Preview: What you need to know about the 2017 Milan-San Remo

by Matt de Neef


With Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico now complete, it’s time for the first of the season’s five Monuments: “La Classicissima”, Milan-San Remo. The longest of the Monuments and one of the most prestigious one-day races on the calendar, Milan-San Remo takes the riders nearly 300km from northern Italy down to and along the Mediterranean coastline, in a race that features several late climbs but normally ends in a bunch sprint.

Here’s what you should know before tuning into the 108th edition of Milan-San Remo this Saturday.


The course is unchanged from last year.

At 291km, Milan-San Remo makes for a long day in the saddle for those that take to the startline. From Milan, in north-west Italy, the riders head south towards the Mediterranean coast, in what is a very flat first half of the race. The Passo del Turchino comes a touch under halfway through, after 142km, and is the highest point of the race at 532m above sea level. It’s a long but gentle climb and with 150km still to race when riders reach the summit, it’s too far out from the finish to have much of an impact.

The riders reach the Mediterranean at Voltri after 154km, from which point the race follows the coastline to the south-west, down towards the French border. It’s mostly flat for the first 100km along the coast — it’s with roughly 55km to go that things get a little more challenging.

There are five short climbs in the final 55km: the Capo Mele, Capo Cervo, Capo Berta, the Cipressa and finally the Poggio. The first three “capi” don’t tend to influence the outcome too much — instead it’s the final two ascents that have the potential to help shape the race.

The Cipressa is 5.7km long at 4.1% (max 9%) and peaks 21.5km from the finish line. The Poggio is 3.7km at 3.7% (max 8%) and tops out 5.4km from the finish. From the top of the Poggio it’s downhill for 3.2km then 2.2km of flat road to the finish in San Remo.

The race is likely to be decided in a reduced bunch sprint.

Expect a large breakaway to get clear early in Saturday’s race and to build a lead of up to 10 minutes. Once into the last 100km, the pace will increase in the bunch as the teams of the sprinters ratchet up the pace and try to reel in the break. It’s in the last 55km that the pace will really be on, and particularly heading into the Cipressa and the Poggio.

These last two climbs represent perhaps the best chance for the non-sprinters to make their mark on the race. For a strong rider, a gap over the Poggio could well translate to victory. But neither the Cipressa nor the Poggio are terribly difficult climbs and history shows that Milan-San Remo deserves its moniker as “The Sprinters’ Classic”.

Looking at the past 10 editions of the race, no less than eight have been won in a reduced bunch sprint. On five of those occasions, the group was at least 25 riders strong (including in each of the past three editions). The winner’s come from a group of seven on two occasions and a group of 11 on one occasion.

In the past 10 years there’s been just one solo victory — in 2008 when Fabian Cancellara attacked with 2km to go. And then there was Simon Gerrans’ win in 2012 from a group of three — Gerrans, Cancellara and Vincenzo Nibali — that got away on the Poggio (see video below).

With so many strong sprinters on the startlist, it’s difficult to pick a clear favourite.

While Marcel Kittel (QuickStep Floors) and Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal) won’t be in attendance this weekend, they’re the only sprinters of real note that aren’t racing the 2017 Milan-San Remo. Who will prove strongest on the day? That’s a tough one to answer, particularly in a race as long as Milan-San Remo. But a look at recent results gives us a clue as to who comes into the race in good form.

World champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) is right at the top of the list of possible winners, both on the strength of his past results in the race and his recent form. Sagan missed out in last year’s race thanks to a late crash by Fernando Gaviria (how Sagan managed to stay upright is still a mystery) but Sagan has been fourth at this race on two occasions, and was second back in 2013.

The Slovak has three wins to his name in 2017 already — including two stages and the points jersey at Tirreno-Adriatico last week — plus five second places, and one third place. All of that has come in just 16 race days.

Sagan can win the race in a bunch sprint and is also strong enough to get away on his own in the closing kilometres if he feels that’s his best option. Assuming he plays his cards right and nothing goes wrong, the Slovak master should be on the podium come Saturday and might well win it.

Peter Sagan: equally comfortable on the cobbled climbs and in the bunch sprints.

As mentioned above, Fernando Gaviria (QuickStep Floors) crashed late in last year’s Milan-San Remo in a finale he was a good chance to win. It was an impressive ride to that point by the 21-year-old Colombian sprinter, to get to the finish of such a long race at such a young age. Gaviria is now a year older, a year wiser, and he has unfinished business at this race.

He’s also in terrific early season form. He’s won four times already in 2017, including the final road stage of Tirreno-Adriatico in which he beat Sagan.

It’s worth mentioning that while Gaviria is a genuine chance in his own right, his QuickStep Floors team has a wealth of options at its disposal. Tom Boonen and Philippe Gilbert also line up at the race on Saturday, as too does debutant Julian Alaphilippe, a rider who’s seemingly capable of just about anything on his day.

Gaviria has already beaten the big names in 2017.

Michael Matthews (Sunweb) has a new team in 2017 and while he wasn’t able to win a stage at Paris-Nice last week (as he has in the past two years), the 26-year-old Australian is still showing good form ahead of Saturday’s race. Matthews’s chances in last year’s edition were scuppered by a crash, but he was impressive in finishing third in 2015. He has a strong team around him for Saturday and will be well worth keeping an eye on.

John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) is also on a new team in 2017 and has hit the winner’s list already with a stage win at the Tour of Dubai. He’s a former winner of this event (in 2015) and, on his day, is capable of beating just about anyone in a sprint. Crucially, Degenkolb excels in these long, hard races — as seen in his Paris-Roubaix win, also in 2015. If the cards fall his way on Saturday, he could well take a second Milan-San Remo title.

