This year's Milan-San Remo appears to be more open than ever, with various non-sprinters challenging the fast finishers, with dreams of escaping their clutches at the finish on the Via Roma, just as Bahrain-Merida's Vincenzo Nibali and Team Sky's Michal Kwiatkowski have done in the past two editions.
If, as a sprinter, you want to be able to unleash your speed in the dash for the line, then you have to be able to get over the climbs of the Cipressa and the Poggio within touching distance of the front of the race, and then have teammates – or, failing that, do the work yourself – to chase and neutralise any infidels who won't accept that this is traditionally a race for the sprinters.
Do that, and you'll get your shot at attaining eternal glory as a winner of La Primavera. Fail, and watch the race slip away, safe in the knowledge that your strong finishing kick is of little use.
Here, then, is our pick of some of the men most likely to feature at the finish in San Remo on Saturday.
Elia Viviani (Deceuninck-QuickStep)
Elia Viviani or Julian Alaphilippe? That might be the question on everyone's lips right now, and even more so if the two Deceuninck-QuickStep riders are still in the mix when the race crests the Poggio and begins its downhill run to the finish on San Remo's Via Roma.
In that situation, Alaphilippe would surely be the rider attempting to escape the clutches of the peloton in much the same way that last year's winner, Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), successfully did, with Viviani then primed to blow the competition away if things are still together for a bunch sprint. However, Alaphilippe very much put the chat among the pigeons at last week's Tirreno-Adriatico when he – and not Viviani, who finished third – suddenly became the team's designated sprinter and won stage 6 in a bunch sprint.
Regardless of the Frenchman's undoubted abilities, Viviani is really the more-suited rider to Milan-San Remo, and, at 30, has matured sufficiently to now step up and win it for his team while clad in the tricolore Italian champion's jersey.
Viviani has had mixed results in San Remo over the years, but all indicative of someone learning the ropes of the race. Starting with 108th place in 2012, Viviani stayed consistent with the same position the following year, and was then 84th in 2016. He was up to ninth in 2017, and then finished 19th last year, as the last rider in the front group of 19, but QuickStep's highest finisher.
Alaphilippe came home in a group just 15 seconds down, but had finished third there the year before in a three-man sprint against Kwiatkowski and Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) after escaping on the Poggio.
Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep)
The 26-year-old Frenchman has made himself an almost irresistible favourite for pretty much any race he enters these days, and this year's Milan-San Remo is no exception.
Look up 'all-rounder' in the dictionary, and Alaphilippe would have attacked off the page before you'd managed to turn to it. He's arguably the sport's most exciting rider since Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) arrived on the scene and, although they're very different riders, they're both capable of winning a lot of the same races as each other.
However, neither rider arrives at this year's Milan-San Remo as the out-and-out leader of their respective team, with both needing to prove that they are more capable of taking victory than their sprinter teammates. Sagan will lead Bora-Hansgrohe alongside Sam Bennett, while Alaphilippe has teammate Viviani looking for the win in San Remo for Deceuninck-QuickStep.
In 2017, both Sagan and Alaphilippe were bettered by Team Sky's Michal Kwiatkowski after the trio had escaped at the top of the Poggio and flew down the other side into San Remo in order to hold their chasers at bay. Then, Alaphilippe was arguably the least-known of the three, and was suitably relegated to third place on the day, despite his best efforts. Now, things are a little different, and all three riders would love to find themselves in the same situation again – and all would rightly fancy their chances of bettering each other in a three-way sprint to the line.
Alaphilippe has started this season with as much vigour as he ended last season with, when he won 12 times. Already this year, his win tally stands at six, with stages at the Vuelta a San Juan, the Tour Colombia 2.1 and Tirreno-Adriatico, as well as victory at the one-day Strade Bianche.
It's surely only a matter of time before Alaphilippe takes his first Monument and, if he continues at his current rate of success, he'll soon be able to pick and choose which of them he wins, and when.
Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates)
Did someone say Elia Viviani or Julian Alaphilippe? What about Alexander Kristoff or Fernando Gaviria? The UAE Team Emirates outfit arrives in Milan with an arguably trickier luxury problem to resolve in that 2014 San Remo winner Alexander Kristoff and ever-rising sprint star Fernando Gaviria – new to the set-up for this season – are both sprinters.
Kristoff may be prepared to assist his younger teammate in the closing stages of the race, but if the Norwegian's still in with a shout that late on, the opportunity to win a second title may prove too tempting to pass up.
