Thursday, March 15, 2012

La Primavera: the 2012 Milan-Sanremo

Much has been said of Mark Cavendish's strong form and strong team ahead of Milan-Sanremo, nicknamed "La Primavera" in Italian. To win in MSR requires discipline in winter: indeed, it is the longest classic at just around 300 km. It is characterized by a long, slow slog down the Tirrenean coast, a hectic pace up the capi or hills, a daredevil curvy downhill, and finally just enough finishing straight to encourage a sprint finish. Over its life the race has added more and more hills: the Poggio in 1960, the Cipressa in 1982.

Percorsa of the 2012 Milano-Sanremo.
In a previous article we compared the capi of MSR to that of the Climbers' classic Liège-Bastogne-Liège. In this post we examine how the race has changed in modern times, and give a bold suggestion to pretenders to the crown of La Primavera based on our analysis. We sail forth in Adriatic sea with three questions in mind. (1) Is Milan-Saremo really a sprinters' classic? (2) Who are the contenders for 2012? and (3) What advice can we offer from our analysis?

Is Milan-Sanremo really a sprinters' classic?

In modern times this race has been billed as the "sprinters' classic," despite it having a series of sharp hills near the finish. This, after nearly 300 km of racing. Whether MSR comes down a field sprint is itself a difficult question to answer.

Curious to see whether and  how the sprinters' grip has strengthened, we look at whether the race ends in a sprint, starting from the 1960 edition to last year's. Which by the way, we don't view as having ended in a field sprint due to a very splintered front group. After some tweaking, we ended up with the following plot.

Does Milan-Sanremo end in a field sprint?
We put a special mark on the 1982 edition. At the time the organizers thought that the race was becoming too predictable, as everybody tended to wait for the final hill Poggio to make their move. So they added a capo called Cipressa prior to the Poggio. Such as the impact of this hill that the 1982 edition saw a French newbie Marc Gomez outdistance another French rider Alain Bondue to take the crown of Sanremo, both having formed a suicidal breakaway hundreds of kilometers from the finish. And for the next 15 years, the sprinters lost their grasp on the race.
Does Milan-Sanremo tend to be controlled up to the end of the Poggio?  
The sprinters' teams once again ruled supreme with the rise of Erik Zabel's Army of Magenta (Team Telekom) in 1997. It is clear that the tendency of MSR being a controlled race as it enters Via Roma has increased significantly in modern times. That is, since Erik Zabel and his T-Mobile Army of Magenta started to rule with an iron fist. That is, since the modern sprinters' train was invented.

However, this tendency is not nearly absolute. Andrei Tchmil surprised the sprinters' trains by a final km attack in 2000. Paolo Bettini and his cohort of Italian pocket-rockets attacked repeatedly both on the Cipressa and the Poggio in 2003 to break the linebackers. Pippo Pozzato took advantage of team dynamics to blitz in 2006, similar to how Fabian Cancellara took advantage of a road closure in 2008. Last year, weather wreaked havoc and we ended with a splintered front group.

What is certain is this: since 1997, the race has almost surely been controlled up to the finishing straight, that is, up to the end of capo Poggio. Notably, the last man to be able to break off the peloton's stranglehold on an uphill and stay on to win was Paolo Bettini in 2003. As you recall, last year's splintered finishing group was due to weather more than anything else.

Given this analysis, the race has tended in favor of late attackers if not pure sprinters. These are men like Fabian Cancellara, a daring Tom Boonen, a patient Philippe Gilbert, or a lucky Peter Sagan. And by the way, for a very rich historical recount of MSR, we highly recommend the Milan-Sanremo UK website.

Back to the present, or on to 2012

How do we think this year's race will unravel? Following our analysis, we predict that the race will be controlled up to the end of the Poggio hill. The question is then, what is the likelihood that a last gasp attack will succeed, and who will be the instigator?

With a strong cadre of youngsters, which we think are at the cusp of victory, we think that Liquigas-Cannondale and Peter Sagan can sail to victory. The stars are aligned just so: strong sprinters teams including Sky, OmegaPharma-QuickStep, and Garmin-Barracuda all want a sprint finish. Those teams that do not are severely weakened: BMC has just lost Gilbert to fever, and Radioshack-Nissan looks positively anemic if not for Fabian Cancellara's winning ways.

