The reduction in the size of teams for Milan-San Remo, from seven to just six riders, is expected to add another variable to the sport's most unpredictable Classic, with many riders now expecting an uncontrollable race and attacks possibly starting on the Colle della Nava climb with 70km left to race.
Until 2018, eight-rider teams lined up in Milan for the La Classicissima, and the strongest teams were often able to protect and guide their sprinters over the Poggio and work to ensure the race ended in a bunch sprint of some kind.
It could be a coincidence, but since the UCI reduced teams to seven for WorldTour one-day races, the attackers have had the upper hand in Milan-San Remo. In 2018, Vincenzo Nibali snuck away on the Poggio to win solo. Last year, ten riders got away after Julian Alaphilippe surged away on the same climb, with a huge effort needed to go with the move. They eventually finished 27 seconds ahead of the sprinters, with Alexander Kristoff bringing the peloton home. With so many big-name riders up front and the sprinters' teams on their knees after chasing earlier attacks, there was no one able to close the attack down.
In contrast, Alessandro Petacchi had five Fassa Bortolo teammates with him for the last kilometre in 2004 only to be beaten by Oscar Freire in the sprint.
"It's impossible that the same thing happens now," Marco Velo, Petacchi's lead-out man that day and now one of the motorbike race controllers at Milan-San Remo, told La Gazzetta dello Sport.
"It'll be more difficult to control the attacks because teams can’t sacrifice one or two riders early on. Unless of course, the teams agree to work together and then the race could be more controlled than usual."
Secret deals and intrigue are the salt of major races like Milan-San Remo. The likes of Cofidis for Elia Viviani and Groupama-FDJ for Arnaud Demare will work for a sprint finish but other teams will be looking to distance them or play a double game and bluff by having a sprinter and an attacker in their six-rider squad.
Deceuninck-QuickStep have Alaphilippe and Sam Bennett, Lotto Soudal have Philippe Gilbert and Caleb Ewan, while Team Ineos have Michal Kwiatkowski and Ben Swift. Peter Sagan has finished second twice in Milan-San Remo and is Bora-Hansgrohe's sole leader but could come up short yet again in a very tactical finale.
Six riders teams will make every aspect of the race harder. Even the heat means the domestiques will have to make more trips to the team cars for bidons and then bust a gut to get back up to their leaders in the fast-moving peloton. That could make teams scared to attack but the likes of CCC Team have little reason to hold back, with both Greg van Avermaet and Matteo Trentin racing to win and to secure a new contract.
Caleb Ewan is rightly concerned about an attack on the Colle della Nava, a high-speed 30km descent to the coast and then a real shake-out on the Cipressa and Poggio.
"One less rider in 300km race will definitely change things," Deceuninck-QuickStep directeur sportif Davide Bramati said.
"Few will be willing to risk using a rider in the early part of the race or middle. We've also got Sam Bennett for a sprint finish but we are not the pre-race favourites. It'll be up to other teams to take control of the race."
"We have to adapt but it’s the same for everybody, "Alaphilippe said.
"We have a really strong team with Tim Declercq, who will pull on the front. He is really motivated and looking forward to doing his job, so after that, we have to play well and be smart. In the end, it’s with the legs and we will see."
Viviani is not so happy.
"I don't agree with the reduction in team sizes, also because the decision was made ten days before the race, when most teams had already decided their line-ups. Everyone has lost a key rider. In our case Marco Mathis, who was supposed to control the race for us. Other teams have made similar decisions and so who knows who will control the race…" the Italian said.
The likes of Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) are ready to take advantage of any outcome. "Even if Milan-San Remo finishes in a sprint, I'm not scared of anyone. It'll be a hard race and that will only favour me," the Strade Bianche winner said.
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