For many, Milan-San Remo marks the true beginning of the Spring Classics season and it's a date circled on the calendars of both the Classics specialists as well as the peloton's sprinters.
While sprinters have prevailed at La Primavera in nine of the previous 13 editions, there's always a chance that a crafty rouleur seeking to avoid a mass finish can escape on the Poggio and power away to glory in San Remo, either alone or from a small group.
With the winners of the five previous editions on the start list plus a strong contingent of riders eager to taste victory in San Remo for the first time, Cyclingnews has rated the chances of 11 men we feel are contenders on Saturday.
Daniele Bennati (Liquigas-Doimo)
Why he can win: He's already won half as many races as he won in 2009 (four) so the question on everyone's lips is, is Bennati approaching the form which took him to stage wins in every Grand Tour before a succession of injuries took their toll? Last year the Italian finished sixth, so the power to survive the climbs and sprint is there and with Nibali, Kreuziger, Pellizotti and the under-rated Quinziato for support he'll have one of race’s strongest teams.
Why he can't win: Is he faster than Boonen or Petacchi? Nine times out of ten the answer is no and despite showing glimmers of form he’s still not the same rider he was in 2006 and 2007.
CN Rating: 6.5 out of 10
Edvald Boasson Hagen (Team Sky)
Why he can win: He's the new 'Cannibal', isn't he? Last year he won Gent-Wevelgem before going on to a Giro d'Italia stage win and the overall titles in the Eneco Tour and the Tour of Britain - among other successes. A move from HTC to Sky followed, where so far this season he has won two stages of the Tour of Oman and the final stage in Tirreno. Bob 'Blue Chip' Stapleton doesn't usually let talent slip through his fingers but with Cavendish out of sorts he'll be ruing the day he was forced to let the Norwegian leave.
Why he can't win: Inexperience, perhaps? 298 kilometres is a long way to ride, and not always easy for young legs. Boasson Hagen does have experience in the race, working his socks off for Cavendish last year, but the biggest problem could be losing the services of Kurt-Asle Arvesen, who is still recovering from a collarbone broken in Qatar.
CN Rating: 8 out of 10
Tom Boonen (Quick Step)
Why he can win: Everyone under the Italian sun is tipping Boonen to take the win, including all of his rivals. His age and experience work for him, too. He will be riding Milan-San Remo for the ninth time, so he knows how to handle the long distance, pace himself and still have the power after almost seven hours of racing.
Why he can't win: Stats don't lie and he's ridden the race eight times and never won it. Boonen's highest placing over the years has been fourth (2006) and third (2007). The last two years, however, he has been off the pace. And while he says he is coming into this race in better form than last year, he also admits that San Remo is not his top priority.
CN Rating: 8.5 out of 10
Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank)
Why he can win: Fabian Cancellara is not a sprinter but is still a favourite for Milan-San Remo because of his proven ability to win with powerful late attacks. The three-time world time trial champion won Milan-San Remo in 2008 by accelerating away in the final two kilometres. His rivals saw him attack but nobody had the speed or courage to go after him. If he is allowed to gain a 50-metre gap before the finish, no one will be able to stop him.
Why he can't win: Everyone will be expecting Cancellara to go on the attack and they surely won't let themselves be humiliated yet again. Cancellara also loves the cobbled classics more than Milan-San Remo and so may not yet be at his very best. He won the Tour of Oman thanks to a strong ride in the final time trial but he has been quiet since. When he won Milan-San Remo in 2008 he also won Tirreno-Adriatico, this year he only finished 48th overall.
CN rating: 7 out of 10
Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia)
Why he can win: Mark Cavendish was only the fourth rider to ever win Milan-San Remo on his debut in the race last year and he is so fast that he can win sprints even when he is far from his best. Cavendish could have pulled out of Milan-San Remo to avoid further scrutiny about his form but La Primavera is his favourite one-day classic and the Manxman rightly wants to honour the race. If he manages to make it over the climbs, it will be a huge boost to his morale and anything could happen in the sprint.
Why he can't win: Despite many of Cavendish's sprint rivals insisting he has a chance to win on Saturday, his problematic early season means he is at least a month behind on his training and racing schedule. His best result so far this year is second place to Theo Bos (Cervélo Test Team) in the Clasica de Almeria and he crashed in the final stage of Tirreno-Adriatico before he could test himself in the sprint.