Gaviria, however, is the faster finisher these days, we'd say, and, although he's only starting his third Milan-San Remo – with a best result of fifth in 2017 – this is a rider who was unafraid to take on the world's very best on the opening stage of last year's Tour de France to take the win and the legendary yellow jersey, so expect more of the same from the 24-year-old Colombian on the Via Roma, where winning will be the only thing on his mind.
He's already enjoyed a good season so far, with two stage wins at the Vuelta a San Juan and victory on a stage of the UAE Tour, where he got the better of Viviani and Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal), both of whom will line up alongside him in Milan on Saturday.
Young Jasper Philipsen will also be ready to leap into the breach should Gaviria or Kristoff fail to fire for UAE Team Emirates, and will surely be a true contender himself within a couple of season or so, too.
Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma)
By making Dylan Groenewegen a late addition to their Milan-San Remo squad this week, Jumbo-Visma have played down the Dutch sprinter's role this Saturday, claiming that he's there just to gain experience.
True, the 25-year-old has never ridden Milan-San Remo before, but then neither had Mark Cavendish when he won it in 2009. It could simply be a clever ruse to keep Groenewegen under the radar, and yet if he can stay in contact over the Cipressa and the Poggio – and it is a quite big 'if' – then he's got as good a chance as anyone in a bunch sprint.
Groenewegen arrives in Milan with four victories already in his legs this year. The final stage at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana saw him beat Alexander Kristoff and Mitchelton-Scott's Matteo Trentin, while at the Volta ao Algarve two weeks later, he bettered Arnaud Démare and Jasper Philipsen.
At Paris-Nice in March, he then steamrollered Caleb Ewan to win the opening stage and take the leader's jersey, and then successfully laughed in the face of more strong winds the next day to put himself into the winning group of seven riders, which included Team Sky's Michael Kwiatkowski and eventual overall winner Egan Bernal, beating them all to extend his race lead.
The other riders will underestimate this particular Milan-San Remo first-timer at their peril.
Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky)
Neither Gianni Moscon nor Ian Stannard have made the final selection of seven riders for the race, paving the way for 2017 Milan-San Remo champion Kwiatkowski to start as the team's undisputed leader.
As a former winner – he escaped with Sagan and Alaphilippe on the final climb of the Poggio in 2017, beating them both in the sprint – Kwiatkowski knows exactly what's required of him and his teammates to win again, and was in great form at the recent Paris-Nice, where he finished third overall.
However, the 28-year-old's last victories were two stage wins and the overall title at his home race of the Tour de Pologne last August, and he recently told Cyclingnews that he harbours not-so-secret hopes of one day repeating what teammate Geraint Thomas did last year and winning the Tour de France, which could eventually bring an end to the Polish road race champion's ambitions in one-day races entirely.
He'll at least have in-form Welshmen Owain Doull and Luke Rowe waiting in the wings on Saturday if he doesn't feel as though he can repeat his 2017 triumph this year.
Giacomo Nizzolo (Dimension Data)
As shoes go, Mark Cavendish's are big ones to fill, but that's exactly what 30-year-old Italian sprinter Giacomo Nizzolo has been tasked with doing for his Dimension Data team at Milan-San Remo, with Cavendish not making the squad for this year's race as he continues to recover from mononucleosis.
"Milan-San Remo is always a special race because at the start there are at least 50 riders who can play the game for the victory," said Nizzolo, whose only win so far this year came on the final stage of the Tour of Oman, but was much needed for a team that had a very 'quiet' 2018, recording only seven victories during the whole season.
Having signed Nizzolo from Trek-Segafredo for 2019, Dimension Data are hoping that they can rack up a significantly higher number of wins this year. It's already been a slow start, but Milan-San Remo would be a great place to get back on track.
"It's not a really hard race, if you take into account its profile, but, after 290km, every small hill can feel like a big, big climb," Nizzolo explained, "so we'll try to spend as little energy as possible, and be ready for those crucial final stages of the race."
Don't underestimate the effect that being an Italian rider winning the most Italian of races would have on the fans, either. Last year, Vincenzo Nibali was the first Italian to win Milan-San Remo since Filippo Pozzato in 2006, and the tifosi went suitably nuts. If a rider like Nizzolo can make it two years in a row – and Nizzolo has that ability – then the Via Roma in San Remo will be the only place to be this Saturday night.
Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team)
On paper, at least, Milan-San Remo looks like a race that should be perfect for CCC Team's Greg Van Avermaet, and yet La Classicissima continues to elude the Belgian, whose best performances there include fifth in 2016, ninth in 2011 and 13th in 2009.
