What's Cool In Road Cycling

Milano-Sanremo: The 2006 PEZ Preview

La Primavera, La Classicissima, Milan-San Remo, Milano-Sanremo, whatever you prefer to call the first of the five monuments in cycling – MSR is a big deal, and if you’re from Italia, or you’re a sprinter, it’s next to the Holy Grail. Ever seen a grown man cry? If an Italian wins La Primavera, the odds are very good.

Milano-Sanremo is by far the longest of the true Classics at 294km, starting in, you guessed it, Milan(o) and finishing in, whoda thunk it, San Remo, the course takes a southerly route to the coast, encountering the tough Turchino climb at about half distance.

The race is not settled there anymore, but it’s usually a good indicator for the riders personally of how they feel on the day. The year Freddie Rodriguez was 2nd to Super Mario, he commented that it felt like he floated up the Turchino.

Once the race hits the coast, it’s only a matter of time before things get a bit hectic.

After the solid descent of the Turchino it’s coastal time and the final 100ish miles to San Remo. It’s here where the racing gets interesting, and it’s somewhere along this stretch of road where the obligatory early break will get swallowed up and spat right out the back.

Gentlemen, Start Your Engines
The actual racing begins in Alassio. Laurent Fignon comments on this phenomenon: “The two times I won I spent 250 km at the back of the bunch, apart from the Turchino Pass. I began moving up at Alassio. You have to keep it all for the Poggio, the last 40 kilometres.” Sean Kelly more or less concurs: “You usually start racing 20 km before the Cipressa. You’re fighting all the time and there are crashes everywhere. You’re going through towns taking all the risks with the parked cars and guys are crashing at the front, so you have to be in the first 15 or 20. Going over the Cipressa you have to be in the first 20 or 25, then on the decent from the Cipressa you have to be in the first 15.”

The Cipressa hasn’t been much of a springboard of late, but Marco Pantani once staged an incredible effort there.

After Alassio come the Capi – the series of hills that stand between the riders and San Remo in the final 50 km. First comes the Capo Mele (51.9 km to go), then the Capo Cervo (46.6 to go), the Capo Berta third (39.1 to go), and finally the big dogs. With 21.6 km to go comes the Cipressa, where an already hectic race turns into absolute chaos. A good few riders are weeded out on the warp speed Cipressa, but if chaos ruled before the Cipressa, absolute havoc reigns as the pack nears the Poggio.

The business end of the race.

The Poggio And The Gallop To The Via Roma
Measuring only 3.74 km and not overly steep (one tiny section hits 9%), the climb is raced very, very fast, meaning there is very little time to make the crucial game winning three-pointer, or attack, whatever. Every year, the attacks flow thick and fast, the question is who can create a decisive gap on the climb, hopefully widen it on the incredibly technical (read: frightening) descent and then hold on for dear life to the finish on the Via Roma?

Paolo Bettini has attacked ad nauseam in the final 30 km of La Primavera – sometimes with little success, as in 2002…

…Other times with astounding success, as in 2003.

Of late no one really. The last person to get away successfully was Il Grillo himself in 2003, but that was with the fierce support of his teammate Luca Paolini as well as Mirko Celestino – three Italians. Before and after 2003, the race has been a pack sprinting party, but definitely not your typical field sprint, as the legs are want to do funny things after nearly 300 km in the saddle, and a life duration reducing ascent of the Poggio only minutes before.

Petacchi finally got what he wanted March 2005.

There had been talk, which had seemed like more than just glib words at the time, that another climb, the Pompeiana would be included in this year’s edition – another, harder climb occurring just before the finish. PEZ rode the climb last year and reported on it, but unfortunately, nothing has been said about the route addition since. It appears that the extra climb will not be used this year, that, or there are going to be a lot of surprised riders, as even Tom Boonen forgot to recon it this week.

The Favorites: The Opportunists And The Sprinters
The race will come down to a duel between two different types of riders and teams. The opportunists/attackers will be doing everything in their power to wrest themselves from the greedy grasp of the sprinters and their teams. The teams of Milram (for Zabel and Petacchi), Davitamon-Lotto (for McEwen), Rabobank (for Freire), and Quick.Step to an unknown extent (for Boonen), will be looking to keep the race together over the Cipressa and Poggio. The trains will roll fast, so the attackers will have to cooperate or have teammates in the attacks to have any chance. Even this is no guarantee with the spoilers from the sprinters’ teams present. Last year, Kim Kirchen from Fassa Bortolo did a great job getting in the moves and making himself a perfect spoiler – he would of course not work in these groups – and who would want to drag Kirchen to the line just so he could dust them on the Via Roma. Yes, the odds are indeed stacked against the attackers.

Riders like Kirchen can definitely hurt the attackers – but now Kirchen will be attacking, as he’s riding for T-Mobile.