CN rating: 5 out of 10
Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions)
Why he can win: The American sprinter won the Vattenfall Cyclassics in Hamburg, Germany, last August with an impressive sprint. It was a highlight of a strong late season that had many predicting he was closing the gap on Cavendish. Farrar has put in a number of top ten finishes so far this season, with his best finish being third in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
Why he can't win: Farrar has always been more of a middle-to-late season sprinter, always getting off to a slow start in the season. He hasn't shown much so far this year, with the exception of the Omloop. A lack of experience at racing for 300km could be his biggest problem.
CN Rating: 3.5 out of 10
Oscar Freire (Rabobank)
Why he can win: He's won the race twice, in 2004 and 2007, so he knows exactly what it takes to finish first at Milan-San Remo. Arguably he's the strongest sprinter on the climbs, too, so the Cipressa and Poggio should be within his comfort zone. As for his finishing speed, when fit he's one of the fastest, canniest riders in the bunch. Still one of the most talented riders on planet and due a big win, too.
Why he won't win: 2009 was almost a total write-off when compared to 2008's storming performances. This year he's started off with three wins but illness leading up to Tirreno has hampered his training.
CN Rating: 5 out of 10
Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto)
Why he can win: The Belgian is a Classics specialist who has come close to winning Milan-San Remo several times, finishing third there in 2008. His most dramatic appearance was in 2007, when he attacked, along with Riccardo Riccò, on the Poggio climb for what looked like the winning break. Like Farrar, he ended 2009 with a bang, winning Coppa Sabatini, Paris-Tours, Giro del Piemonte and the Giro di Lombardia and can now be considered as one of the most aggressive and feared one-day specialists. Gilbert races with panache, too.
Why he can't win: While it's hard not to admire Gilbert's desire to race almost an entire season full gas, it does leave him with an acute problem in that riders pinpoint a month, or in some races, one day for their seasons. So far Gilbert hasn't hit top form, or at least hasn't shown top form, so a winning attack might have to wait for later in the Spring.
CN ranking: 6.5 out of 10
Thor Hushovd (Cervélo Test Team)
Why he can win: Last year's winner is out of sorts, while the runner-up (Haussler) has been ruled out through injury, meaning Hushovd, on paper at least, should be a favourite having finished third last year. One of the strongest sprinters around, he'll benefit from having a team that's not just built around him but one that's also lacking Haussler.
Why he can't win: Illness decimated the start to the Norwegian's season and when Cyclingnews caught up with him in Belgium last month he looked like an extra from a George Romero film. Without a win this season his confidence won't exactly be through the roof and you have to wonder if he has the training in his legs after missing so much racing.
CN Rating: 6 out of 10
Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-Farnese Vini)
Why he can win: He’s fast and can handle the climbs. At 36, Petacchi is now the veteran sprinter of the peloton but could still have one last Milan-San Remo victory is his legs. He won with a powerful sprint on the old Via Roma finish in 2005 and was second in 2006. Petacchi looked leaner and meaner than ever before when he won the GP Costa degli Etruschi race for a sixth consecutive year in early February and has the experience and the endurance to win Milan-San Remo again.
Why he can't win: Petacchi's nasty training crash just two days before the start of Tirreno-Adriatico could hurt his chances in San Remo. The Italian hit a plant pot, needed five stitches in his chin, hurt his groin and ankle and has not been the same since, even if he made it through Tirreno-Adriatico. Petacchi's biggest problem could be the expected bad weather. After smashing his kneecap in the rain at the 2006 Giro d'Italia, Petacchi has always been one of the first to touch the brakes when the roads are wet.
CN rating: 7.5 out of 10
Filippo Pozzato (Team Katusha)
Why he can win: He's done it before, in 2006. Every Italian dreams of winning Milan-San Remo and the glamour of the race means it has always been Pozzato's first big goal of the season. Of all the classics, Milan-San Remo best suits Pozzato's style of racing and he knows the route like the back of his hand because he lives in nearby Monte Carlo.
Why he can't win: Katusha opted to leave Robbie McEwen at home and build the team around Pozzato. That will put extra pressure on Pozzato to perform and create a bigger polemic if he again comes up short. Katusha team manager Andrei Tchmil will probably be in the team car on Saturday. He won Milan-San Remo in 1999 with a perfectly-timed late attack and will be expecting Pozzato to win.
CN rating: 8 out of 10
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