The first monument of the season! It's been a long time since the last, relatively close-by in Lombardy, the rider will face the biggest race in the professional this saturday and every year it's a race full of tension, sometimes big drama, but above all there's always a big buildup for an iconic finish in the Via Roma.
La Classicissima is known as the sprinters classic, the sole monument where the sprinters are the predominant favourites in the start line. But despite it's reputation the last time the race was decided in a mass sprint was back in 2016 with Arnaud Démare taking the win. Although not having a very hilly profile, the race's distance and lenght makes it for a very specific race, with over 7 hours on the bike, and above all to climb with 7 hours in the legs already isn't something many riders can do without having their performance overshadowed.
Arnaud Démare, Michal Kwiatkowski and Vincenzo Nibali are the previous winner of the race, and as all of them are very different riders, we can expect the unexpected as there is no scenario the race usually takes shape in the end.
The race is very unique, this year it'll have 291 kilometers and it is, again, the longest race in the professional calendar. Perhaps the distance is what makes this race so uncomparable, as the time on the bike takes a big toll on the riders and every rider reacts differently to such distances, so it is always unknown what one has entering the final decisive portion of the race.
As it is usual the race begins in Milano and flows straightforwardly towards the Ligurian coast. The Passo Del Turchino, where in 2013 the race was stopped due to the horribly cold weather, marks the highest point of the race. Not a real climb, more of a slow drag towards it, leading to a technical descent that will leave the peloton by the sea, where the race gets it's most caractheristic image.
From there on the route is mostly flat, until the race enters it's final 55Km, where the roads start to ondulate a lot. The Tre Capi - Mele, Cervo and Berta - make for an appetizer, and for the riders to start feeling some gradients in their legs, short hills but not easy ones when the pace is hard.
And then begins the fight for positioning...
The reason for it is the first of the two final climbs. The cipressa is the hardest of them, with 5.6Km at an average gradient of 4.1% it doesn't make for a particularly hard climb, but taking into account when the riders top it they'll have 270Km already in the legs the climb will feel much harder than it actually is.
It doesn't usually see attacks, but it is a familiar image to see the teams with puncheurs and punchy sprinters to come to the front and push the pace. The purest sprinters try to remain hidden, but always well positioned as the descent from Cipressa is very technical, so not only will there be the teams trying to suffocate the sprinters early on as there will be the fight for positioning before the climb and in the summit of it, making for a very nervous and fast passing.
And the final climb is the Poggio di Sanremo, the hardest easy climb in the world! Like everything in this race, it is influenciated by the distance, 286Km ridden at the summit. It is mostly a climb in false flat roads, starting with a set of bends still very near the sea, but in the last 800 meters the steepest ramp in it comes, a short one but 8% of gradient, and it's a place regularly chosen by riders to make a final attack (i.e Sagan in 2017).
It's a very hard climb to ride in such speed, not all sprinters usually make it through. There were editions where some pure spriters were able to go through still in the group, but in the very least it is a benefit to ride strongly so as to be well positioned for another very technical descent.
And just as important as the climb is the descent. Last year we saw a specialist, Vincenzo Nibali, take advantage of a fast and technical descent to mantain his gap over the rushing peloton, and it proved absolutely essential as he was just able to keep his gap. Over the years we've seen also riders like Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan be on the offensive in this section of the course, and it's no surprise as in the base of it there are only 2200 meters to the line.
It's a descent that encourages the offensive riders in the climb. A big effort in the Poggio will have some time to catch the breath again for the final minutes of effort into the Sanremo, and a terrain where the right rider can mantain or even enlarge a gap.
It's also a dangerous one. Big risks are usually taken on this descent and in the past few years it has in some point marked the race. Gerald Ciolek, Michal Kwiatkowski and Andre Greipel are all riders that have crashed in it, and with rain it is one that can become even more dangerous, but luckily for the riders since 2013 there hasn't been a wet edition of the race.
As it's been restablished in 2015, Via Roma will be the place where the winner will be crowned. The finish is familiar already, a flat straightforward road meaning leadouts and chasing are still very possible which is an advantage for the sprinters, but for that they need good support and a smart sense of positioning.
Also a sprint after more than 7 hours of racing may be different from a normal one, like we've seen last year with Elia Viviani, so timing is as important as knowing what they have left in the legs to be able to do a perfect sprint.
And it seems as if the rain won't mark presence once again, for the pleasure of many. Predictions are of a dry set of days leading up and sunshine for the riders, also with a usual temperature for March on the region with 17ºC on the thermometer.
The wind could be another decisive factor as it's a majorly coastal area but the wind won't make it's presence felt, with only a slight breeze coming from south to mark the day.
It is always an interesting race to imagine what can happen, so I will rank the riders through their specialities. There's no majour favourite for the race win the same way as there is no rider type that absolutely fits the race, so we will start off in the category of the winner last year.
It was a climber, Vincenzo Nibali who took advantage of his endurance and climbing/descending skills to string together a magical win, and this year he is back to defend his title. His chances have to come from an agressive rider like last year, and a similar attack as he isn't as explosive as the climbers. Romain Bardet only raced here back in 2013 and was 17th. He's a very similar rider to Nibali, and is also a fan of long races, and is an agressive rider who isn't afraid to take risks. Tom Dumoulin will likely ride in support of Matthews but he's a very suiting rider aswell. Finally we have Alejandro Valverde, he never seemed to excel in this race, but it is one that suits him well and is another rider to look out on the Poggio who has a strong sprint in case of a small group finish, and with Mikel Landa in the team they may try to push the climbs very hard.