Another former winner that needs to be considered is Alexander Kristoff (Katusha). The Norwegian fastman won back in 2014 and his last four finishes in the race have been eighth, first, second and sixth. Like Gaviria, Kristoff has four wins so far in 2017, although not against the same standard of opposition as he’ll face on Saturday. Still, Kristoff is a great chance of adding a second Milan-San Remo to his palmares.

Kristoff won the 2014 Milan-San Remo.

It’s eight years since Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) won Milan-San Remo in a thrilling sprint against Heinrich Haussler. His best results since are fifth in 2014 and ninth in 2013 and Cavendish is certainly capable of improving on those results on Saturday. If he can get over the Cipressa and Poggio in the lead group, he’s as good a chance of winning as anyone on the startlist.

Cavendish has got just the one win so far this year, but if there’s anything we learned from last year’s Tour de France, it’s that the Manxman knows how to step up in the big races.

It’s only right that last year’s winner Arnaud Demare (FDJ) gets a mention, given the calibre of riders he beat 12 months ago. The 25-year-old Frenchman has three wins in 2017 already so he brings good form into his title defence. Elia Viviani (Sky), too, should be around the mark. Indeed, the Italian has been second on five occasions already this year, and a win at Milan-San Remo would be a sensational way to break the drought.

Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) was fourth last year and sixth the year before that, so he too deserves consideration. Bouhanni won Nokere Koekerse in Belgium this week — his first win of the year — and while it wasn’t against the top-tier sprinters, the punchy Frenchman will start Saturday’s race feeling confident.

Bouhanni took a comfortable win at Nokere Koekerse on Wednesday.

And finally, it’s worth mentioning Caleb Ewan (Orica-Scott). The 22-year-old Australian won four stages at the Santos Tour Down Under in January but it’s his win in the Abu Dhabi Tour that’s more instructive. On that day Ewan beat Cavendish and Greipel in a bunch sprint and, were it not for a mistake a couple days earlier, he would have had another win, that one against Kittel and Cavendish.

For Ewan the questions will be: how does he handle a race that’s nearly 300km long, given it’s his first outing in this event? And how will his race-ending crash at Tirreno-Adriatico have affected his preparation? Worth noting: Orica-Scott also have young gun Magnus Cort and 2012 winner Simon Gerrans on the startlist, giving the Aussie outfit several compelling options in the finale.

Milan-San Remo tends to throw up some unpredictable results.

While a small-bunch sprint is the most likely outcome for Saturday’s race, history tells us it’s not always the “best” sprinter in the race that necessarily wins. There have been several examples of this in recent years, including Demare’s win last year and Gerald Ciolek’s victory in 2013. As such it’s worth considering the second-tier sprinters and others with a fast finish.

Ben Swift (UAE Team Emirates) was second last year behind Demare and third back in 2014. He’ll be one of two compelling options for UAE Team Emirates on Saturday, alongside Italian Sacha Modolo. Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto Soudal) took an impressive third last year and could be in the mix again if the race unfolds in his favour.

Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida) looks right at home in his first season on the WorldTour and heads up Bahrain-Merida’s hopes on Saturday. He took a big win last week at Paris-Nice, ahead of Degenkolb, Demare, Greipel, Kristoff and Matthews, and could be a genuine chance if things fall his way.

Colbrelli took a plucky win on a wet and miserable day at Paris-Nice last week.

Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) is not a pure sprinter by any stretch but he’s definitely got a fast finish. He’s already beaten Sagan once this year — at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad no less — and if it comes down to a small group and Van Avermaet’s there, the Olympic champion certainly shouldn’t be discounted.

A victory from a late escape is somewhat unlikely, but certainly possible.

In many ways it would be refreshing to see this year’s Milan-San Remo won in a fashion other than a bunch sprint. The Cipressa and Poggio tend not to be steep enough to suit the pure climbers, but the punchy, attacking riders could well have an impact there.

Riders like Philippe Gilbert (QuickStep Floors), Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal), Jan Bakelants (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Strade Bianche winner Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) might be tempted to try their hand with a late escape. Perennial escape artist Stephen Cummings (Dimension Data), too, could be a chance to sneak away towards the end.

Michal Kwiatkowski tried to get away on the Poggio in last year’s edition.

As mentioned above, don’t discount the possibility of Peter Sagan riding away in the final kilometres too. He’s likely to be the most marked man in the race — the rainbow jersey tends to stand out — but if anyone’s strong enough to repeat Cancellara’s 2008 solo win, it’s Sagan.

The weather is looking fine for Saturday.

There’s been some horrific weather at Milan-San Remo in recent years including heavy rain, strong winds, and, of course, the thick snow of the 2013 edition that made for such tough riding conditions (but amazing photos!). Most riders will be pleased to note that a fine day is forecast for the 2017 edition, with latest projections suggesting a top of 18ºC with almost no wind and very little chance of rain.

The race is being broadcast live around the world, but you’ll need to check your local guides.

Fans in Australia might be disappointed to learn there’ll be no free-to-air coverage of Milan-San Remo this year, after SBS missed out on broadcast rights for all Italian races in 2017. Instead, Aussie viewers will need to get access to Eurosport via Foxtel channel 511 and tune in from 12:15am AEST. Eurosport also has coverage throughout Europe, with the broadcast starting at 2:15pm CET.

Viewers in the US will likely have to watch the race via online provider Fubo TV. As ever though, check your local TV guide, regardless of where you’re located.

For those following along on Twitter, the hashtag you’ll need is #MSR.

Who do you think will win the 2017 Milan-San Remo? And how do you think the race will unfold?

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