The best Classics rider and sprinters in the peloton will go head-to-head for the first big one-day showdown of the 2010 season at Milan-San Remo on Saturday.
Known as La Classicissima, or La Primavera because it often falls on the day of the spring equinox, Milan-San Remo is the longest race on the International Cycling Union calendar (298km) and is traditionally regarded as the true start of the Spring Classics.
The route for the 101th edition of Milan-San Remo is exactly the same as last year's centenary race, with a total distance of 298 kilometres. That will mean almost seven hours in the saddle for the 200 riders in the peloton.
The race again starts in the shadows of the Castello Sforzesco in the centre of Milan and ends on the Lungomare Italo Calvino overlooking the Mediterranean in San Remo.
The recently added climb of the Le Mànie after 204 kilometres will again be a key point in the race, as will the Passo del Turchino before it at 142 kilometres. The legendary coastal Capi climbs begin 50 kilometres from the finish and mark the start of the traditionally tense finale of the race. The big attacks usually come just afterwards, on the climbs of the Cipressa, 25 kilometres from the finish, and the Poggio, which overlooks San Remo.
The Cipressa switch-backs its way up into the hills through olives trees and a small group of attackers often carve out a gap before the summit at the church. Some sprinters are dropped here but most make it over the top in the peloton and then get their teammates to chase down the break. While the Cipressa rarely decides the race, it does leave the sprinters in the red and with lactic acid burning in their legs.
Positioning on the approach to the Poggio is vital and there is effectively a sprint to decide who will start the climb near the front. The roads twist up the hillside through massive greenhouses full of early season flowers. The false flat near the summit is one of the favourite places to attack and try to get a gap before the high-speed descent to San Remo. There are just three kilometres between the bottom of the descent and the finish. That can be enough for any attackers to make a final move but also helps the sprinters' teams chase them down.
Race Organiser RCS Sport has decided to use the same finish near the port of San Remo, where Mark Cavendish edged out Heinrich Haussler last year.
For several months RCS Sport considered a new finish that would include a narrow finishing straight before a final section on cobbles. They wisely opted against it, but planned construction work means a new finish will have to be found for future editions. Sadly, the shop owners along the Via Roma no longer want the race to close down the centre of San Remo, so it would appear that the legendary sight of the peloton rumbling down the corridor of Via Roma, which hosted so many great finishes, looks lost forever.
Sprinters or attackers in 2010?
The sprinters have dominated many of the 100 previous editions of La Classicissima, but this year the feeling in the peloton is that a breakaway may stay clear and take the glory.
Italy's Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) has been trying to drum up support for an aggressive race during Tirreno-Adriatico. He hopes fellow Italians Alessandro Ballan (BMC), Francesco Ginnani (Androni-Giocatolli) and Stefano Garzelli (Acqua & Sapone), Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Thomas Voeckler (Bbox Bouygues Telecom) and Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank), will join him in any attacks so that they can elude the grip of the sprinters.
The weather could also be a factor, with rain forecast for the start in Milan and for the finish in San Remo. The sprinters prefer the early spring sun, while rain and treacherous descents favour the brave. In 1991, Claudio Chiappucci pulled of a memorable win in the rain, attacking over the Turchino and then dropping Rolf Sorensen on the Poggio to win alone in San Remo. Could the same happen this year if it rains?
Fabian Cancellara was the last solo winner after a late attack from a front group in the final two kilometres of the 2008 edition of the race. However, the peloton seems to have learnt how to tame the attacks on the Poggio, and the absence of a pack of photographers motorbikes means any possible slipstream effect for the first attacker no longer exists.
Mark Cavendish wears number one but has admitted he has little chance of a second consecutive victory, meaning his HTC-Columbia team will not play a hand in controlling the attacks. That responsibility to will fall on the shoulders of Quick Step, Liquigas-Doimo, Lampre-Farnese Vini, Cervélo TestTeam, Garmin-Transitions and Rabobank as they ride for Tom Boonen, Daniele Bennati, Alessandro Petacchi, Thor Hushovd, Tyler Farrar and Oscar Freire, respectively.
Boonen looked on-form, was fast in the sprints and climbing well at Tirreno-Adriatico over the past week. Petacchi seems to have recovered from his pre-Tirreno crash, while Freire is yet again a dark horse for the race he has won twice in his career (2004, 2007). Robbie McEwen could also be up there, while Edvald Boasson Hagen (Team Sky) could win in a sprint or go with the inevitable attacks on the Poggio.
The presence of Lance Armstrong (RadioShack) adds an extra dimension to the race. Last year he finished in the main peloton, 8:19 behind Cavendish after getting dropped on the Cipressa. He looks fitter despite being a year older and could perhaps play a part in the finale.
Cyclingnews will provide live coverage of the 101st Milan-San Remo this Saturday, as well as exclusive reports and interviews before and after the race.