Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Roads to Milano-Sanremo

The latest freezing spell - blanketing snow on western Europe - had thrown a wrench into the preparation of many aspirants to the throne of Milano-Sanremo (MSR). It started with the change of day, from Saturday to Sunday. Suddenly, Belgium's little known Wednesday race the Nokere Koerse appeared to be the perfect last test before the lineup in Milan. Alas, snow forced cancellation of the event.

In previous post we have thought of how the pre-season, or early season, has changed. Which roads have the winners of Milano-Sanremo taken? We start with the latest, in 2012, when cheeky Australian Simon Gerrans won. He started his year with hard riding down under, including the Tour Down Under (TDU) and the various Aussie road races. Taking a break from racing, he resumed competition only in Paris-Nice (PN) on his way to victory.

Road to Samremo 2012.
On the other hand, second place Fabian Cancellara went to do the Tours of Qatar/Oman (TQO), then after some break from racing he went to Strade Bianche (SB), Tirreno-Adriatico (TA), and finally MSR. Third placer Vincenzo Nibali and fourth placer Peter Sagan, teammates in Team Cannondale, did nearly the same thing, although both skipped Strade Bianche. The fifth rider John Degenkolb did the harder route, from Qatar/Oman to Omloop Het Nieuwsblad to Paris-Nice.

 The year prior, another Aussie Matty Goss won from a small group sprint. He skipped TDU and instead went to Tours of Qatar/Oman, Paris-Nice, then MSR. We can recognize that Cancellara did his usual: TQO to SB to TA. Gilbert favored the Iberian peninsula, starting at Vuelta ao Algarve, to SB and TA. Apparently Alessandro Ballan liked the extra miles of travel, so he went far to TDU and TQO, then SB and TA. Surprisingly, fifth placer Filippo Pozzato did basically no racing until MSR. He had had a rotten pre-season preparation that he surprised many with his strong finish in a race nearly 300 km long!

Road to Sanremo 2011.

That winners came seemingly from nowhere happened in 2010 when veteran Spaniard Oscar Freire repeated his 2008 win. He did the usual sequence of Spanish races: at Palma, Cala Millor, Ruta del Sol. It was quite a break from racing between the end of Ruta del Sol to MSR. Is it a surprise that he is famous for achieving great results with minimal training?

Second placer Tom Boonen and fifth placer Daniele Bennati did the same TQO to TA to MSR progression, while Italians Alessandro Petacchi and Sacha Modolo did the "Italian sequence" (Calabria, Etruschi, Sardegna) and TA. If we had to guess, what was Fabian Cancellara doing around this time? Probably his "usual". Notably, none of the top five finishers went to TDU, and none went to Paris-Nice.

Road to Sanremo 2010.
The 2009 MSR is perhaps the most exciting in modern times, Mark Cavendish pipped Heinrich Haussler just as Haussler dropped his team's designated sprinter Thor Hushovd. In retrospect, it may not have been a great surprise since even though they were teammates, they raced together only once in de Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, won by Thor Hushovd. Haussles had gone to TQO while Hushovd went to the Tour of California (TOC) before the Omloop. Afterwards, the two parted ways as Haussler went to PN and Hushovd went to TA. We wonder if things would turn out differently had the two gone to the same short stage race.

Of course, Petacchi did his usual Italian progression while fifth placer Allan Davis went TDU, took a break, then did TA.

Road to Sanremo 2009. 
So what are the parting comments we can make after all the narrative above? The pre-season is surely changing, and perhaps in a dramatic way. Limiting ourselves to riders who finished in the top five, attendance in Tours of Qatar/Oman was 2 in 2009 and 2010, rising to 3 in 2011, and up to 4 in 2012. On the other hand, Tirreno-Adriatico was always an important preparation race, what with the perfect schedule and proximity. Of course, there are several surprises here and there with strong performances (or outright win) by those who don't follow the traditional preparation schedule.

Speaking of which, what about the 2013 MSR this Saturday Sunday? It's hard to bet against Peter Sagan of Team Cannondale, even if Vincenzo Nibali has moved to Astana and is no longer a teammate. What he lost in Nibali he may gain back through the rise of Moreno Moser. The younger Moser knows how to keep his cool, has strong legs, and is clearly a future classics contender. However, his time may not yet come.

We've been looking forward to an Italian renaissance, but are we well off the mark? Petacchi is an aging sprinter with few wins, Pozzato himself ain't no spring chicken, and despite Luca Paolini's charismatic win in the Omloop we don't think he has the team for this. It's too bad as he was architect of Paolo Bettini's MSR win exactly 10 years ago. Bennati seems to have made his specialization to be finishing on the podium but not reaching the top step. There are still many Italian names on the betting pools, but do anybody but the most ardent Italian fans from a neighboring village really believe they can win this one?

We think that OmegaPharma-QuickStep has a winner in Mark Cavendish. His team has been dreaming of glory on Via Roma for years and have come close several times. With theoretical co-leader Tom Boonen still recovering from unfortunate injuries, and honestly having his beloved cobbled races still in the future, it's clear Cavendish is the de facto leader.

Regardless, we look forward to the thrill of MSR just like we do each year. Harder than it looks, it has devastating simplicity that is very unique.

Who do you think will win MSR this Sunday? Share your thoughts below.

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