You gotta love Milan-San Remo, the cycling season's first monument. At nearly 300 kilometers long, it is the longest one day race on the pro calendar, and is truly a test of mind and body for each rider that contests the Italian tradition. As usual there are a host of favorites for this year's edition, but only one will be worthy. Our top thoughts heading into the first monument of 2011.
The Garmin-Cervelo team looks absolutely stacked for MSR, with Tyler Farrar, Heinrich Haussler and Thor Hushovd all ready to be at the front of the race by the time it hits the Poggio. All three riders have proven themselves capable of taking MSR, as each have enough endurance and climbing ability to stay with the front of the race as it ascends the final two climbs inside the last 25 kilometers.
Haussler has come inches from victory in the past, and after a low-key off season looks ready to blitz not only MSR, but all the spring classics. Unfortunately though he'll probably be the second or third option for the team behind Farrar and Hushovd, and may find himself closing down attacks in during the last portion of the race rather than going on the offensive.
Thor Hushovd is also probably not first in line for the victory hunt, as his biggest goals will come on the cobbles later in the spring. Still, Hushovd is no joke in a bunch gallop, and if Farrar should suffer a crash or other bad luck, Hushovd would likely be next in line to try in a bunch sprint scenario.
Farrar still has yet to win a monument, and 2011 could well be his year. He has raced MSR enough to know all the important segments, and with a hugely powerful team behind him he'll have no excuses should he fall short this year. He has demonstrated his good form and top-end speed early on this year, with a recent win at the Tirreno-Adriatico stage race. Farrar will be among the top three favorites for victory come race time on Saturday.
Last year's champion Oscar Freire has had a good early season prep run, as he has avoided crashes and sickness and looks primed for another San Remo run. The joy of watching Freire is his ability to come out of nowhere and snatch victory from the arms of his unaware competition. He is clearly coming to the end of his time as a professional cyclist, but to short sell him for San Remo would be a mistake. barring a crash or mechanical, he should be a safe bet to go top five when all is decided at the end of the race.
HTC's Mark Cavendish seems to garner all the attention coming into this year's MSR, but it is his teammate Matt Goss that looks like the bigger threat for victory at this year's edition. Cavendish has looked underwhelming thus far in 2011, while Goss has been flying. Still, winning MSR would be a massive step up for Goss, and the reality is that he probably isn't ready yet to seriously be considered a top contender. Under the right circumstances, he could catch lightening in a bottle . . . and set up an epic battle for control between himself and Cavendish for leadership the rest of the season.
Tom Boonen probably won't win this year's MSR, but after a 2nd place finish last year he must be mentioned among the favorites. Boonen is less of a sprinter today than in previous years, but he has veteran experience and will likely put himself into position to at least contest victory again this year. He'll likely not risk it all for the win, but if he finds himself in the front group heading into the final straight away, expect him to throw down his best sprint effort.
JJ Haedo is another sprinter who could well be in with a chance for his Saxo Bank squad. The Argentinian has really come of age over the course of the last year, and like Freire he seems to excel in situations where he is able to sneak up on his competition. No one will talk about Haedo as a true contender for MSR, but they should. Haedo is fast becoming a big player on the sprint scene, and a top 10 will confirm his stature as a constant threat in bunch sprints.
Romain Feillu will lead the Vacansoleil-DCM team, and the strong French sprinter is a dark horse for a win. Feillu is an unknown commodity at MSR so experience will be the first order of the day, but as a protected sprinter on a ProTour team he'll be in with a chance for the win providing he can ride efficiently throughout the race.
Over the past several seasons, with exception to the great Fabian Cancellara, no one has been able to successfully escape on their own to claim victory at Milan-San Remo. So for those riders that are not pure sprinters, a bit of collusion will be required if they are to give themselves a chance at victory. With the Poggio coming only 8 kilometers from the finish and featuring a harrowing descent, a group of 5 to 10 could reasonably expect to escape and contest victory amongst themselves.
Those names that should consider a coordinated attack on the Poggio include Philippe Gilbert, Enricco Gasparotto, Allessandro Ballan, Damiano Cunego, Fabian Cancellara, Peter Sagan, Vincenzo Nibali, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Filippo Pozzato. Whether they'll be able to form a decisive attack is far from a sure thing though.