Milan-San Remo preview: Three riders, three different mindsets

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Milan-San Remo is the longest of the five Monuments, and though it may be the easiest of the five to finish, it is also viewed as the hardest to win.

In the Palazzo Marino in the heart of Milan, three men spoke with the media — each man a five-star favorite, and each man entering the race with a different mindset for how the finale might ultimately play out in his favor.

While the Mayor of Milan, Giuliano Pisapia, spoke about the significance of the race to his city, Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo), Peter Sagan (Tinkoff), and Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) each sat quietly, possibly mooring over what the complexion of the race might look like over the Poggio, its final, decisive, climb.

“We know what we want but, after Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico, we know that there are so many protagonists, between attackers, sprinters and so on,” Cancellara said. “Everyone has his own idea for winning.”

Wait for the sprint

Of the three, Kristoff may find the finale the most difficult, hoping the race comes down to a bunch sprint in order for him to have a shot at a second title to add to his 2014 victory.

The Norwegian walked in and sat down at the pre-race conference on Friday with a swagger, his Katusha track jacket zipped up. He flipped through a race program while awaiting the arrival of the others, but after a moment tossed it nonchalantly back on the table, a look of knowing how this dance will play out.

Kristoff spoke to the press like a boxer who was contemplating which round to knock out his opponent. Despite the confidence, an underlying factor raised questions — others are better over the Cipressa and Poggio, which could leave Kristoff playing defense.

“If the attackers make the race hard in the hills, I’ll use my teammates to keep the race together,” Kristoff said.

This year though, he will be without his most trusted lieutenant, Luca Paolini who has guided him through the finale during the last two editions. Instead, Kristoff may look to the second-year pro Sven Erik Bystrom in the final kilometers.

“It’ll be different this time, but I have faith in my teammates,” Kristoff said.

Attack, Attack, Attack

Showing up a few minutes late to the party was the birthday man himself, Cancellara, who at times seemed to be deep in a daydream. On his swan-song trip across cycling’s most legendary races — and despite the looming freedom of retirement at the end of the year — the rider known as “Spartacus” seems laser focused thus far, determined to go out on top while putting his rough and tumble 2015 season to bed.

“It’s not a race like others,” Cancellara said. “It’ll be my last time doing Milan-San Remo. My goal is to do my best. As for myself, I’ve already won this race, so I don’t feel an extreme pressure to win it again.”

For Cancellara, there is really only one option for victory when it comes to the finale of Milan-San Remo — to attack.

The best chance to add a second “La Primavera” to his palmares is to come onto the Via Roma alone. Expect the powerful Swiss rider to attack up the Poggio and unleash his descending skills down the hairpin turns to the sea. Should this not work, expect a last ditch-effort inside the final kilometers to spoil the party as the sprinters sort themselves out. It worked for him in 2008, when he surprised the sprinters with an attack at 3km from the line. It’s a gamble, and there’s no way to know whether or not it might work again.

Keep ‘em guessing

For Sagan, versatility is both a blessing and a curse. He may choose to go on the attack on the Poggio, in hopes of opening a gap on the descent that he can hold to the line. Or, depending on who is in the group, he can sit tight and wait for the sprint.

Either way it’s a gamble, though he will only have one chip to play if he is to finally add a Monument to his palmares.

“I’ve been close to winning it on three occasions,” said Sagan, who has finished fourth, tenth, second, and fourth in this last four attempts. “Twice, I wasn’t feeling very well. I’m not sure if I am in the best form of my life after my second place at Tirreno-Adriatico, but I’m well. Everything will be decided in the last 30 kilometres.”

Restless during the press conference, Sagan seemed to be full of energy, but when the questions came he grew tight lipped, giving nothing away, shrugging off a question about whether he would attack or wait for the sprint.

The list of favorites, of course, goes much deeper, and includes names such as Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge), Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Edvard Boasson Hagen and Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), Fernando Gaviria and Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-QuickStep), Arnaud Demare (FDJ), Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Geraint Thomas and Ben Swift (Sky), and Jens Debusschere (Lotto-Soudal).

Cancellara, Sagan, and Kristoff represent the different scenarios that will be running through the peloton’s collective mind as it powers along the coast between Milan and San Remo.

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