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by Matt de Neef
March 16, 2018
Photography by Kristof Ramon & Cor Vos
With Tirreno-Adriatico and Paris-Nice now behind us, it’s time for the first Monument of the season: Milan-San Remo. At nearly 300km long it’s the longest one-day race of the year and a true test of early season fitness.
In this preview we bring you up to speed on the course, the riders to watch, and how Saturday’s 109th Milan-San Remo might unfold. Here’s what you need to know.
The course remains unchanged in 2018.
This year’s Milan-San Remo course is identical to the one used in the past two years. The race is 291km in length, just over half of which is a gentle southward jaunt from Milan to the Mediterranean coast. There’s only one real climb along the way — the Passo del Turchino which peaks after 142km — before the riders reach the coast after 154km and head south-west towards San Remo.
The first 90km or so along the coast are reasonably gentle — it’s with roughly 55km to go that the race really starts to heat up.
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. The last two climbs, by contrast, have the potential to shape the race, particularly the Poggio.
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.
Milan-San Remo is a race for the sprinters … mostly.
Of the five Monuments, none is better suited to the sprinters than Milan-San Remo. Sure the Cipressa and Poggio make the final kilometres a little tricky but the world’s best sprinters are normally able to survive the climbs and give themselves a shot at victory on the Via Roma.
Indeed, a look back at the past 10 editions of Milan-San Remo shows a race that’s normally decided from a reduced peloton:
– Five editions were won from a group of between 25 and 34 riders.
– Two were won from a group of seven (2011 and 2013).
– Two were won from a group of three (2012 and 2017)
– One was won solo (2008).
Notably though, perhaps only half of the winners in the past 10 years would be considered pure sprinters. While it’s certainly a race that the pure sprinters can win (e.g. Mark Cavendish in 2009 and Arnaud Demare in 2016), Milan-San Remo tends to favour slightly more versatile sprinters — riders who are a bit more resilient uphill while also packing a fast finish (see Michal Kwiatkowski in 2017, John Degenkolb in 2015, and Simon Gerrans in 2012).
John Degenkolb takes out the 2015 edition of Milan-San Remo.
So how might it unfold on Saturday? A big breakaway will almost certainly get up the road early, likely leading the race for more than 200km. The pace in the bunch will start to increase once the race hits the coast, and particularly once the final climbs begin.
Expect the breakaway to be caught somewhere in the final 55km and for the attacks to start on the climbs that follow. The Cipressa is often a popular launching pad for opportunistic attackers, and also a climb that can see some of the sprinters lose contact with the main field. In all likelihood, though, it will be the Poggio that proves most decisive.
There’ll be a series of attacks and many riders will get dropped. The big question is whether a move will last all the way to the line — as happened in last year’s race — whether the attackers will be caught on the approach to San Remo, or whether the Poggio will simply serve to thin out the field for a reduced bunch kick.
Regardless, the Poggio is sure to have an impact on the race.
Fabian Cancellara, Simon Gerrans and Vincenzo Nibali used the Poggio to get away in the 2012 Milan-San Remo. Gerrans won it in a sprint.
Peter Sagan and Michal Kwiatkowski are perhaps the main favourites.
Realistically, any number of riders could emerge victorious come Saturday afternoon. But among the contenders, there are perhaps two big favourites.
Peter Sagan (Bora-hansgrohe) has been second at this race on two occasions (2013 and 2017) and fourth on another two (2012 and 2015) and it feels like it’s only a matter of time before he adds “La Classicissima” to his palmares.
He was the strongest rider in last year’s race, blowing the race apart on the Poggio with only Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) and Julian Alaphilippe (QuickStep Floors) able to follow him (eventually). After being left to do the bulk of the work to the finish, Sagan was rolled on the line by Kwiatkowski — an unjust result in some fans’ eyes.
Sagan is in solid form, having finished second on three occasions at the recent Tirreno-Adriatico, one of them after coming back from a puncture inside the final 10km to contest the sprint.
