tried attacking on the Cipressa descent in the 2013 Milan-San Remo. Expect to see him make his move on the Poggio this time around.

Milan-San Remo is a big target for Gilbert. According to the BMC captain himself, this is the race he most wants to win this year. Gilbert has a strong-enough punch to make a selection on the Poggio. He’s good on the descent and very fast on the line in a small group. To me, it will be a huge surprise not to see him attack.

Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) is another very hot favourite for a late attack. The Swiss arrives with big morale after winning the final time trial in Tirreno-Adriatico. On his best days, Cancellara won’t have problems following the attacks on Poggio. He’s also one of the best descenders in the peloton and, after a long race, he’s extremely fast on the line.

Don’t forget that he finished second in the bunch sprint behind Kristoff last year. Cancellara is probably also one of the few riders able to attack on the last two flat kilometers and keep the peloton behind him.

According to the bookmakers, Peter Sagan is the top favourite for the win. I don’t agree. It’s true that Sagan has all the right qualities to win though. He’s strong on these type of climbs, he’s good on the descent and very fast on the line. However, he’s not as fast as Kristoff, Cavendish and some of the other sprinters. Therefore, he has to attack.

Peter Sagan was second at the 2013 edition of Milan-San Remo; his best result yet. Could he go one better this weekend?

The question then is; who wants to get away in a group with Peter Sagan? Imagine Sagan, Cancellara, Gilbert and a few others get a gap on Poggio. Do the other riders really want to work, knowing Sagan’s fast finish? Just a slight moment of hesitation can ruin the breakaway’s chances of keeping the peloton at bay.

The outsiders

Except for Michael Kwiatkowski, whom I already mentioned, my two personal outsiders for this year’s Milan-San Remo are Juanjo Lobato (Movistar) and Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge).

Juanjo Lobato has had his eyes on this race for a very long time. It’s his biggest goal of the season and he has proven to be in outstanding shape this year. He’s 2.5kg lighter than last year but he hasn’t lost any speed in the sprints.

He almost humiliated his rivals at the Tour Down Under and Ruta del Sol, winning the slightly uphill sprints very easily. However, it’s not only when the road kicks up that the Spaniard is good. He finished second behind Marcel Kittel in the opening Tour Down Under curtain-raiser criterium in Australia and placed fifth and third in the two flat sprints in Dubai Tour.

Unlike most the riders at Milan-San Remo, Lobato didn’t take part in Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico. Instead of suffering in the rain, he has been simulating race speed by training long hours behind a moto home in Spain in great weather conditions.

Recently he pulled of a 285km training ride, behind a moto, with an average speed of 43.8km/h. There is no doubt that Juanjo Lobato is ready for this race. He finished fourth last year. This time, he’s ready to make it onto the podium.

Juanjo Lobato has had a great start to the year and desperately wants to win Milan-San Remo.

I had Michael Matthews as one of my outsiders for Milan-San Remo last year as well. However, the young Australian didn’t have a good day and never finished the race. Now he’s ready to take revenge. He has only raced in Paris-Nice this season but there he proved to be in extremely good shape. He won stage 3 and got to wear almost all the different leader’s jerseys at some point during the race.

A few extra climbs to tire out the sprinters would have upped Matthews’ chances in this race. On the contrary to what most people think, he’s not sprinter. He’s indeed very fast, but his forte is on the undulating courses. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if he — like Gerald Ciolek did in 2013 — joined a strong attack on Poggio. He clearly has legs to do so.

Orica-GreenEdge is fully committed to help Michael Matthews reach the podium and when he has a full team working for him Bling almost always delivers. It would be a big mistake to underestimate him on Sunday.

Michael Matthews comes to Milan-San Remo as Orica-GreenEdge’s main man. He recently won a stage of Paris-Nice and is in ominous form.

For other strong riders, who can both follow attacks on Poggio and fight for the win in a bunch sprint, look to former winner Gerald Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka), the in-shape Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin) who was unlucky to puncture at a crucial moment last year. In case a big peloton arrives together for the sprint, don’t count out guys like Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek), Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal), Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) and last year’s number three Ben Swift (Sky).

For breakaway candidates, keep an eye on Edvald Boasson Hagen (MTN Qhubeka), Ian Stannard (Sky), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Sylvain Chavanel (IAM). Lampre-Merida has no less than four solid candidates on the start line: Filippo Pozzato and Rui Costa for the breakaways and Niccolo Bonifazio and Davide Cimolai for the sprint. Cimolai, in particular, looked very strong at Paris-Nice last week.

For a super joker, look to Moreno Moser (Cannondale-Garmin). The young Italian didn’t have a good season last year. Now, Michele Bartoli is training him and that, together with a change of mentality, seems to have brought Moser back on track again. He did very well in Australia in January and finished off Tirreno-Adriatico on a good note earlier this week.

Milan-San Remo is a big goal for Moser. He knows he can’t win in a bunch sprint and, therefore, he has to ride aggressively. He dreams of a solo win on Via Roma. It will be extremely difficult to pull off such a thing but on his best days, Moreno Moser has proven to be capable of just that.

Watching the race

For fans in Australia, SBS will have free-to-air coverage of the race from 11:45pm on Sunday night (AEST) through to 3am on Monday morning. For viewers outside of Australia, be sure to check your local guides.

To follow the race on Twitter, check out the hashtags #MSR and #MilanSanRemo.

So, who’s your pick and how will they win it?

Check out more of Mikkel Conde’s previews and other articles at his website, C-Cycling.

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