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by Matt de Neef
March 18, 2016
At nearly 300km in length, Milan-San Remo is the longest one-day bike race on the professional cycling calendar. It’s also one of the most prestigious races in the world, with many of the sport’s greats — Eddy Merckx, Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi — among those to have won multiple editions.
Ahead of Saturday’s 107th edition of ‘La Classicissima’, CyclingTips’ Australian editor Matt de Neef takes a look at what you should know about the race, including details about the course and the riders you should watch.
Milan-San Remo is the first Monument of the season and the real start of the Spring Classics
We’ve already had a few cobbled semi-classics in Belgium and early-Spring races like Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico. But it’s Milan-San Remo that signals the start of the Spring Classics proper. After this race — the first of the season’s five ‘Monuments’ — much of the cycling world will turn its attention to Belgium and France for the cobbled classics, including the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. It’s a great time of year to be a bike racing fan, and Milan-San Remo is just the beginning.
The race is held on Saturday this year, for the first time since 2012
Milan-San Remo used to be raced on the Saturday but for the past three years it’s been on a Sunday. This hasn’t been great for Australian fans (the race tended to finish at about 3am on Monday morning, AEST) and it turns out it hasn’t been great for interest in the race generally. In 2016, in it’s 107th edition, Milan-San Remo returns to Saturday in an attempt to attract more attention.
“Sunday is the big day for football, especially in Italy,” race director Mauro Vegni told Cyclingnews late last year. “The Formula One GP is also held on Sundays, as is the MotoGP motorbike races. In Italy there’s also a lot of important family entertainment programmes on television.”
Australian fans take note: the last time the race was on a Saturday, Simon Gerrans won it. A good omen perhaps?
The course is more or less unchanged from last year
The route for Milan-San Remo doesn’t tend to change too much from year to year and the 2016 edition is no exception. There’s just one short section of the course that’s different from last year — due to a new road in the seaside town of Voltri — and the overall distance has been shortened by just 2km: from 293km to a still-epic 291km.
From Milan it’s a largely flat run south towards the Mediterranean coast, the only slight hurdle being the Passo del Turchino which peaks after 142.2km. The climb is quite long — more than 20km in fact — but with a very gentle average gradient and the fact it comes less than halfway through the race, this climb almost certainly won’t have an impact on the final outcome.
After reaching the Mediterranean coast the race heads south west towards San Remo, taking in a handful of short, coastal climbs along the way.
The race really starts with 50km to go
Milan-San Remo is a nearly seven-hour race and one that’s prone to long periods without a whole lot of action. If you’re just keen to watch the exciting final stages, your best bet is to tune in with about 55km to go when the day’s breakaway will likely be on its last legs and the peloton readying for action.
There are five short climbs in this final approach to San Remo. The Capo Mele (which peaks at 51km to go), Capo Cervo (45km to go) and Capo Berta (38km to go) are likely to have little impact on the race, but the final two ascents might.
The Cipressa (5.6km at 4.1%) is probably the toughest of the climbs on course, as much because of its location in the context of the race (21km to go) as its gradient. By this point the pace in the peloton will be very high as the teams of the opportunists try to drop the pure sprinters. The descent is tight and technical and riders need to be careful on their way back down to the coast.
The final challenge is the Poggio, a 3.7km ascent that tops out just 4.6km from the finish line. The average gradient is a manageable 4% but again, the pace will be extremely high, putting many in difficulty. This descent, too, is very technical and crashes are not uncommon in the frenzied battle for position.
The final 2km of the race are on straight, flat roads, setting things up nicely for a sprint for whoever has managed to get up and down the Poggio at the head of affairs.
Milan-San Remo is known as the sprinters’ classic for a reason
John Degenkolb, Alexander Kristoff, Gerald Ciolek, Mark Cavendish, Matthew Goss — these are just some of the fast-finishers that have added a Milan-San Remo win to their palmares in recent years. The climbs that come late in the race certainly serve to thin out the bunch but they tend not to be hard enough to shed the best sprinters, and certainly not the sprinters with a bit of climbing ability.
Recent history suggests Saturday’s race will come down to a sprint again, likely from a reduced group. For the puncheurs and other opportunistic riders to win the race they’ll likely have to get away on the Cipressa or Poggio — no mean feat considering the peloton will be riding at warp speed at that stage.
There are 25 teams on the startlist and a total of 200 riders
As a WorldTour race, Milan-San Remo will feature all 18 ProTeams, with the remaining seven slots being filled by wildcard Pro Continental teams. Three of those wildcard teams are Italian — Androni Giocattoli, Bardiani-CSF and Southeast-Venezuela — while the remaining four come from Germany (Bora-Argon 18), Poland (CCC-Sprandi Polkowice), France (Cofidis) and the U.S. (Novo Nordisk).
Look for the wildcard teams to populate the early breakaway, trying to get TV time for their sponsors and show race organisers that their invitation was well deserved.
