The 2012 Milan-San Remo will showcase the cream of Classics talent as the peloton lines up in the shadow of Milan’s Castello Sforzesco on Saturday for the 103rd running of the famous event. All the pre-race favourites have meticulously planned their preparation for the 'Primavera' and are ready to take on the challenge of 298 kilometres of racing in what arguably is Italy's most prestigious one-day race.
The course, which takes almost seven hours to complete, is the longest Classic itinerary and while it has always been subject to minor changes, this year's road book is the same as in 2011, when Matthew Goss took the victory on the Lungomare Italo Calvino, the seafront promenade in San Remo. Generally flat, the parcours still has its treacherous moments, especially towards the end of the race when the various 'Capi' of the Ligurian coastline provide perfect opportunities for the strongest men to attack.
The Turchino climb, traditionally positioned in the middle of the race, as well as Le Manie (km 204) serve as appetizers for the race finale, a succession of five short but nasty bumps all located in the final 50 kilometres: Capo Mele, Capo Cervo, Capo Berta, the Cipressa and finally, the Poggio.
While San Remo is generally a sprinter’s game, the sheer length of the race combined with the leg-burning final climbs often open up the possibilities for power riders to prevail over the fast men. In any case, all former winners had to have the stamina to survive this race of attrition and preserve enough firepower to the very end.
Other factors in the achievement of success include the weather, overall speed of the race and positioning in the pivotal final climbs of the Cipressa (22km to go) and Poggio (6 km to the line). All potential winners have to be within the first 30 riders on these climbs, ideally still counting on two or three teammates to control the attacks or jump up the road themselves. Team tactics are also instrumental to any San Remo victory, even if there have been editions where pure strength and individual instinct have been the only decisive factors.
Who, then, are the main favourites for the 2012 edition? As usual, the event has attracted a top-class field and many big names stand out on the start list. 2011 winner Matthew Goss has been able to boost his confidence with his team's collective victory at the opening team time trial at Tirreno-Adriatico, where he also wore the leader's jersey for three days. Even though he abandoned the event on the penultimate day due to a light flu, the Australian should line up to defend his title in La Classicissima.
But the list of his rivals is long and mighty. Mark Cavendish, the 2009 Milan-San Remo winner, has been vocal about his desire to win the race in the rainbow jersey, and seems more than able to do it. With four wins already in his pocket since he joined Sky, the British sprinter could again deploy all of his finishing speed if he gets over the 'Capi' in the right group, and provided there are no more attackers up the road before the finish line.
In that respect, Cavendish will have to watch out for Fabian Cancellara, winner in 2008 and second-place last year. With his recent success in Strade Bianche, 'Spartacus' has shown that he is right on schedule for the Classics and Milan-San Remo.
Belgian Tom Boonen will be another candidate for the win, with the encounter of the two an interesting prospect for the next two months. The Omega Pharma-QuickStep sprinter seems back to his best, having taken his fifth season victory in Paris-Nice last week. Boonen, a podium finisher twice at the race, also has in-depth knowledge of the parcours and will be greatly motivated to add 'La Classicissima' to his extensive Classics palmarès.
American team BMC will line up last year's greatest Classics rider, Philippe Gilbert, as well as Thor Hushovd and Greg Van Avermaet. But Gilbert hasn't got the same fitness as last year, and pulled out of Tirreno-Adriatico with fever on Monday, while his Belgian teammate Van Avermaet, who finished ninth in San Remo last year, complains of a rather annoying heel infection. But - who knows? - perhaps all of this will only be to the advantage of two-time podium finisher Hushovd, who should logically be his team's leader instead of having to share the position. In any case, BMC are still in need of a first 2012 victory, so the pressure is on.
Three-time winner Oscar Freire is next on the long list of contenders, never to be counted out. Already victorious twice this year, luck is back on the Spaniard's side since he joined Katusha at the end of last season. Other sprinters up for San Remo glory are Alessandro Petacchi (winner in 2005) and André Greipel, who had to work for his former teammate Philippe Gilbert last year, but who also already counts six victories this season. The German will be highly motivated to match his strength against his former HTC-Highroad rival Cavendish.
But the race being Italian, teams like Liquigas with Vincenzo Nibali, as well as Lampre with Michele Scarponi will want to have their say in the outcome and do their utmost to prevent the race from coming down to a sprint. Nibali made some impressive attacks in the finale of last year's race, and can count on his teammate Peter Sagan to mess up the sprinters' strategies. Scarponi, who seems less fit that last year at the same time, will be a dark horse.