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Sanremo full of gnawing uncertainty

Expect a vintage Milano-Sanremo this weekend, with the fascinating drama of sprinters versus the attackers. At its essence, Sanremo is a race of gamblers against the safe-bettors, and the fast fending off the furious. In short, Sanremo is longest and easiest of the monuments, but the most difficult to win. As Fabian Cancellara put it this week, Milano-Sanremo is a lottery.

“It’s the most unpredictable race in my opinion. A lottery. It’s my feeling,” the Trek – Segafredo rider said. “It still stays the biggest lottery of the year.”

At nearly 300 kilometers, Sanremo is the longest of the monuments — and the most explosive. Despite its seven-hour race time, six of those hours act like a prologue to a wild, wooly, and unpredictable final 60 minutes of racing. The longest of the monuments comes down to the smallest of two climbs — the Cipressa and Poggio, mere blips in a sport punctuated by monster climbs. The 107th edition of “la Classicissima” will follow a familiar but fascinating script that culminates in a palpitating sprint on the Via Roma. Who will have the upper hand? The sprinters or the attackers? As predictable as Sanremo might seem, it’s that gnawing uncertainty that makes the race one of the most fascinating of the year.

Boring or alluring?

Some scoff at the “sprinter’s classic” as boring, predictable, and rarely living up to its billing. “You only need to watch the final 30 minutes,” is a familiar refrain. But aficionados of “La Primavera” revel in its slow boil. The race is like a bottle of champagne taken out of the fridge for a one-off celebration. After dusting it off, a few shakes of the bottle set off a tremendous explosion with satisfying results. Milano-Sanremo is as unique as the history and natural beauty along its route, with a long, slow buildup from central Milano and the flats of the Po Valley, over the rough Ligurian mountains and Passo del Turchino, down to the “capi” jutting into the strong winds along Italian Riviera, to the final surge over the steep hills, and the final crescendo down the Via Roma.

Traditionalists have won the debate on what should be done with the Sanremo course. Efforts to tinker with the latest iteration of the route were howled down. “I don’t believe they should change it,” 2009 winner Mark Cavendish of Dimension Data said a few years ago. “It’s like paving over the cobbles at Roubaix.”

Organizers have tweaked the Sanremo route to address the evolution of the peloton — kind of like moving back the tees at The Masters — by adding the Poggio in 1960 and the Cipressa in 1982. Since then, Sanremo has become sacred. La Maniè, a steep climb on the edge of the Italian Riviera after the pack rolled over Turchino Pass, was taken out after a five-year experiment that started in 2008. Efforts to add La Pompeiana climb between the Cipressa and Poggio to “spice things up” in 2014 were foiled by landslides, and the race reverted to its traditional route.

This year’s course follows a familiar pattern, and everyone knows where the winning moves will go. That means positioning is key and nerves are ratcheted sky high. After three headlands along the coast, the two climbs set up the attackers, first with the Cipressa, with less than 30km to go, and finally the Poggio, with less than 5km to go. It’s a tense tug-of-war between the will of a few and the collective strength of the pack.

“What’s beautiful about Sanremo is that it always comes down to the last kilometer,” said Cavendish in an earlier interview. “Whether people stay away or not. There’s always a break that gets caught, or doesn’t get caught. It’s a real crescendo.”

Six who can win

Sanremo’s palmares reads like a who’s who of cycling greats, with Eddy Merckx leading the way with seven victories, from 1966 to 1976, to John Degenkolb’s win last year. Unfortunately, Degenkolb won’t be back to defend his title as he recovers from a horrific training accident in February. Others to miss this year’s edition include Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing), André Greipel (Lotto – Soudal), and Tom Dumoulin (Giant – Alpecin).

There certainly won’t be a shortage of candidates. In fact, with Sanremo’s relatively easy route, this is the best chance of any of the five monuments for most riders to hope to win.

Three names coming out of Paris-Nice last week looked sharp, with Michael Matthews (Orica – GreenEdge) and Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) each taking sprint stages. Matthews also won the opening prologue, and he looks stronger than ever in the climbs. Third last year, Matthews is a five-star favorite, with the legs to get over the Poggio and the speed to win it down the Via Roma. Bouhanni, sixth last year, will need a spectacular day to snatch the win. Don’t overlook Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff. A winner in 2014 and second last year, Kristoff went home to Norway to hone his form ahead of Sanremo. If it comes down to a bunch sprint, Kristoff — who is aiming to peak for the northern classics — will be in the mix.

BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet and Tinkoff’s Peter Sagan were fast in Tirreno-Adriatico, but they will have to try something to surprise the sprinters at Sanremo. Neither has won Sanremo, but this could be their year if they’re aggressive. Second in 2013, Sagan won’t be able to beat the pure sprinters, so he will need to try follow a small group over the Poggio. The same goes for Van Avermaet, ninth in 2011, who won’t have the top-end speed to beat Matthews or Kristoff.

Sanremo rookie Fernando Gaviria will be a wild card. Former winner Cancellara looks to be in top form in his swansong season, and he could have the legs to repeat his late-race attack off the nose of the pack like he did in 2008.

Who can go over the Poggio?

With about 30km to go, the Cipressa is too far from the finish for long-distance attacks to stick against a stronger, deeper field. The Poggio is the decisive moment and the breaking point between a successful group getting away or the sprinters controlling the finale. The closing 5km are so tough that even a small gap can stick. Riders such as Zdenek Stybar (Etixx – Quick-Step), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data), or Tim Wellens (Lotto – Soudal) will need to open a gap to have hopes of victory. There will be plenty of riders hoping to play their card over the Poggio. Add Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) or Geraint Thomas (Sky) to this long list.

“Who will dare to attack? Who will wait for the sprint on the Via Roma? The list with potential winners is long,” said Lotto – Soudal director Herman Frison. “It’s difficult to predict the winner. What exactly happens in the race could be a surprise, because if you use your energy too soon, it’s over. Anyway, at the end, the state of the legs will decide who gets the victory.”

Did you know?

Reigning world champions rarely win Sanremo. The last to do it was Giuseppe Saronni in 1983.

Weather: Sunny, spring-like

There won’t be any of the snow and ice that marred the 2013 edition. Forecasters are calling for cool, brisk temperatures at the start in Milano under sunny skies. Once down on the Mediterranean, highs will be in the mid-60s, with light winds along the coast. Ideal conditions for racing.

Our picks

With Degenkolb out and Kristoff admitting he was a little off at Paris-Nice, a small group staying away over the Poggio could be in the cards. If a group stays clear, Cancellara. If it’s a sprint, Matthews.