With that said, up until a few days ago, it looked like Paolo Bettini had the goods at the moment to make an impact. He was absolutely raging at Tirreno-Adriatico…until he wrecked on Stage 3 and was taken away on a stretcher. This brings up an interesting conflict within the Quick.Step team.

Gold and Unstoppable: Paolo Bettini.

A healthy Bettini and an all-powerful Boonen make for an interesting duo – what do you do? Methinks the conflict is much less divisive than is being reported. Bettini should and will be given free reign to make the race, probably with another rider or so, while Bettini attacks, Boonen will get a free ride as other teams have to take the initiative to bring back whatever outrageous attack Bettini just stomped off on. Importantly, that means that Boonen’s leadout train will be getting a free ride as well – so when it comes down to the final crucial moments of the race – Quick.Step could either have Bettini smokin out front, or a fresh train to lead Boonen to victory…in theory.

In Stripes and Unstoppable: Tom Boonen.

There’s also that dastardly duo of Alessandro Petacchi and Erik Zabel to be dealt with. The Bettini/Boonen pairing should work fine this weekend, but what happens when Peta and Zabel both feel great going into the Via Roma? Zabel is still the master of the really tough sprints after really tough races – Paris-Tours 2005 for example, Milano-Sanremo in 2004 if not for an early celebration. Petacchi is just now establishing himself as a sprinter for the hard races – he has only won MSR once, last season – but he won it handily.

Milram hasn’t gotten off to a searing start this season – but the wins have definitely been coming along.

The question is an interesting one – perhaps it would be possible for them both to sprint for the win under the right circumstances, or gasp, would it be possible that one would fess up if they weren’t on a good day? That would be a sight – Petacchi leading Zabel out on the Via Roma. That’s the thing though – I don’t see that happening. If there’s any leadout it seems that Zabel will be leading out Petacchi.

In terms of sprinters – Boonen and Petacchi are undoubtedly the best in the world at the moment. They’ve only had three head to head meeting this year, with Petacchi leading the series 2-1 at the moment.

Will it look like this come Saturday on the Via Roma?

Lest we forget, there’s a field of nearly 200 riders set to leave Milano this weekend, so Bettini, Boonen, Petacchi, and Zabel won’t be the only ones racing, and Petacchi has shown himself not quite invincible this season. Boonen has gotten the better of him, as has Hushovd, so did Bertagnolli (but that was more of an upset of the Milram train), Ventoso pulled it off. In the right situations, anything is possible, especially with the pure sprinter Petacchi and a hard race leading into it.

Robbie McEwen has gotten the better of Petacchi on more than one occasion, but he’s battered and bruised at the moment after a tussle in a sprint turned into a big tumble. Don’t forget about Freddie Rodriguez! He has been 2nd in San Remo before.

Lampre has a formidable squad coming to La Primavera: two sprinter threats in Daniele Bennati and Danilo Napolitano, but neither have quite proved that they can beat the very best, especially after a very hard race. If those two fail, there’s Lampre’s emerging talent, Alessandro Ballan, who just podiumed at Tirreno-Adriatico, and could very well get himself into a high-powered move on the Poggio – definitely one to watch.

Alessandro Ballan has had a rocket of a start to his 2006 campaign.

Damiano Cunego will be in attendance, and his strong, punchy style could go well if he goes at the right time.

He’s back at last.

Hit me now, I haven’t even mentioned Oscar Freire yet. It looks like Freire has finally gotten over his painful arse issues and is back to his winning ways. Freire is a former winner, and definitely one to be watched, but it’s not October, so I won’t put my money on Freire. If MSR was in October, you might as well just go and put the whole mortgage on Freire.

Igor Astarloa is another comeback kid. The poor guy has been worked over so bad after winning the World Championships in Hamilton in 2003, you just want to reach out and give him a hug. It has been a long time coming for Astarloa, but he’s back, and his impressive Classics strength could work very well in a select group at the end.

If the man can win on the Champs d’Elysees, I sure as hell won’t bet against him on the Via Roma.

There are many others that could work well though too: Vino will reportedly be in attendance, and there’s not an attack on earth that he wouldn’t mind being part of. Davide Rebellin is always a threat in any big race, he just needs the right circumstances – when the cards fall right, he’s unstoppable (remember 04?).

Davide Rebellin has been quiet this year so far – but always present in the top 10.

What Does Unibet.com Have To Say?
Equal odds to Boonen and Petacchi, Hushovd next.

Boonen – 4.00 (10+ wins in 06)
Petacchi – 4.00 (he’s ALE-JET)
Hushovd – 9.00 (Peta beater)
Freire – 12.00 (coming on strong)
Zabel – 14.00 (winless in 06)
Davis – 14.00 (can’t beat Boonen at P-N)
McEwen – 18.00 (battered and bruised from Flanders)
Valverde – 18.00 (even the bookies are afraid of Valverde)
Bettini – 30.00 (that’s where my money would go – 30:1!!!!)

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