But should Sagan wait for the final big sprint? He and teammate Vicenzo Nibali might try a 1-2 punch. After all, the key to Paolo Bettini's breaking of the peloton's yoke in 2003 was that he had teammate Luca Paolini, a much better descender than he. With Nibali's descending skills they may make it to the end.

The risk of betting on Sagan is that he might not have much strength left by the time the peloton enters the finishing straight on Via Roma. All his wins have been in races or stages less than 200 km. To better examine his chances in a 300 km race, we look at last year's Worlds road race in Copenhagen where he was considered a strong favorite, only to falter in the end. To be fair, the Slovak team is tiny. And this time around, he has shown strong form in Tirreno-Adriatico and Liquigas-Cannondale is also strong.

In a matter of days, BMC has gone from being considered a favorite for MSR to being lame ducks. Philippe Gilbert's fever, Thor Hushovd's stomach ailment, and now Greg Van Avermaet's heel injury are hurting the team. One can argue that Gilbert's main goals are still farther away, and as Freddy Maertens helpfully suggested, all his poor performances so far (that is, relative to 2011) are likely to have been due to the fever's slowly increasing effect. Thus, that the fever is now breaking is good news for races as early as the Ronde van Vlaanderen. But few dare to argue that Gilbert is still a legitimate contender for a race as long as MSR.

Perhaps it is better to bet on another successful last-gasp attack from Fabian Cancellara of Radioshack-Nissan, who just won in Monte Paschi Strade Bianche and the ITT of Tirreno-Adriatico. Which by the way, if Cancellara and Sagan were on the same team, they would make a great one-two punch: Cancellara from 1 km away and Sagan from 500 m away. How beautiful would that be? Or, imagine Heinrich Haussler of Garmin-Barracuda following-up with a 200 m attack.

Failing a last-gasp disruption of the sprinters' trains, if it does come down to a head-to-head sprinting, we think that it's hard to beat Mark Cavendish and Team Sky. With all due respect to Tom Boonen, we think that Boonen's best chance is not going against Cavendish head-to-head, but rather by a flanking attack like he did in his first Paris-Robaix win in 2005. Everybody expected big Tom Boonen to wait for the sprint, but he sprang his attack early and surprised everybody. Whether Boonen has the head for it is a big question mark. Will Cavendish be caught napping? If he is half as watchful as he was in 2009 when he caught onto Haussler's wheel, then the answer is it is unlikely.

Romantics are we are, we do hold a glimmer of hope that Sacha Modolo of Colnago-CSF would reach the podium steps. After all, he did have a good showing, 4th, in his first Primavera showing in 2010.

Advice to riders and teams

As a final analysis, we compare the trend of the peloton staying together as it enters the finishing straight on Via Roma, versus whether the race ends in a sprint. Plotted together, we obtain the following figure. The trend of MSR is now more clear: the rise of sprinters' teams and trains has significantly increased the likelihood that the race stays together despite the hills, but a field sprint is not guaranteed.

Does Milan-Sanremo trend towards a controlled finish?
Thus, we offer the following advice to non-sprinters who dare dream of a Glorious Entry on Via Roma: for Tchmil's sake, do not attack on the climbs. Or if you do feel the urge to, do not start playing cat-and-mouse until you hit the final km. Or rather, save your attack until when the sprinters' trains are just forming on Via Roma. For further reference, ask Tchmil and Cancellara.

For sprinters, we advice caution on Via Roma: do not let the chaos of the finish derail your plans. For further reference, ask Mark Cavendish and Matt Goss. These pure sprinters prevailed despite chaotic finishes in 2009 and 2011. Even if the sprinters' teams prevail, it is not for certain that the team that has worked the hardest will benefit their sprinter. For reference, ask Oscar Freire, who has come out of nowhere several times to win the crown of Sanremo.

Who do you think will win the first big classic of the year, and how do you think the race will play out?

No comments:

Post a Comment