Blazin' Saddles: 12 scenarios for 2017 Milan-San Remo
Our cycling expert Felix Lowe runs through the potential plots and outcomes for this Saturday's opening Monument of the season: Milan-San Remo.
With the sun out, the daffodils in bloom and the cycling season now in full swing, it can only mean one thing: La Classicissima di Primavera is upon us. This Saturday the peloton rolls out of Milan on an epic journey that will transport the riders across the plains of Piedmont and Lombardy, over the Passo del Turchino and along the Ligurian coast. Here, after the famous "tre capi" ridges the riders will tackle the iconic Cipressa and Poggio climbs ahead of a grandstand finale on the Via Roma in San Remo after almost 300km of racing.
It's a race that's anything but predictable – even if the end result can often leave fans muttering "of course..." under their breath. Without further ado, let's look at 12 different scenarios for the 108th edition of Milan-San Remo.
Reduced bunch sprint finish
They don't call it the Sprinter's Classic for nothing. And yet, the last time there were more than 50 riders in the finishing group was in 2004 when Spaniard Oscar Freire took the second of his three wins. Between 2011 and 2013 there were less than 10 riders competing for the victory while last year there were 31 when FDJ's Arnaud Démare took a surprise win – up from 26 and 27 in the two previous editions.
Supposing the recent trend continues and we see a group of around 30 riders contesting the win, there'd be no shortage of candidates to back. Former winners Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin), John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) and Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) should be up there, plus a man who has twice finished in the top ten: Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis). Ben Swift (UAE-Team Emirates) has twice finished on the podium while Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) may have won last year had he not inexplicably stacked it on the home straight.
Throw in the likes of Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb), world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and the in-form defending champion Démare, and you get an idea of how fiercely contested this one could be.
More often than not, the longest one-day race of the year is decided in the last few metres. When Mark Cavendish won his only Monument in 2009 he did so much at the 11th hour that it was practically midday (or midnight, depending on how you look at it).
Australia's Heinrich Haussler all but had his hands on the trophy when Cavendish's superior lunge saw the Manxman win the centenary edition in what became known as the "millimetre sprint". Don't bet against this happening again on Saturday – although there'll be no Haussler at the start line.
The host nation have the most wins in Milan-San Remo: 50 against their nearest rivals, the Belgians, on 20. But their early domination hit a Poggio-esque wall after 1953 when it took 17 years for another Italian to win. In fact, the Italians are on a similar bad run at the moment – without a victory in 11 years.
If Filippo Pozzato, for all his apparent confidence, doesn't look likely to add to his 2006 triumph then many are backing his young Wilier-Triestina team-mate Jakub Mareczko as a dark horse. That said, he finished 179th last year and is largely unproven over such long distances (291km this year). Better Italian stallions to back are Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida), Elia Viviani (Team Sky), Sacha Modolo (UAE Team Emirates) or Matteo Trentin (Quick-Step Floors).
Since the first edition in 1907 a total of 16 riders have won on their debut – the latest being that man Cavendish in 2009. That could change this year with the likes of Orca-Scott duo Magnus Cort Nielsen and Caleb Ewan, Sondre Holst Enger (Ag2R-La Mondale) and Julian Alaphilippe (Quck-Step Floors) all in line to take a bow.
Australia's Richie Porte and France's Julian Alaphilippe, wearing the overall leader's yellow jerseyAFP
On paper, Ewan is the fastest finisher but he's only once won a race over 200km and the lumpy finale may suit his Danish team-mate Neilsen better. Enger has done next to nothing this year and so it would be a huge surprise were he to win, but Alaphilppe was in the form of his life en route to picking up a first WorldTour win in Paris-Nice meaning the Frenchman will be full of confidence.
Whatever happens, Ugo Agostini's record of being the youngest winner – aged 20 in 1914 – is not under threat. Record seven-time winner Eddy Merckx was also 20 when he won on his debut – but there are no riders that young in contention this weekend.
The oldest winner on record is Belgian Andrei Tchmil, who broke clear of the pack with 600 metres remaining to hold on to victory in 1999 aged 36 and two months. Runner-up in 2010 and third in 2007, Tom Boonen may be better suited to the cobbled classics but the Belgian veteran is part of a strong Quick-Step Floors team that also boasts Gaviria and Philippe Gilbert. Should 36-year-old Boonen pass under the radar and pick up an unexpected win in the 40th Monument of his career, he'll beat Tchmil's record by a few months.