Sagan can win the race from a reduced bunch sprint, from a small group or possibly even solo. It just comes down to how he’s feeling on the day and when he decides to make his move. Don’t be surprised if the rainbow jersey is first across the line on Saturday.
Michal Kwiatkowski is one of the world’s most versatile bike riders and no stranger to performing on the big stage. He’s a former world champion, a winner of the Amstel Gold Race and, crucially, the defending champion at Milan-San Remo.
“Kwiato” is best suited to a small group finish where he can rely on his punchy sprint and tactical nous. But he’s also capable of going it alone (see the 2014 Road World Championships or the 2017 Strade Bianche) or winning from a bigger bunch (see the 2015 Amstel Gold Race).
Importantly, Kwiatkowski’s also in terrific form. He’s already won two stage races this year — the Volta ao Algarve and last week’s Tirreno-Adriatico — and is arguably showing the best early season form of his career. A repeat victory would be little surprise.
Kwiato won last year’s race with a bike throw.
Beyond the top favourites, the list of potential winners is long.
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) hasn’t quite cracked the code at Milan-San Remo yet but there’s no reason he can’t do so this year. He’s been fifth and ninth before and like Sagan and Kwiatkowski, it’s a race he’s well suited to (admittedly, the same could be said of just about any one-day race in spring).
Van Avermaet missed Sagan’s move on the Poggio last year and will likely be better placed this time around (the addition of former winner Simon Gerrans to the line-up is no small thing). Van Avermaet would love to finish in a small group and would back himself to beat Sagan and others in that situation, something he’s done several times before.
French champion Arnaud Demare (FDJ) won this race back in 2016, proving the strongest sprinter from a group of 31. It’s not unreasonable to expect him to do likewise again this year.
Demare brings good form into the race having won an uphill sprint on stage 1 of Paris-Nice last week. He later abandoned the race in order to fully focus on Saturday’s race. One to watch.
Demare wins the 2016 Milan-San Remo.
Alexander Kristoff (UAE-Team Emirates) is another former winner that’s more than capable of adding a second Milan-San Remo to his palmares. The European champion’s record at the race is very impressive: in the past five editions he’s finished eighth, first, second, sixth, and fourth.
Like many of his rivals, Kristoff has already had some early season success, winning a stage at both the Tour of Oman and the Abu Dhabi Tour.
Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin) is making his Milan-San Remo debut this weekend and while he’s trying to talk down his chances, it would be folly to ignore the big German. Kittel has hit great form at the perfect time — he’s just won two stages at Tirreno-Adriatico so his confidence will be up.
It’s hard to know how much Kittel’s lack of experience in the race will matter. It’s not like the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix where it takes years to understand the race. Ultimately it will probably come down to whether Kittel can get over the Cipressa and the Poggio with the front group. If he can, he’s a great shot of winning.
Marcel Kittel won two stages at Tirreno-Adriatico last week.
As seems to be true at every big spring race, QuickStep Floors will have a ridiculously strong team at Milan-San Remo. Philippe Gilbert, Elia Viviani and last year’s third-place finisher Julian Alaphilippe are all capable of winning on Saturday, depending on how the race unfolds.
Viviani will be their man if it comes to a reduced bunch sprint. The Italian has arguably been the world’s best sprinter in 2018 so far, with stage wins at the Tour Down Under and the Abu Dhabi Tour, plus two stages and the overall at the Dubai Tour. He’s very capable of winning the race if it comes to a bunch kick.
Gilbert will be looking for a late move on the Cipressa or Poggio and could sprint for the win from a small group. He’s been sixth and third (twice) in this race and would dearly love to make Milan-San Remo the fourth Monument he’s won.
