La Classicissima di Primavera should have been done and dusted months ago. But here we are, without even the cobbled classics in the can, and the first Monument of the season is only now about to be played out along a shortened stretch of the Ligurian coast. La Primavera? Taking place on 8 August in sweltering 30-degree temperatures, it's more like L'Estate.
And it's not just the weather that is going to be different. In fact, only the final 40 kilometres of this, the longest of the five Monuments, will take place along the usual route – the riders picking up the coastal road just ahead of the famous Cipressa and Poggio climbs.
Another change to get your heads around: the organisers have also reduced squad numbers to six in order to invite 27 teams to the 299km race, giving backdoor entry for the home teams of Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec and Bardiani-CSF.
What happened last year?
French livewire Julian Alaphilippe took the spoils off the back of a brace of wins in Tirreno-Adriatico and victory in Strade Bianche. The Deceuninck-QuickStep rider zipped clear on the Poggio with Peter Sagan, Wout van Aert, Matteo Trentin, Alejandro Valverde, Oliver Naesen and Michal Kwiatkowski on his wheel, with Tom Dumoulin, Simon Clarke, Vincenzo Nibali and Matej Mohoric bridging across on the descent.
In an eleven-man sprint on the Via Roma, it was Alaphilippe who came out on top ahead of the Belgian Naesen and Poland's Kwiatkowski, with Sagan pushed out to take the third fourth place in La Primavera of his career.
‘He can’t stop winning!’ – Alaphilippe wins first Monument
Route change for 2020
The coronavirus crisis which initially curtailed the race has brought about large scale changes to the 111th edition of Milan-San Remo, most notably with regards to the route.
With Italy currently in the height of holiday season, the mayors of several towns along the Ligurian coast – most notably Eddy Merckx's least favourite town of Savona – refused permission for RCS to host a race passing along their roads on the second Saturday of August.
The town of Voltri on the outskirts of Genoa, and at the foot of the Passo del Turchino, also refusing entry has forced organisers to opt for a wholly different approach to San Remo.
The new route sees the riders head southwest out of Milan and into Piedmont through the towns of Alessandria, Niza Monferrato, and the vineyards and parched countryside of the rolling Langhe hills. And instead of one climb before the drop down to the coast, the race will have two in the form of the gentle 20km schlep to the town of Niella Belbo – a like-for-like replacement for the Turchino – followed by the Colle di Nava.
With a final section of 3.9km with an average gradient of 3% and rising to 936 metres, the Nava is hardly the stuff of nightmares, but it will give the sprinters another obstacle to get over before the usual fun and games on the Ligurian coast.
Which is just as well, for the quick descent into Imperia sees the route miss the three bumps - the Tre Capi climbs of Cervo, Mele and Berta – that, in any normal year, act as a potential springboard for early skirmishes ahead of the finale.
From this point, with 40km remaining, Milan-San Remo follows its traditional route all the way to the Via Roma. Given that many spectators don't switch on until the Cipressa-Poggio double, many viewers won't even notice.
The riders will, though. The roads used on the long detour are narrower and more twisting than the usual route – and those two small climbs will break things up in a different way than the usual interminable slog of the Turchino.
It remains to be seen if this will have any bearing on the outcome of the race, but those who often criticise La Primavera for being too formulaic will at least be appeased to see something alternative – even if it means fewer breath-taking views of the Mediterranean.
The Cipressa is 5.6km long with an average gradient of 4.1%. It is here where many teams try to put the pressure on the pure sprinters in a bid to despatch them – or tire them out – before the Poggio.
Peaking at 8% the Poggio is 3.7km long with an average of 3.7%. If the stats seem rather benign then it's worth remembering that the riders will already have 290km in their legs. Such is the pace heading onto the climb, the fierce jostling for positions stretches out the peloton and can cause riders to lose their chance of getting back in contention.
While it's rare for a winning solo move to come on the Poggio – Vincenzo Nibali attack in 2018 is an exception – its nearly always on this climb where the final selection is made.
Three years ago, Alaphilippe, Sagan and Kwiatkowski all went clear on the Poggio to set up a thrilling finale off the back of a nail-biting descent, with the Pole emerging victorious in one of the closest ever finishes on the Via Roma.
The summit of the Poggio comes with 5.5km remaining and is followed by the twisting and technical descent made famous by Sean Kelly's heart-in-mouth victorious pursuit of Moreno Argentin in 1992.
Who's got the form?
Victorious in Strade Bianche, Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) showed off his sprinting legs with third place in Milano-Torino this week. The Belgian is definitely the man to beat because of his ability to win with an uphill surge or a fast finish.
Often put in the same bracket as Van Aert on account of his cyclocross background, Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) struggled with the heat and punctures over the white dirt roads of Tuscany, finishing 15th in Siena and 13th in Milano-Torino. If he comes back to the boil, he has the class to win his first ever attempt at La Classicissima.
Defending champion Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) punctured no fewer than six times in Strade Bianche, effectively ending his chances. The Frenchman has been working on his climbing and stamina in a bid to help his Grand Tour chances, so his performances in the classics may take a hit this year.
