With six former winners involved – none of whom are among the bookmakers' favourites – the 108th edition of Milan-Sanremo is as open as ever. Velon runs through five different scenarios and spells out who could benefit in each case...
Well, they don't call this the Sprinter's Classic because it attracts the likes of Nairo Quintana and Chris Froome. The longest one-day race in the WorldTour calender – clocking 291km this time round – is also one that is most often decided in the last few metres. And yet, the last occasion when there were more than 50 riders arriving at the finish in one group was in 2004 when Spaniard Oscar Freire took the second of his three wins.
Should the first Monument of the season come down to a mass bunch sprint there will be no end of contenders – from experienced former winners Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin) and John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) to Orica-Scott's touted debutants Magnus Cort Nielsen and Caleb Ewan (don't rule these guys out: 16 riders have won Milan-Sanremo on their debuts, most recently Cavendish in 2009).
In between that vast spectrum – but by no means any way inferior to those already crowned – lies the likes of world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), the defending champion Arnaud Démare (FDJ), the irascible two-time top ten finisher Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), feisty Australian Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb) and the man who looked set to win last year until a cruel crash on the home straight, the Colombian Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors).
More often than not Milan-Sanremo climaxes with one of those strange showdowns played out between a motley crew of fast men, zippy opportunists and how-the-hell-am-I-still-here's? In short: the last men standing from 12 rounds on two wheels. The last three years has seen the deciding sprint fought between 31, 26 and 27 riders at the finish, while for the three years prior to that there were fewer than 10 riders at the business end of the race.
The plains of Piedmont and Lombardy, the long Passo del Turchino, the undulating road along the Ligurian coast which warms up with the "tre capi" – the Capo Mele, Capo Cervo and Capo Berta – before graduating onto the more arduous Cipressa and Poggio climbs: all this takes its toll on the legs meaning we see a very different type of sprint that your average Grand Tour speed-fest. It's for this reason that you often get a result that you wouldn't expect – such as Démare winning last year, or Gerald Ciolek denying Sagan and Fabian Cancellara in the snow-swept 2013 edition.
In a normal bunch affair Ben Swift (UAE Team Emirates) stands little chance against the big guns. But put the Briton in Milan-Sanremo and this all changes: Swift has twice finished on the podium. The same could be said of veteran Tom Boonen who, should he triumph on his 40th appearance in a Monument, will become the oldest rider in history to win La Classicissima.
And don't forget the fast finishers who are nevertheless rank outsiders or Plan B's: Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe), Nikias Arndt (Team Sunweb), Juan José Lobato (LottoNL-Jumbo), Sondre Holst Enger (Ag2R-La Mondale), Christophe Laporte (Cofidis) and Danny van Poppel (Team Sky) spring to mind.
Then there's the Italians, who are on an unenviable run of 11 years senza victoria – not quite the 17-year barren patch of the 50s and 60s but still a concrete calzone on the host nation's shoulders. Maverick Filippo Pozzato remains the only man this century to have won Milan-Sanremo (in 2006) without winning a previous race that season. Should Pippo stall then his Wilier-Triestina team have high hopes for Jakub Mareczko despite the 22-year-old being unproven over such a distance (he finished 179th last year). Better chances of a home win come from the in-form Sonny Colbrelli of Bahrain-Merida or Team Sky's Elia Viviani.
Attack over the Poggio or Cipressa
A decisive attack on the Poggio happens very seldom. Laurent Jalabert and Maurizio Fondriest managed to open a gap in 1995 before the Frenchman won a two-up sprint but such moves are the exception, not the rule. The punchy 3.7km climb is where the race is lost rather the won, with its maximum gradient of 8% more often than not sorting out the wheat from the chaff ahead of the baking process on the Via Roma.
Lasting attacks on the Cipressa are also rarer that steak tartare – despite Vincenzo Nibali's continued attempts to the contrary. Indeed, it was on the Cipressa last year where Démare's race almost came to an end after an untimely crash – only for the Frenchman to motor up the 5.6% climb and regain touch with the peloton ahead of the Poggio.
But rules are there to be broken. One day we will surely see a move on the Poggio (heck, even the Cipressa) that sticks – and why not this year? The likes of Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors), Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal), Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac), Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky), Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb), debutant Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) or, were this 2013, Carlos Betancur (Movistar) all have the ability to distance the fast men uphill. Will they have the courage to try something?
Decisive move on the Poggio descent
A more successful tactic in recent years is the attack going over the summit of the Poggio before taking advantage of the strung-out pack on the fast descent. The seven hairpin bends and steep decline are the perfect platform for a gutsy rider to throw caution to the wind and try his luck – and the best place to be is on the front.
Australian veteran Simon Gerrans (Orica-Scott) did exactly this in 2012 – latching on to an attack by Fabian Cancellara with Vincenzo Nibali before out-sprinting his rivals on the home straight. Perhaps a rider like Olympic gold medallist Greg van Avermaet (BMC), Norway's Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) or Gerrans once again will try their luck in this same vein.
In 1946 Fausto Coppi was part of a break which attacked just five kilometres out of Milan. Attacking his fellow escapees on the Passo del Turchino, the great Coppi rode clear with more than half the race remaining and eventually won the race by 14 minutes. Such shows of individual brilliance just don't happen any more in Milan-Sanremo.
Since Giorgio Furlan won by 20 seconds in 1994 there have been just two more "solo" winners: Andrei Tchmil crossed the line a matter of metres ahead of the rampaging peloton in 1999 to win by practically nothing (a photo of him looking back is among the most feted in the race's history), while Fabian Cancellara came home with four seconds to spare in 2008. Put simply, going solo is a no-no.
But as with all these things: it will happen again at some point. Riders like last year's third place finisher Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto Soudal), fellow Belgian Jan Bakelants (Ag2R-La Mondiale), Frenchman Tony Gallopin (Lotto Soudal), British powerhouse Ian Stannard (Team Sky), a fearless buck like Julian Alaphilippe or his Quick-Step Floors team-mate Matteo Trentin all have the strengths to do so – but will they have the opportunity?
Then, there's the possibility of an iconoclast like Steve Cummings (Dimension Data) channelling his inner Coppi and having a pop from distance...
Of course, in spite of all this pseudo-analysis, the winner will still probably be the guy who seems to win everything these days – and who would even bet against Peter Sagan having the cojones to do it solo? Should Sagan win then the Slovakian showman will become the fifth rider to win Milan-Sanremo in the rainbow stripes, following Alfredo Binda (1931), Eddy Merckx (1972 and 1975), Felice Gimondi (1974) and Giuseppe Saronni (1983).
Watch real-time rider stats and data at www.velon.cc/msr from 1010 (CET) on Saturday 18th March