Alexander Kristoff is probably the rider to beat, but he’s definitely not the only favourite
Defending champion John Degenkolb will sit out this year’s Milan-San Remo (as he has done the entire season so far) after a nasty training crash in January saw him almost lose a finger. In Degenkolb’s absence — and even if he’d been there — there’s an imposing list of riders that deserve to be considered as favourites for Saturday’s race.
Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) probably goes in as the rider to beat. He won the race in 2014, was second to Degenkolb last year and he’s in great form, having already taken five wins in 2016. If it comes down to a sprint at the end, it’s hard to see Kristoff not achieving another great result.
Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) has been knocking on the door of a big win since the season began, having amassed five second-place finishes already in 2016. He was fourth in last year’s edition, 10th in 2014, second in 2013, fourth in 2012 — finally winning Milan-San Remo would be the perfect first win as world champion. He has all the necessary attributes — the fast finish and the ability to get over the late climbs — it’s just a case of how things unfold out on the road and whether he can best the likes of Kristoff.
Australia’s Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge) is another rider seemingly on the cusp of Monument success. He was third last year, second at the World Championships in September and, most importantly, comes into the race with terrific form after a strong season debut at Paris-Nice. He also comes in with a very strong team supporting him — Michael Albasini, Daryl Impey and Luka Mezgec all provide plenty of late-race firepower and will likely give ‘Bling’ his best chance yet of winning this race.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an early-season Monument without mentioning Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo) among the riders to watch. ‘Spartacus’ won the race in 2008 and has been remarkably consistent since then. Apart from a 17th in 2010 and seventh last year, Cancellara’s Milan-San Remo streak from 2011 to 2014 reads: second, second, third and second. With a commanding victory at Strade Bianche a fortnight ago and an ITT win at Tirreno-Adriatico earlier this week, you wouldn’t know Cancellara is in his final year as a pro. If anything, his impending retirement might make Cancellara more determined to add a second Milan-San Remo success to his palmares.
Cancellara wins in 2008 after attacking with 2km to go.
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) is another rider that will go into Milan-San Remo with a target on his back. After something of a breakout season in 2015, Van Avermaet appears to be in career-best form this year. He’s already won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Tirreno-Adriatico and is unlikely to rest on his laurels. If the race is decided in a bunch sprint, Van Avermaet will find it difficult to get around the likes of Kristoff and Matthews, so his best bet might be a late escape on the Cipressa or Poggio.
Mark Cavendish is a past winner but probably won’t be Dimension Data’s first option
The team formerly known as MTN-Qhubeka won this race with Gerald Ciolek back in 2013 when it was a Pro Continental squad and now, three years on, it goes in as one of the strongest teams on the startlist. In addition to Tour de Langkawi winner Reinardt Janse van Rensburg and escape-artist Stephen Cummings, the team has two other compelling options: 2009 winner Mark Cavendish and the in-form Edvald Boasson Hagen.
Cavendish has suggested this week that his Norwegian teammate is a “strong contender” and it’s hard to disagree with that sentiment. With three wins to his name in 2016 already, a fast finish and more-than-capable climbing ability, EBH should factor in the closing stages of Saturday’s race.
Beyond the favourites, there are many other riders that could be in contention
If the big favourites don’t manage to take out Saturday’s race, here are a selection of riders that will be lapping at their heels.
French sprinter Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) has hit the winners’ list twice already this year and might have had three victories had he not interfered with Michael Matthews’ line on stage 2 of Paris-Nice and been relegated in the sprint. He’s among the fastest finishers on the Milan-San Remo startlist and shouldn’t be discounted in a bunch kick.
Australia’s Leigh Howard (IAM) also deserves a mention. He was second at the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race (winning the bunch kick) and won a significantly shortened Clasica de Almeria in February. According to his team Howard will go into Milan-San Remo as the team’s #1 option and, all going well, should be there at the end.
For other outside chances look to Ben Swift and Elia Viviani (Sky), Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Sonny Colbrelli (Bardiani-CSF). The likes of Colombian youngster Fernando Gaviria (also Etixx-QuickStep), Sam Bennett (Bora-Argon 18), Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida) and Jens Debusschere (Lotto Soudal) also deserve to be watched with interest.
The weather forecast looks promising
At the time of writing, the weather forecast suggests temperatures of around 15ºC for Saturday’s race, sunshine and, best of all, no rain. This will come as a relief to the riders who have done the past few, wet editions, not least those who raced in the epic 2013 edition that saw heavy snow falls and a shortening of the race.
The race is being broadcast live around the world
As one of the biggest one-day races on the calendar, Milan-San Remo attracts plenty of interest from fans around the world. Australian fans can catch the race live on SBS TV (and streaming through SBS Cycling Central) from 12:30am to 3am on Sunday morning, or on Foxtel from 12:15am on Eurosport (channel 511).
For other markets, be sure to check your local TV guides or Steephill.tv for more information.