The experienced Van Avermaet is not, of course, a pure sprinter; he can sprint very well, but he's more of a classic Classics rider, which means that he may not be able to beat the likes of Viviani or Gaviria if they're still there at the end.
Instead, Van Avermaet is at his best sprinting in a smaller group at the end of a tough race, but, with only one win under his belt so far this season – a stage at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana in February – he's a bit of a dark horse for this race. And you don't get to say that about Van Avermaet too often.
"It can be an easy race to finish, but one of the hardest races to win," he said recently. "It's also one of the most open races in that anyone has a chance if they are still there on the Poggio. I've been in the top 10 on two occasions, and I know I can perform well, particularly if we race hard, as I can do a good sprint after a long, hard race.
"Anything can happen at a race like Milan-San Remo," he added, "so I will give it everything I have on Saturday."
Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe)
Yet another team boasting two riders with very real chances of victory, we'll stick our neck out and say that Bora-Hansgrohe's Sam Bennett is the man most likely to get a crack at the win over crowd favourite Peter Sagan, simply because the three-time world champion recently dropped 4kg of bodyweight – and not in a good way.
While Sagan has had to fight back from illness, and appeared to be close to his old self again at Tirreno-Adriatico, Bennett has followed a different programme to his team leader since they both rode at the Vuelta a San Juan in Argentina in late January/early February.
There, Bennett took the win on the race's final stage, with Sagan helping to set him up for it, and Bennett went on to win a stage at the UAE Tour and two at Paris-Nice, giving him the enviable record of having won at least one stage at every race he's entered so far this year. He'll have to win Milan-San Remo to keep that streak going, even though it will be his first one-day race of the season.
Bennett's record at Milan-San Remo isn't exactly glowing – 78th in 2015, 129th in 2016, 66th in 2017 – but then he's really only emerged as a consistent contender at the biggest races in the past few seasons.
If he's there at the front of the race coming off the Poggio, Bennett will believe he's got about as good a chance as anyone.
Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal)
If any rider could be considered to be on an upward trajectory towards winning Milan-San Remo, then Lotto Soudal's new signing, Caleb Ewan, is it. He's surely destined to one day clinch La Classicissima – and possibly as soon as this Saturday.
The Australian sprinter was 'the best of the rest' in San Remo last season, finishing second to Vincenzo Nibali, who just held on for the win after attacking with six kilometres to go. So if this year's race is to be decided by a bunch sprint, Ewan has to be considered to have a real chance again – even if that means having to fend off Viviani, Gaviria, Bennett or Sagan, and perhaps Groenewegen and Démare.
Having already finished 10th on his first attempt in 2017, second at Milan-San Remo last year was a huge result, and the 24-year-old will have the bit between his teeth at this year's race.
"I might not be at my best here," Ewan told Cyclingnews at the start of the recent UAE Tour, before promptly winning stage 4, "but the goal is to be at my best at Milan-San Remo and I'm well on my way to that."
Indeed he is, as two further second-place finishes at Paris-Nice – to Groenewegen on stage 1 and Bennett on stage 3 – proved.
Ewan has the capacity to win Milan-San Remo; surely he'll win it at least once during his career.
Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe)
Tempting though it was to leave Peter Sagan off this list – due to him perhaps not being in quite as good a condition as he'd like to be, having had to fight back from illness to start at Tirenno-Adriatico last week – the current Slovakian road race champion is just too good to ignore.
Sagan has two runner-up spots at Milan-San Remo to his name – in 2017 and 2013 – and so there's little dispute that the big prize is within his capabilities. Whether that will happen this year remains to be seen, as his Bora-Hansgrohe team is also fielding in-form sprinter Sam Bennett, and Sagan could end up deciding that he can be better used helping his young Irish teammate to victory if he's not feeling 100 per cent.
But even a 'not 100 per cent' Peter Sagan is pretty handy in a bike race; having started at Tirreno in the hope of rebuilding his form ahead of the spring Classics, Sagan was clearly feeling a bit better as soon as stage 3, when he finished second behind Deceuninck-QuickStep's Elia Viviani and a place ahead of Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates).
He would go on to finish fifth in the bunch sprint on stage 6, too – the one won by Alaphilippe – but was left still looking for a second victory in 2019, having won a stage of the Tour Down Under in January.
With Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders on the near horizon, victory in San Remo would be a massive result, and if anyone can pull it off, Sagan can.
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