Italian cycling is going through a dire moment and an Italian rider has not won Milan-San Remo for 11 years – the second longest period without a win at La Primavera since Michele Dancelli won in 1970, ending a 17-year drought.
Wilier Triestina's Filippo Pozzato was the last Italian to celebrate on the Via Roma and is still dining out on the biggest win of his now long and largely unfulfilled career. This year's Milan-San Remo is likely Pozzato's last as a rider and he believes he has a chance of a second victory. In truth, Italy's best hope of success arguably lies with Sonny Colbrelli of Bahrain-Merida.
The 26-year-old from Desenzano del Garda near Brescia showed he is on form by winning stage 2 of Paris-Nice with a long and powerful sprint. He also impressed during the rest of the Race to the Sun, winning the sprint behind David de la Cruz, Alberto Contador and Marc Soler on Sunday's final hilly stage.
Colbrelli's pedigree and palmares do not stand up to those of Peter Sagan, John Degenkolb, Arnaud Demare, or the prodigious talent and potential of Fernando Gaviria. Colbrelli, however, has the right balance of speed, climbing ability and endurance to be a real contender for every kind of finale come Saturday afternoon.
Stepping up to WorldTour level
After riding for Bardiani-CSF for six years, Colbrelli stepped up to WorldTour level for 2017 and seems to be taking it all in his stride.
"There's no doubt that my form is good, even if I didn't think so at the start of Paris-Nice," Colbrelli told La Gazzetta dello Sport. "I was surprised to win the stage and surprised to go so well on the climbs during the last three stages. On Sunday's stage I was up there with the climbers.
"The sprint win was perhaps the best of my career. And also the longest at 320-330 metres. I jumped with the idea of anticipating the others and was ready to accept being passed by someone. But when I sat down in the saddle, I was still out front and nobody passed me."
Colbrelli finished third at the Amstel Gold Race last season, confirming his ability for the Classics. This year he has also rediscovered his sprinting skills at Bahrain-Merida. "In the last couple of seasons, I'd given up on going for the bunch sprints. I crashed in China in my second year as a professional and I'd become a little scared," he explained.
"I preferred to aim for the sprints from just a small group. At Bahrain-Merida my teammates have pushed me to try my hand again. They're good at leading me out and keeping me out of the chaos."
Milan-San Remo is often decided by the chaos in the finale. Colbrelli is hoping to avoid any problems and wants a hard race – to get rid of some of his faster rivals – while also hoping that a group of riders will sprint for victory in the Via Roma.
"I'm 100 per cent sure Milan-San Remo will end in a sprint this year, with about 25-30 riders up there," he predicted. "Before the start it's a real lottery, nobody knows what is going to happen. I like to have some teammates with me to help me stay relaxed. It's impossible to stay focused for seven hours, if you do, it eats you up even before the race really comes alive.
"I like the Cipressa and the Poggio to be ridden at a really, really high pace to get rid of as many sprinters as possible. After seven hours of racing and riding the Poggio at between 430-450 watts, you need to be resistant as much as you need to be fast."
Can he beat Sagan and Gaviria?
Colbrelli's self-confidence has grown thanks to his Paris-Nice stage win but he knows he will have to beat Sagan and Gaviria if he wants to end Italy's drought and take a career-changing victory. He is hoping that Sagan will become too focused on the Colombian, giving him a chance.
"I'm pretty sure than Sagan won't wait for a sprint. He's the only 'fuoriclasse' of the peloton. He's like Merckx, but he knows that Gaviria can beat him in the sprint," Colbrelli suggested.
"It's difficult to beat Sagan and how to do it is the million dollar question but there are some things in our favour: He's won a lot but he's also lost a fair bit too. You've got to anticipate him or at least try.
"To be honest I'd rather have a duel with Sagan than with Gaviria. Whoever you are up against, you've got to stay focused and be cold-blooded. In 2014 I was sixth but I did too much and paid for it."
To add a bit of good fortune to his performance, Colbrelli revealed he will carry some lucky charms in his pocket. "I'm a little superstitious. I'll have a photo of my granddad Cesarino and a few religious symbols in the pocket that holds my radio. They're a little worn out these days but I know they help protect me."
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