He has the form, he has the team and he clearly has the motivation and spirit: quite simply, he’s the favourite for Milan-San Remo. And so far this season the world champion has been in impressive form, winning twice in Qatar, before another standout ride at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne last month, illustrating that he’s made the move from HTC-Highroad to Sky without any many major stutters. He admitted after his Kuurne win that there were a few niggles in Oman but Kuurne and Tirreno-Adriatico seem to have ironed those out.
However, the Middle East and a relatively flat finale in Belgium don’t compare to the demands of Milan-San Remo and while none of the Capo Mele, Capo Cervo, Capo Berta, Cipressa and Poggio are particularly difficult in their own right, each one – after 250 kilometers of racing – are energy sapping. Cavendish has the strongest team in the race, while Eisel and Boasson Hagen (an outsider for the win) were both with him during his San-Remo win in 2009.
The Belgian’s career has gone through a mini-renaissance of late with some fine sprinting form in Qatar and Paris-Nice. But what stood out during the Race to the Sun was Boonen’s strength on the climbs. On numerous occasions he was positioned on the front aiding Levi Leipheimer, and his second and third placings in previous San Remo races are evidence of his credentials. Boonen’s margin for error is perhaps smaller than Cavendish’s though. He’ll want the race to be tough enough to eliminate the pure sprinters but at the same time if the race is too hard he risks elimination.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to pigeon-hole Cancellara these days. Last year he lacked his time trial edge, while his sprinting (watch last year’s Worlds and San Remo finishes) advanced. He heads into Saturday’s race as the complete danger man, capable of wining from any number of scenarios, whether it’s a late move similar to his 2008 Milan-San Remo win, a sprint from a small group like last year – he finished second – or an attack on any of the final climbs as he demonstrated at Strade Bianche earlier this month. At this late stage he’s more of a threat than Gilbert and unlike in last year’s Worlds, he has a parcours tough enough to drop the sprinters.
If he hadn’t won last year you’d be hard pushed to include him in this year’s list of favourites, such as been his form this season. No individual wins and none of the explosive pace that racked up 16 top-tens at this point last season.
Yet Goss still has a chance. GreenEdge is clearly a more robust outfit than they’ve been given credit for and their complete superiority in the Tirreno-Adriatico team time trial demonstrated what they’re capable of. Goss isn’t the favourite and his chances of winning back-to-back titles are slim but his underdog status will suit him and his team. If he can survive the last set of climbs he’ll make the podium. It’s a big ‘if’ though.
Brimming with confidence after his dramatic win in Tirreno-Adriatico, Nibali is looking like Italy’s best chance for success. Like Damiano Cunego and Alessandro Ballan he’ll have to attack the sprinters but his almost unrivalled descending skills give him the edge over the likes of Cunego and Cancellara. Liquigas-Cannondale aren’t a one-man team, though, and in Peter Sagan and Daniel Oss they have two genuine alternatives.
Sagan has only won three races over 200km in his career, and just once has he triumphed in a race over 250km. That win came last week in a stage at Tirreno-Adriatico, in which the 22-year-old beat a group containing Nibali, Roman Kreuziger, Danilo Di Luca and Chris Horner. Out of all the sprinters he’s the best climber but there’s still a question mark over Liquigas-Cannondale’s tactics with Nibali also in the team. And he’s still only 22, so even if this isn’t his year he has oodles of time on his side.
Racing in Katusha kit is still a novelty that we at Cyclingnews still aren’t used to but Freire’s stock has hardly dropped since his move to the Russian squad from Rabobank. Two wins since the start of the year - a typical feature in his pre-Milan-San Remo form in the three years he’s won the race - and last year’s Worlds show that the 36-year-old can still feature in races over 280km. When it comes to experience and keeping a cool head he’s as good as they come.
With Hushovd ill and Gilbert and Van Avermaet both out of sorts, Ballan is BMC’s go-to guy for Milan-San Remo. The Italian finished 4th in last year’s race and will be among the most aggressive riders on the Poggio and Cipressa. Italy is due a win – their last Milan-San Remo title came in 2006 – and Ballan and Nibali are the men mostly likely.
With less than 48 hours to go until the start in Milan, Haussler told Cyclingnews that he was in the best form he’s had in two years. And to keep his motivation high he’s been watching YouTube videos of the 2009 race when he was inched out by Cavendish. There’s no doubt that Haussler can be a threat in race he calls ‘the one he wants to win’ but there’s still the issue over whether he can go the distance over 280km. Last year’s Vuelta gave him much needed miles and his role in last year’s Worlds where he led-out Goss all point to Haussler heading in the right direction though.
What odds on the San-Remo podium mirroring the Worlds from 2011? Greipel certainly has more form than Goss at present, although the German missed an early season opportunity in Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne when Cavendish showed how and why he’s the world champion.
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