Tom Boonen Etixx Quick StepFrom Official Website
Rainbow jersey win
Four world champions have won Milan-San Remo while sporting the rainbow stripes: Alfredo Binda (1931), Eddy Merckx (1972 and 1975), Felice Gimondi (1974) and Giuseppe Saronni (1983). Runner-up in 2013 and twice fourth, can Peter Sagan join the illustrious list on Saturday? After his stellar start to the season, he's many people's favourite despite the relative weakness of his Bora-Hansgrohe team.
Démare doubles up
Eight riders have won back-to-back titles – the most recent being Erik Zabel, who did so in 1997/98 and again in 2000/01. While he wasn't many people's tip for glory last year – especially after his fall on the Cipressa, which led to an alleged tow by his FDJ team car – Arnaud Démare has started the season well and showed his ability to climb and sprint to victory in the opening stage of Paris-Nice.
An attack finally sticks from the Poggio
Since it was first introduced in the race in 1960, the Poggio (3.7km at 3.7% with 9km remaining) has often proved to be the ideal springboard for a decisive attack. In 1995 Laurent Jalabert and Maurizio Fondriest attacked on the climb and managed to hold off the peloton – although such thing has become a rarity of late.
Vincenzo Nibali often tried his luck on the Cipressa (5.6km at 4.1% with 20km remaining) only for his attempt to fizzle out – and the last Cipressa-born move to work out was from Gabriele Colombo in 1996. While Nibali is not racing this year there are numerous riders who have the characteristics to win from a similar attack – most notably Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors), Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal), Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac), Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) and Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb). It's got to happen again some time, surely...
A lone wolf winning Milan-San Remo is almost as rare as a successful attack on the Poggio. There have been three solo winners since 1994 – Giorgio Furlan (by 20 seconds), Andrei Tchmill (by zilch after being all-but swept up by the line) and Fabian Cancellara (by four seconds). Gone are the days when Fausto Coppi can solo clear of a break on the Turchino and win by 14 minutes (as he did in 1946). Solo attacks nowadays tend to form as the pack splinters near the summit of the Poggio and a rider crests the summit before opening a gap on the descent.
Steve Cummings - Tour of Britain 2016Imago
This could feasibly be a tactic for the likes of last year's third place rider Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto Soudal), fellow Belgian Greg van Avermaet (BMC), Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data), 2012 winner Simon Gerrans (Orica-Scott) or a fearless buck like Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors). Of course, there's also the possibility of an iconoclast like Steve Cummings (Dimension Data) channelling Coppi and having a pop from distance...
Outsider wins weather-hampered race
Since Milan-San Remo started it has been synonymous with harsh, cold conditions – from Lucien Petit-Breton's freezing win in 1907 and the snow storms of 1910 (when just four riders made it to the finish) to the below-zero temperatures of 2013 when Gerald Ciolek won a shortened race ahead of Sagan and Cancellara.
While this year won't be the same – the sun will be out with temperatures hitting 20 degrees – don't rule out an outsider winning. Someone perhaps with pedigree but who, like Démare last year, passed totally under the radar: Jan Bakelants (Ag2R-La Mondiale), Christophe Laporte (Cofidis), Nikias Arndt (Team Sunweb), Juan José Lobato (LottoNL-Jumbo), Tony Gallopin (Lotto Soudal) or even Michael Albasini (Orica-Scott) spring to mind.
Rider celebrates prematurely, someone else wins
Who can forget 2004 when Erik Zabel stopped pedalling and took his arms off the handlebars to celebrate what would have been a famous fifth win only to be pipped by Oscar Freire on the line? If such a thing is rare it's worth remembering that Caleb Ewan was the perpetrator of the exact same crime earlier in the season in the Abu Dhabi Tour when gifting a win to Marcel Kittel (who is not riding on Saturday).
One scenario that won't happen: a Grand Tour winning winner
Although known as the Sprinter's Classic, Milan-San Remo has, historically, garnered a rich roll call of winners stretching from climbing all-rounders to sprinters and opportunists. Grand Tour winners in the mould of Merckx, Coppi, Fignon and Moser are among the most feted Milan-San Remo riders – although no Grand Tour winner has stood atop the podium since Sean Kelly in 1992. This won't change in 2017 either: with Vincenzo Nibali absent there are no Grand Tour winners on the start list.
Follow live coverage of the race from 10am UK time online and from 13:15 UK time on Eurosport.