Traditionally, it is Milan-San Remo’s passage over the Turchino Pass that heralds the symbolic changing of the seasons. After pedalling through the frigid air of the northern Italian plain, the peloton descends into the warm embrace of the Riviera.
It felt as though spring had arrived early this time around, however, as pleasant sunshine poured down upon Milan’s Piazza Castello on Saturday morning. It certainly was a marked change from the dreary, drizzly conditions that greeted the peloton at the start in recent years, but while that lifted the spirits, the usual pre-race nervousness was undimmed.
No other Classic has quite the same depth of contenders, and while the finale over the Cipressa and Poggio has remained more or less unaltered for more than 30 years, negotiating that breathless final hour of racing remains one of the great conundrums in professional cycling.
Fresh from a fine Paris-Nice, Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge) is one of the men who has been mulling over whether to stay or go in the finale this afternoon. Despite his rapid finish, however, the Australian maintains that he cannot afford to sit back and wait: with so many attacking riders on show, he may be forced to follow the moves on the Poggio.
“I had some good results with two stages and the green jersey at Paris-Nice. I’m feeling a little bit of pressure but I think I have the form to deliver,” Matthews said, adding of his tactics: “I think you got to see how the race pans out. There are a lot of riders here who are going to be attacking. I have to follow them, I can’t just sit back and wait for the sprint.”
Another fast man with the ability to get over the climbs is Matthews’ sparring partner from Paris-Nice, Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis). The Frenchman finished a disappointed 6th on his debut a year ago, but the experience should stand to him in the finale this afternoon. “I got a good win at Paris-Nice and my form is good but there’ll be lots of contenders to win today,” Bouhanni said in Milan on Saturday morning.
Winner in 2014 and second a year ago, Alexander Kristoff said his Katusha team will ride for a bunch sprint, but warned “it’s always hard in the final.” Mark Cavendish, winner in 2009, was less than optimistic about his prospects but bullish about the chances of a Dimension Data team that includes Edvald Boasson Hagen.
“We’ve got a lot of options on Dimension Data,” Cavendish said, adding: “There will be a lot of fresher legs in the finale on account of the weather.”
Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep) picked up on the same theme – “It’s a long race and there’ll be sore legs by the time we get to San Remo, but the good weather makes it a little easier” – and hinted debutant Fernando Gaviria could be the ace in Patrick Lefevere’s deck this afternoon.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) lines up as something of an outsider in the first act of a spring campaign that will see him pop up in some unexpected places: he makes his Tour of Flanders debut in two weeks’ time. Asked about his condition before La Primavera, Valverde said: “Bueno, it’s a complicated race and it’s difficult for me with so many sprinters, but I’ll see what’s possible and I’ll try to do something.”
The loudest cheer of the morning was, not surprisingly, for Italian champion Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), whose arrival at the sign-on podium was, somewhat incongruously, hailed by a strange, muzak version of ‘Hotel California’ over the loudspeakers.
Nibali must subsequently have thought he would never leave Milan, as throngs of smartphone-wielding fans were somehow allowed to wander into the midst of the peloton as it lined up for the start and detain the ever-obliging Sicilian for a litany of selfies.
Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) grew increasingly monosyllabic as Tirreno-Adriatico drew on and he couldn’t barely hide his displeasure at losing out to Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) for both a stage win and the overall victory. The world champion’s mood was no lighter ahead of La Classicissima.
“For now I’m good but we’ll see later,” Sagan said when asked about his form on the sign-on rostrum. “Tirreno is the past. Now we’ll see today,” he added. “It’s not about condition, it’s about results.”
Sagan, incidentally, wears the number 1 dossard in the absence of last year’s winner John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin), and his Tinkoff team was supposed to be the final squad to sign on. Be it mind games or mere poor time-keeping, however, Fabian Cancellara and Trek-Segafredo claimed that honour for themselves, arriving to the strains of 'Fit and You Know It.'
“I think we have the sun today, it’s going to be pure power,” said Cancellara, the 2008 winner, who is lining up for his final Milan-San Remo. “I’m looking forward to racing finally with the sun to San Remo.”