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San Remo ’08: The Primer

The 99th Milan-San Remo cycling classic runs this Saturday, marking the first of the “Monuments” for 2008. Leaving the cold of Milano behind for the sunny seaside of San Remo, the race means more than just the arrival of Spring – it can make a rider’s career – and there’s a reason the tifosi call it the “Italian World Championships”. Here’s a primer for your coffee break…

– Reported by Briggs Heaney –

The Italian sports newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport organized the first Milan-San Remo in 1907. Eugenio Costamagna, manager at that time, was responsible for planning the first ever edition, way back in 1907. Today the race is known for its length and long finishing straight, custom-made for sprinters.

Like Sofia Loren and Monica Belluci… the beauty of San Remo appeals to many generations.

Nicknamed “La Primavera,” Milan-San Remo is the longest classic, at an impressive 298 kilometers (the 2008 edition will be four kilometers longer as race organizers had to detour the route around a land slide, and have added one more small climb to the race). Past winners of the event include the great Eddy Merckx (7-time winner), Roger de Vlaeminck (3-time winner), and Erik Zabel (4-time winner). Other notable victors in the Italian classic include Laurent Jalabert, Laurent Fignon, Tom Simpson, Oscar Friere Gomez, Mario Cipollini, Paolo Bettini, and Alessandro Petacchi, to name a few.

Milan-San Remo is a race that tests both the endurance and tactics of the field as riders are forced to save as much energy as they can before the Cipressa and Poggio climbs, which come at 23 and 6 kilometers from the finish line respectively. These two climbs, coming after such a long day in the saddle, tend to explode the field, leaving only the strongest riders left to battle for the prestigious win.

And although known as a “sprinters” race, MSR demands that even the fast men come with decent climbing legs to make it over the two climbs. Perhaps Laurent Fignon said it best about the season’s first classic. “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.”

Usually Milan-San Remo ends in a bunch sprint, but occasionally riders have been able to escape on solo breakaways for the win. Claudio Chiappucci hung on from a day long break to win in 1991, Laurent Jalabert did it in 1995, adding to his legendary palmares, and “Pippo” Pozzato snuck away in the final kms to win in 2006.

Lone Rangers?
Possible breakaway winners for the 2008 edition include “il grillo,” Paolo Bettini, who will be trying to win his second MSR, Pozzato, who has been building his early season form specifically for MSR [and just finsihed 7th at Tirreno-Adriatco], and world time trial champion [and 2008 Tirreno winner] Fabian Cancellara, whose huge engine could help him stay away for the solo win. Other possible soloists include Belgium’s Phillipe Gilbert, who has been red-hot in the early season, and Alessandro Ballan, who impressed at the recent Monte Paschi Eroica, finishing second to … Cancellara. Also in with a chance will be Danilo di Luca who is coming off a successful Tirreno-Adriatico with a 24th on gc and a stage win. Finally, Karsten Kroon of CSC, is riding great early season form, and could take a flyer on the Poggio to see if he can stay away.

Maurizio Fondriest called the race “the most loved classic in the world because it’s the first classic that’s raced in Italy and therefore is the most anticipated.” When asked about the obstacles of the race, he told PEZ: “The Cipressa and the Poggio are the most difficult, but only on the Cipressa can one get away solo and win. On the Poggio there are more possiblities. Racers with a fast finish, like me, can succeed in following the wheels.”

Stefano Garzelli, former Giro winner, told us “Milano San Remo is a very unique and loved race, especially for we Italians there is a lot of motivation; it’s the first race of the World Cup, it’s the world championships of the spring, in this time of the year everyone is going really well and almost all of the champions are on the course. It’s important psychologically as well, because, above all when you arrive at the sea, you have to hold the best position in the group for many kilometers to avoid the eventual falls that would take you out of the race. It’s the debut for those who have something other than the ability to win a sprint finish, those who can make the difference on the Poggio and can arrive on the Via Roma alone, even if that hasn’t happened for several years. This race is special for the Italians because it’s always beautiful to win, but to do so in front of your home crowds is even more beautiful, to win Milano- San Remo will make your career a success.”

And regarding the importance of the finishing hills?
SG – “The Cipressa is more important than the Poggio, however the last time that an attack there succeeded was when Gabriele Colombo won; on the Cipressa, every acceleration and every attack are dangerous and could result in the win.”

Thundering Herd
In the end however, when all is said and done, Milan-San Remo will probably be determined in a bunch sprint. All of the biggest names will be vying for the title, and it is hard to believe that their teams will allow a rider to arrive at the finish alone. With exception to Tom Boonen’s Quick Step team, who will be working for both the “Tornado” and Bettini, most of the top sprinters will have an entire team at their service. Of these, there are several that may claim victory in San Remo after a long 298 kilometers.

The other factor deterring a solo win is the terrain – the climbs of the Cipressa and Poggio have not proven hard enough in recent years to separate the bunch.

“Ale Jet,” Alessandro Petacchi, winner of the 2005 MSR, has made the race his number one target for the early season. After a solid showing at Tirreno-Adriatico, Petacchi will have the services of ever-ready Erik Zabel, which can only help the Italian super sprinter. Oscar Friere Gomez, twice a winner of “La Primivera,” will get full support from the orange and blue of Rabobank, and the big Norwegian, Thor Hushovd – winner of the Paris-Nice prologue – will hope to keep his winning 2008 going behind full support from his Credit Agricole team. Hushovd finished 3rd in 2005, and will hope to go two places higher on Saturday. Robbie McEwin, the diminutive Australian, will come prepared to win for his Lotto team, as will High Road’s young Briton, Mark Cavendish. Finally, Baden Cooke, who missed last year’s edition due to his team Unibet being excluded from the race, will be keen to mix it up with the world’s best sprinters— if he can get over the climbs.

Wildcards for the 99th running of “La Classicissima” include Barloworld’s Enrico Gasparotto, who has promised to attack on the Poggio, Davide Rebellin, fresh off his Paris-Nice overall win, Gert Steegmans, who may use Boonen and Bettini to his advantage to escape from the bunch, and Danilo Hondo, making his return to major racing after two years on suspension. Last but not least is Riccardo Ricco. “The Cobra” has had a terrible early season, marred by crashes, most recently in Tirreno-Adriatico, but his explosive attacking style is well-suited to the short Poggio climb where he attacked hard in 2007. Whether he’ll even start is up in the air due to lingering back pains the Italian is experiencing from his crashes.

Luckily the peloton won’t have to deal with poor weather, as temperatures are expected to be in the mid 50’s with mostly sunny skies. Winds for the event are unpredictable, but expect gusts along the Riviera in the run in to the finish. If winds are high, tip the Quick Step and Milram teams as favorites, as both feature long lead-out trains for their team leaders. Conversely, if there is little wind, then just about everyone is in with a chance, which should make for a great racing in the season’s first major classic.

Briggs Heaney is a contributer to PezCyclingNews. His site, Euro Peloton, covers professional cycling in the US and Europe.

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