Form, pedigree, aptitude; all signs seem to point to a Julian Alaphilippe victory at Milan-San Remo on Saturday, but the most straightforward Monument to ride also tends to be the most complicated to win. Therein lies its enduring appeal.
With six wins to his name already this season, Alaphilippe will line up outside Castello Sforzesco on Saturday morning as the outstanding favourite to triumph on the Via Roma seven hours later. At Strade Bianche, the Frenchman used his talents as a puncheur to good effect. At Tirreno-Adriatico – most notably in the bunch sprint at Jesi – he showcased his finishing speed. Backed by a Deceuninck-QuickStep team that has seemingly forgotten how to lose, Alaphillipe has no obvious gap in his armoury.
And yet, Milan-San Remo has never been one to faithfully follow a preordained script. Instead, the fraught, frantic finale over the capi has the feel of commedia dell'arte. The scenario and the stock characters are always familiar, but the scope for improvisation means that the plot can veer off in some unexpected directions.
In 1992, for instance, Moreno Argentin arrived at Milan-San Remo buoyed by three successive stage wins at Tirreno-Adriatico but, despite powering clear on the Poggio, he was caught by the seemingly discounted Sean Kelly and beaten in the sprint. In 2004, Alessandro Petacchi was in his 'Ale Jet' pomp and still had five Fassa Bortolo teammates for company after the Poggio, yet he contrived to place fourth in the sprint behind Oscar Freire.
More recently, Peter Sagan, whose abilities as a sprinter and puncheur appear to make him the perfect prototype of a Milan-San Remo winner, has been a perennial favourite. Faced with an apparent surfeit of options in the finale, however, he has 'only' two second-place finishes to show for his endeavours on the Riviera over the years.
By dint of his current imperial phase, Alaphillipe assumes Sagan's usual mantle this time around. Or, as La Gazzetta dello Sport put it on Wednesday, Alaphilippe "will be marked like Maradona was by Gentile" – a footballing reference to the Italian national team's (in)famous stifling of El Diego's influence at the 1982 World Cup.
So much of what the other contenders do – and don't do – will be dictated by Alaphilippe's actions. Twelve months ago, after all, Vincenzo Nibali's surprise solo win hinged at least in part on Sagan's choice not to chase him on the Poggio. The rest of the pretenders followed suit, and that sequence of on-the-hoof decision-making helped to ensure that Nibali's sense of adventure was rewarded with an unexpected triumph.
Alaphilippe, third in 2017, is the five-star favourite for Milan-San Remo, but, as ever, his Deceuninck-QuickStep team lines up for a Classic with a range of potential winners. Elia Viviani was the outstanding sprinter of 2018, but the one blemish on his record was a subdued showing at La Primavera, where he could only manage 19th. He will expect far better on the Via Roma this time.
Philippe Gilbert has been on the offensive in the finale of San Remo since 2007, and the Belgian offers another option for QuickStep. The 36-year-old still harbours ambitions of winning all five Monuments before ending his career, and he will have taken heart from the manner of Nibali's triumph a year ago.
Peter Sagan was stricken by illness ahead of Tirreno-Adriatico, which contributed to his slow start in central Italy, but, even in his diminished state, he took second and fifth in the race's two bunch sprints. He will only improve by Saturday. His Bora-Hansgrohe team also has an intriguing second option in the event of a bunch finish on the Via Roma; winner of two stages at Paris-Nice, the in-form Sam Bennett has made Milan-San Remo the centrepiece of his early season.
Past winners Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) and John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) will pin their hopes on a mass finish on the Via Roma, while 2014 winner Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) will start in support of Fernando Gaviria.
Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal) won the bunch sprint on the Via Roma last year, but the Australian had to settle for second place behind Nibali. Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma) makes his debut in the race, while other fast men include Magnus Cort (Astana), Sacha Modolo (EF Education First), Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) and Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott), who has been a model of consistency so far in 2019.
Michael Matthews (Sunweb) is set to line out despite crashing out of Paris-Nice on stage 1. Together with Sagan, the Australian is perhaps the rider whose skills best tally with the demands of La Classicissima, although third place in 2015 is his strongest showing to date. Greg Van Avermaet (CCC), too, has the ability to shine on the Riviera, even if his thoughts will be oriented more firmly towards the three successive weekends of cobbled Classics that follow. By a similar token, Luke Rowe (Team Sky) has been in fine form of late, but with an eye to the weeks ahead. Michal Kwiatkowski, winner in 2017, is again a contender.
Vincenzo Nibali will ride with the number 1 dossard, but his Bahrain-Merida team's gameplan will be built around Sonny Colbrelli. Then again, that was the case last year. Other Grand Tour men set to sample La Classicissima include Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) and Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale), but the biggest threat to the fast men from their number is posed by world champion Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who has made the race a late addition to his schedule. Michal Kwiatkowski, who can seemingly do everything, leads the line for Team Sky, having triumphed two years ago.
In 2014, RCS Sport announced plans to introduce the five-kilometre ascent of the Pompeiana into the finale of Milan-San Remo, tucked between the Cipressa and the Poggio. Its inclusion would likely have put victory beyond the reach of the sprinters and irremediably altered the tenor of the race. Landslides in the winter of 2013-14, however, made the Pompeiana impassable, and the idea was quietly discarded in the years since.
In truth, Milan-San Remo's existing finale – in use since 1982 – needed no additional adornment. The combination of the Cipressa and the Poggio, followed by the dizzying plunge into San Remo, makes for the most suspenseful half-hour in cycling, and even the relative anti-climax of a bunch finish does little to detract from the excitement that precedes it.
That said, the first six hours or so of the 291km race are largely about waiting and ritual. The long, flat run from the centre of Milan across the Plain of Lombardy brings the gruppo to the Passo del Turchino (143km), where – symbolically at least – they cross from winter to spring at the summit.
The tension increases once the race hits the Ligurian coast shortly afterwards, and the attrition begins in earnest on the Capo Mele after 241km. The Capo Cervo and Berta follow, before the endgame takes shape on the Cipressa and Poggio. Raw power is important, of course, but so too are positioning, timing and uncontrollable factors like wind direction.
This is the longest day on the WorldTour calendar, but it is also the race where split-second decisions have the most irremediable consequences. Being the strongest man is no guarantee of ultimate success on the Via Roma. The maddening beauty of Milan-San Remo – a race like no other.