'What a ride!' - Wout van Aert soloes to glory in Strade Bianche
In any case, Alaphilippe may find himself playing second fiddle to teammate Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-QuickStep) – especially if the race comes down to a bunch sprint on the Via Roma. The Irishman does not have a great track record in San Remo – never finishing higher than 28th in four appearances – but he has previously been riding in support of former teammate Sagan.
Bennett notched an unorthodox win in the Vuelta a Burgos and is one of the pure sprinters carrying some form into La Primavera. Colombian Fernando Gaviria (UAE-Team Emirates) picked up a commanding win in Burgos but was only seventh in Milano-Torino, where the victory went to Frenchman Arnaud Demare (Groupama-FDJ).
Demare, the 2016 San Remo winner, beat Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal) in Torino, with the likes of Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Danny Van Poppel (Circus-Wanty Gobert) completing the top five behind Van Aert. Plagued by punctures, Sagan didn't finish Strade Bianche but is rarely short of form when push comes to shove.
It's also worth watching Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-McLaren), who won stage 2 of La Route d'Occitanie, as well as fellow Italians Niccolo Bonifazio (Total-Direct Energie) and Giacomo Nizzolo (NTT Pro Cycling), who are purring along nicely.
Nacer Bouhanni (Arkea-Samsic) looks a bit short, as does Elia Viviani (Cofidis), while CCC-Team duo Greg van Avermaet and Matteo Trentin are not yet firing on all cylinders. Milan-San Remo is the kind of race that should suit Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb) but the Australian will be riding his first race since the re-start, so we have no idea of his condition.
For those finisseurs who can win from a Poggio attack, Italians Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) and Davide Formolo (UAE-Team Emirates) are good outsiders, the latter showing promising form in finishing runner-up in Strade Bianche.
Belgian veteran Philippe Gilbert (Lotto Soudal) needs a win on the Via Roma to complete his grand slam of Monuments, but has kept his powder dry since the restart. Surely Ewan is a better bet for Lotto. Meanwhile, Tadej Pogacar (UAE-Team Emirates) makes his Milan-San Remo debut off the back of 13th in Strade Bianche.
With 2009 winner Mark Cavendish (Bahrain-McLaren) riding the Tour de Pologne, faint British hopes will lie with Dan McLay (Arkea-Samsic) and Ben Swift (Team Ineos) – the latter twice a podium finisher in San Remo.
Wout van Aert - Strade Bianche 2020 - Getty Images
Image credit: Getty Images
Who's going to win?
To win Milan-Sanremo you need to be a decent climber, a fast descender, and a strong sprinter. Add to that, a capability of performing in the heat – for this year's race is playing out five months later and in the height of a sweltering summer.
But while the route, time of year, and weather may have changed, this should not affect who can win the first Monument of this topsy-turvy season. It looks like we'll be picking from the usual pool of riders.
Sagan has yet to win La Primavera and is exactly the kind of rider you would expect to star on Saturday. Given he has to sit out both Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders because of his commitments in the Giro later this autumn, Sagan will know that this represents perhaps his only chance at adding to his paltry haul of two career Monuments this season.
But Van Aert is in the ascendancy and its him – rather than last year's man-of-the-moment, Alaphlippe – who is the man to watch.
Should we see a bunch sprint then take your pick from Gaviria, Bennett and Ewan. But with the neutral zone meaning the finish will come after almost 310km and seven hours in the saddle, the best is not always the fastest – so don't discount the likes of Bouhanni, Viviani, Nizzolo, Swift, Van Poppel, Bonifazio or even Ivan Garcia (Bahrain-McLaren).
Verdict: a cagey ride which teams fail to control because of smaller numbers and sweltering temperatures, with Colombia's Fernando Gaviria (UAE-Team Emirates) finally winning a first Monument with a bit of help from teammate Alexader Kristoff.
Fernando Gaviria wins stage two of the Vuelta a Burgos
Image credit: Getty Images
***** Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma)
**** Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal), Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Fernando Gaviria (UAE-Team Emirates)
*** Arnaud Demare (FDJ), Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-McLaren), Elia Viviani (Cofidis), Nacer Bouhanni (Arkea-Samsic),
** Greg van Avermaet (CCC Team), Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Ineos), Philippe Gilbert (Lotto Soudal), Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo), Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb), Matteo Trentin (CCC Team), Oliver Naesen (AG2R-La Mondiale)
* Niccolo Bonifazio (Total-Direct Energie), Giacomo Nizzolo (NTT Pro Cycling), Tiesj Benoot (Team Sunweb), Davide Formolo (UAE-Team Emirates), Alberto Bettiol (EF Pro Cycing), Ben Swift (Team Ineos), Alexander Kristoff (UAE-Team Emirates), Simon Clarke (EF Pro Cycling), Danny van Poppel (Circus-Wanty Gobert), Ivan Garcia (Bahrain-McLaren), Tadej Pogacar (Jumbo-Visma), Alexey Lutsenko (Astana)
The 111th edition of Milan-San Remo starts at 10:10 UK time with live coverage on Eurosport TV from 14:50 UK time and live updates on Eurosport.com from 13:00 UK time.