Born a stone's throw from the foot of La Redoute, Philippe Gilbert has used his local knowledge to good effect in the Ardennes Classics over the years and the Belgian will hope to make use of the same weapon in his armoury at Milan-San Remo on Sunday.
Now resident in Monaco, Gilbert's training roads regularly take him across the border into Italy and towards the finale of Milan-San Remo, and he has a keen understanding of the subtleties of racing on the Riviera.
All winter, of course, Gilbert was building towards La Classicissima in the belief that the closing stages would feature the new climb of the Pompeiana, a hill seemingly tailored to his punchy characteristics, but a landslide means that the new addition must wait at least another year.
With Le Manie also off the agenda, the course is (almost) back to what it was in 2007 and the balance appears to have tilted in favour of the sprinters, but Gilbert believes the race's finish on the Lungomare Italo Calvino – some 6.1 kilometres from the top of the Poggio – is a bigger hindrance to attackers than the absence of an extra climb.
"I've never won this race but I've always been there in the final," Gilbert told reporters in Vimercate on Friday afternoon. "Although in 2007, the finish was still on the Via Roma and that's also a big difference because now it's a long way from the bottom of the Poggio to the finish. That changes a lot and maybe it's the hardest thing in the race right now."
The five capi that punctuate the finale of Milan-San Remo are far from the most difficult climbs the peloton will face this spring, but with over 250 kilometres already in their legs, those apparent creases on the Ligurian coast have the tendency to stiffen into a rather sterner proposition, while the rain forecast for Sunday afternoon would add another dimension to the race.
"I have no problem if it's raining but I know the Riviera and it's very slippery if it's raining and that's dangerous," Gilbert said. "The wind is also very important. This makes the race. Would I prefer a tailwind? Well, it depends because then you have a headwind on the Poggio as you come back. So I would prefer a tailwind on the climbs because then you can go faster on the climbs."
Gilbert insisted, however, that "it is the riders who make the race" and said that the pace in the opening hours along the Plain of Lombardy will set the tone for what is to follow once over the Turchino and onto the Riviera.
"If we go crazy from the start and there's wind and rain, then it will be a hard edition, but if five guys go away early and take 18 minutes then it's different," he said. "After that, you can feel on the Capo Berta if you have the legs to win or not. Although in other races when you feel good with 40k to go, you know you'll be in the top five or the top ten but here it's never sure."
Allies of circumstance
Although Thor Hushovd is included in the BMC line-up, the Norwegian is no longer sprinting on the same level as the likes of Cavendish and André Greipel, and so Gilbert, Greg Van Avermaet and company will be looking to shed the peloton of the pure sprinters on the capi. In that context, the Cannondale team of Peter Sagan could become useful allies of circumstance.
"We're not the only one in this situation. Cannondale always do this. They did it again on the last [road] stage of Tirreno. They go full gas on the climbs to drop the sprinters. They only dropped Kittel but they did it. I think Sagan would like to be in a smaller group and he will like to play this tactic," Gilbert said.
As the two sprinters best equipped to handle the pace on the Cipressa and Poggio, Sagan and John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) perhaps enter the race as favourites, but Gilbert warned that it would be foolish to discount the chances of Mark Cavendish, who, after all, resisted Cannondale's forcing on the road to Porto Sant'Elpidio on Monday to land stage victory at Tirreno-Adriatico.
"I think the list is longer than this [Sagan and Degenkolb]: you also have Cavendish," Gilbert said. "He just won a stage at Tirreno-Adriatico, he was better and better everyday and he has a great team also, so for me he's also there with these guys. And if we just think a little bit we can find five or six other names."
For his part, Gilbert enters the race flying under the radar after a solid but unspectacular showing at Tirreno-Adriatico. While his best form of the spring is likely to be reserved for the Ardennes Classics, he said that Milan-San Remo was still the victory he coveted the most this spring.
"You know that my dream is to win all the Classics, and this year I don't do Flanders or Roubaix so my dream is to win the one I've never won before: Milan-San Remo," said Gilbert, who would bridge a 15-year gap for Belgium if he were to do so.
"Although we had to take a Russian to win the last time," he joked of Andrei Tchmil's 1999 win. The last Belgian-born winner was Fons De Wolf in 1981, but Gilbert said he paid little heed to such statistics. "It's like when I won Lombardy in 2009, it was a 29-year gap, I think [also to De Wolf - ed.]"
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