Besides the odd pint or piña colada in the off season, Mark Cavendish is not a drinker, but it may just be that on Sunday the Manxman is pulling up a stool and flagging down the barman in Milan-San Remo’s last chance saloon.
How so, you say, when Cavendish is only 27? How could this weekend’s Classicissima possibly be his last chance to emulate a famous victory on the Ligurian Riviera in 2009? How when, despite a couple of hiccups at Tirreno-Adriatico, Cavendish has started the season in a manner which suggests he’s not yet slowing down and could still be getting faster?
How, you might add finally, when for all his circumspection about his chances on Sunday, nowhere and never has Cavendish said that 2013 might be his last opportunity? “It’ll take exceptional circumstances for me to win,” yes. “It’s now or never,” - well, no, he’s more likely to declare his undying love for Sir Dave Brailsford.
What Cavendish and others either don’t know, have failed to acknowledge or have just forgotten, is this: Sunday’s could be the last Milan-San Remo as we currently know it. Organisers RCS made vague noises about a course change after last year’s race, didn’t follow through, but will one of these years.
The race director, Mauro Vegni, wants greater latitude for those swashbuckling Vincenzo Nibali-patented attacks that have become a cliché, a rhetorical device that has little or no bearing on who gets the girl.
At Tirreno-Adriatico, Nibali purred – but more importantly from RCS’s point of view he showed how the public reacts when attacking riders collide with spectacular courses. After the crescendo of Tirreno, you can imagine what an anticlimax San Remo might be should Omega Pharma-Quick Step control the race from end-to-end and Cavendish win in a “routine” sprint.
Of course from the aficionado’s point of view San Remo is never anything but compelling. It is arthouse cinema, textured and subtle, not a Hollywood blockbuster crashing, banging and walloping to special a effect-laden conclusion. RCS are fully aware of that, but will they let it overrule the commercial imperatives that are so transparent in much of what they now do? The English-language slogans, the social media presence, next year’s Giro start in Ireland…it all bespeaks the same desire to modernize and internationalize.
The Batman to Vegni’s Robin, Michele Acquarone (who incidentally was born and raised in San Remo), makes no bones about marketing and not cycling being his area of expertise. His credo: “The customer is always right.” Presumably also when, after a bunch gallop on Sunday, he consults the Twitter demos and they raise thumbs in favour of more guaranteed pyrotechnics next year.
There are certainly plenty of ways to make the course tougher. Vegni knows them off by heart, and in all likelihood has one waiting up his sleeve. The most frequently touted option is the Pompeiana climb, either instead of or immediately after the Cipressa. Another, potentially dangerous, option is bringing the finish line back towards the foot of the Poggio descent. And there are many more, all certain to make Cavendish’s life harder.
The race course in its current guise is not sacrosanct; it has continually evolved, necessarily, to keep pace with advancements in technology and training. Usually though, when it does change, so for a while does the nature of the race and the riders likely to win. In 1960, the Poggio was introduced after a run of three consecutive blanket finishes– and the next time even a small group sprinted for victory was in 1966. With the Cipressa, it was much the same: sprinters had started to win regularly and all of sudden stopped with the insertion of the new climb in 1982. The speed demons didn't reclaim control until Erik Zabel began his mini-dynasty in the late 1990s, whereupon pressure grew on the organizers to find something new once again.
It was different with the latest tweak, the addition of Le Manie in 2008, but that was forced by a road closure rather than sporting considerations. It was also a small change – but one that pushed Sanremo even further towards the outer edge of Cavendish’s capacities. Ask him and he’ll tell you that in 2009 he was on not just a good day, but one of those once-or-twice-in-a-career days, the kind of day when you look down to check whether there’s even a bike between your thighs, let alone a chain. “I could have ridden another 100 kilometres that day,” he’ll tell you.
On Sunday, it might take one of those, another conspiracy of circumstances like his 2009 perfect storm, and perhaps a few mishaps for Peter Sagan. It’s far from impossible – but it won’t be easy. A long-shot, but worth a shot. So what do you say, barman? One for that 298km road?
Issue 46 of our digital magazine Cyclingnews HD is out now, as well as this feature the issue also looks back on Tirreno-Adriatico and Paris-Nice, and previews Milano-San Remo – including an exclusive interview with past winners Simon Gerrans and Matt Goss – and Dwars Door Vlaanderen, with interactive maps, profiles and startlists.
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