2017 winner Michal Kwiatkowski was just yesterday announced to ride the race, he is also another endurance specialist who is proven to have the right skills for the race. In this category we have other riders who are majour favourites for the win like Alaphillipe who is going through a mega form phase, with Stybar and Gilbert who will make for a fearsome trio in the hills. Grev van Avermaet and Dylan Teuns lead the Belgian chances for a strong result, plus Italians Enrico Gasparotto and Diego Ulissi are also dangerous riders to look out for.
The riders who are more looked out to win this race are, as the race nickname suggests, the sprinters. We can start through those that are proven good climbers.
Peter Sagan is the obvious contender, although he has never won the race he sets as the main favourite almost every year. He is the strongest overall rider but he always seems to find someone stronger than him in the decisive moment of the race, and we have to see when will he find the perfect balance and get the win. Matteo Trentin and Sonny Colbrelli are both in great form, can both climb very strongly but their top-end speed isn't able to match the one of top-class sprinters, and the same applies to Michael Matthews but there are doubts of his form after a crash-marred start of the season. Magnus Cort Nielsen and Cristophe Laporte are another dangerous pair for this type of race, Nielsen can be a big outsider after he showed amazing power in a solo stage win in Paris-Nice.
EF Education duo Simon Clarke and Alberto Bettiol is also one to watch, as they have ridden very strongly in Strade Bianche and Tirreno Adriatico, continuing the streak in Sanremo is not something to discard.
In those that have proven to be able to climb here are 2016 winner Arnaud Démare, another rider who can deal with the long races perfectly and has both power to climb and sprint. He sets as another big favourite, but just behind the likes of Elia Viviani and Fernando Gaviria, two of the current dominating sprinters. Deceuninck have a big focus on the climbing perspective but Viviani has won the Italian NC last year in similarly hard route by himself, and Gaviria has also had many showings of great climbing legs, both being lightweight sprinters should help in this subject.
Alexander Kristoff will likely ride in support of Gaviria but is a good rider himself for a result, past winner John Degenkolb, Sacha Modolo, Giacomo Nizzolo and Niccolo Bonifazio are other riders who can net a strong result from it. Caleb Ewan was the best of the rest last year and returns with solid odds on his side.
Perhaps the biggest joker is Sam Bennett, he'll race as a result of his great run of form, he can do the short climbs up to a point, but the real question will come from wether having Sagan in the team will really damage his possibilities or if he can make it in the group to the line. The other is Dylan Gronewegen, over the Dutch there isn't much confidence. He isn't known for his climbing skills, and not necessarily one that can do these great distances, so only on a once-in-a-lifetime day will he able to take this home. Danny van Poppel on the other hand may be the team's best shot.
With the possibility of a small group making it to the line there are several riders to watch out, Oliver Naesen is my wildcard, he has one of the biggest engines in the peloton, climbs very well and also has a very strong top power. Soren Kragh Andersen and Matej Mohoric other two to look out for, the latter mostly for his inequable descending skills, Enrico Battaglin has a good track record in Italy and Katusha's need for a result can proppel him into a good one, and Jurgen Roelandts who was 3rd in 2016 is another strong outsider.
Davide Ballerini, Wout van Aert, Nils Pollit and Niki Terpstra are the other outsider that feature in this exclusive list.
UAE/Lotto Soudal/FDJ - The teams with big gun sprinters that will race on the defensive. Some domestiques will try to reel back in possible attacks and these will always be on the wheel for the whole race for sure if they don't work.
Jumbo-Visma/Dimension Data - With Gronewegen and Nizzolo these are definetely teams who would favour from a very easy ride, or a headwind. Low chances for these but good possibilities in that unlikely scenario.
Bora/Mitchelton/Bahrain/Sunweb - These are the ones to look out for. Sagan/Trentin/Colbrelli/Matthews means these will look to make the race very hard, as these are the sprinters that look good to take time on the purest ones and have the best chance of winning.
Astana/CCC/EF/Sky - Team of the puncheurs. Bettiol/Clarke/Kwiatkowski/GVA/Nielsen are those that don't have such a strong sprint but have a very good climbing ability whilst not being actual climbers (except Kwiatkowski).
Cofidis/Trek/Israel - Laporte, Degenkolb and Cimolai are three very strong riders who can easily net a top result, but they need strong legs and equally strong tactics to be able to be in the top.
AG2R/Movistar - These are the teams that will focus purely on the climbs pretty much. With Bardet and Valverde they absolutely have to go hard on the uphill as that's where they have their best chance of winning, these coming from pure climbers.
Direct Energie/Katusha - Teams with some outsiders, but only in an abnormal race scenario would we see them making a difference. Terspstra would like this race but only a very direct strike would wedge him a good result, same with Katusha's Battaglin/Gonçalves/Pollit trio.
Androni/Neri - Two PCT teams with solid leaders, breakaway should be the priority but with a bit of luck we can see one of their riders finish in the Top15/20.
Bardiani/Novo Nordisk - Purely breakaway teams, there's no rider from these teams we could realistically expect to see up there.
⭐ Colbrelli, Dumoulin, Bettiol, Cort Nielsen, Naesen, Valverde, Terpstra
I'm going for a surprise win. Those who were attempt know perfectly just how much I take Bennett in consideration, and with good reason. He is no slog at climbing, same level as Gaviria/Ewan, but he is currently having a sprint matching the absolute best, and a super fast bike. He has been racing on the World Tour only since 2017, but as since netted 14 WT wins, and his evolution is palpable.
With Sagan in the team he'll have no pressure, but initially he wasn't even scheduled to race here so it shows how the team takes him into account, I believe that in a sea full of fish this one may be the one to take the bait.
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