And then there’s the all-round talent of Alaphilippe who has been knocking on the door of a Monument win for a few seasons now (he has podiums at Milan-San Remo, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Il Lombardia). He’s already got a win this year — at the Colombia Oro y Paz — plus two podiums at Paris-Nice last week. Crucially, he showed last year he can match it with the best on the Poggio when it counts. As with Gibert, expect Alaphilippe to feature late.
Alaphilippe was a stage winner at the inaugural Colombia Oro y Paz earlier this season.
John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) hasn’t had the ideal lead-in to Milan-San Remo having withdrawn from Paris-Nice last week with bronchitis. But it would be little surprise to see Degenkolb feature if it came to a reduced bunch sprint. He won the race back in 2015 from a group of 26, and he’s shown some promising form already this year with two wins at the Challenge Mallorca. is now out of the race. He’s still battling the illness that saw him abandon Paris-Nice.
Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott) will be another rider to factor in if it comes to a sprint. The diminutive Australian was 10th last year but is certainly capable of better. He’ll have support from Matteo Trentin this year, a rider who finished 10th in his own right in 2016 and who is also capable of winning the race if things falls his way (and if Ewan is out of the frame). Don’t discount Tour Down Under winner Daryl Impey, either.
As ever, there are many riders with an outside shot at victory.
Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida) has never got closer to winning Milan-San Remo than his sixth place in 2014, but he’s one of the race’s most consistent performers. In the five years he’s done the race, he’s always finished inside the top 18 — no mean feat. If things fall his way on Saturday, he could well find himself on the podium and possibly even the top step.
In theory, Milan-San Remo should suit Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal) reasonably well. He climbs well for a “bigger” rider and his sprinting prowess is beyond doubt. And yet he’s never finished better than 24th at Milan-San Remo. Maybe this is the year he gets over the Poggio in good position and can contest the win?
Andre Greipel’s had a good start to the year, with two stage wins at the Tour Down Under. Can he finally snag a good result at Milan-San Remo?
Michael Matthews (Sunweb) would normally be among the list of favourites, particularly after his third place in 2015. But after fracturing his shoulder at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and missing Strade Bianche and Tirreno-Adriatico, “Bling” might have a hard time getting to the finish in good position on Saturday. If he does though: watch out.
For other could-be contenders, look to Tour of Oman stage winner Nathan Haas (Katusha-Alpecin), Omloop Het Nieuwsblad winner Michael Valgren (Astana), Sky bad boy Gianni Moscon, Sacha Modolo (EF Education First-Drapac) and possibly even Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), if the Italian can get away on the Poggio.
The weather is looking miserable.
At the time of writing, the weather forecast suggests temperatures of roughly 10ºC and rain for Saturday. Nearly seven hours in the rain will be far from pleasant, ensuring only the toughest will remain to contest the finale.
There’s also a bit of a westerly breeze forecast for the Mediterranean coast, creating the potential for crosswinds in the final 100km. If the wind is strong enough, we might just see echelons start to form and splits start to occur in the peloton. If that’s the case, it could throw the race wide open in a way that we haven’t seen in recent years.
Note that a westerly breeze also means a headwind or cross-headwind up most of the Poggio, which is likely to suit the sprinters and make it harder for an attack to go clear.
Conditions were miserable at the 2014 Milan-San Remo. Will we see similar again this year?
The race is broadcast live around the world and streamed online.
Australian viewers will note that, like last year, the 2018 Milan-San Remo won’t be screened on free-to-air TV. Foxtel/Eurosport has the exclusive rights, meaning Aussie viewers will need to get access to Foxtel if they want to watch the race legally on Saturday. Worth noting: you can sign up for a two-week free trial to Foxtel Now, the company’s online streaming service, which appears to include Eurosport.
Viewers in the U.S. seem best served by online streaming via Fubo while Eurosport will cover most of the European/British market.
For more information, be sure to check your local TV guide or visit steephill.tv. If you’re a Twitter user, the hashtag you’re after is #MSR.
Who’s your pick for the 2018 Milan-San Remo? Let us know in the comments below.