The route

The part of the route that most people have been discussing is the part that’s missing. The new climb close to the finish, Pompeiana, was supposed to make for a better race — according to the race organisers — but ended up being removed due to bad road conditions. Le Manie was already taken out of the race which means we are back to a more classical Milan-San Remo route this year. This definitely favours the sprinters but it also means that the other teams will try to make the race that much harder on the remaining climbs.

This year’s Milan-San Remo is 294km long. However, it won’t be until the riders reach the Cipressa that most people will say “now the real race begins”. The Cipressa comes with 27.7km to go and this is where the teams of Fabian Cancellara (Trek) and Peter Sagan (Cannondale) will have to put the sprinters under pressure. The climb itself isn’t very hard — 5.6km with an average gradient of 4.1% — still, there are parts of 9% towards the top and after 266.3km on the bike, possibly in the rain, the Cipressa will definitely make for the first big selection.

Coming down from the Cipressa, the route is flat for about 9km until the final struggle begins. The Poggio is only 3.7km long and its average gradient of 3.7% doesn’t sound like much. However, this late in the race there won’t be many riders left in the peloton when the riders reach the top. This is the last chance for the non-sprinters to attack and try to win this race. There are 6.1km to go from the top of the Poggio and after a technical descent, the final 3km are flat towards the finishing line in San Remo.

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The favourites

Many will say this is a race for the sprinters. It’s most likely their last chance to win Milan-San Remo for a while and they will be extra motivated. However, a rainy weather forecast and lots of strong and opportunistic riders on the startlist won’t make it easy for them.

My personal favourite is Peter Sagan. In 2012, he probably would have won the race but he stayed in the chase group as he had his teammate Vincenzo Nibali up front. With his descending skills, I don’t think Sagan would have had any problems closing the gap on his own.

However, a week earlier he made a tactical mistake when he outsprinted Nibali on a stage in Tirreno-Adriatico. He wasn’t going to do that again to the team leader. Unfortunately, Nibali didn’t have anything left in the sprint up front, finishing third, while Sagan easily won the sprint behind the trio to take fourth place.

Last year, Peter Sagan was once again among the strongest riders in the race. He put in a powerful attack on the final kilometer of the Poggio and managed to get away with a handful of riders. The Slovakian seemed to have the race in his pocket, but unfortunately for Sagan one of his breakaway companions was Gerald Ciolek, who outsprinted him on the line.

Gerald Ciolek wins the 2013 Milan-San Remo, ahead of Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellara.

Gerald Ciolek wins the 2013 Milan-San Remo, ahead of Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellara.

Sagan probably still hasn’t forgiven himself for letting Ciolek beat him last year and he’s now eager to finally win Milan-San Remo. It’s his first big goal of the season but it still requires him breaking away in a select group over the top of the Poggio. The peloton will be chasing hard to bring the race back together but bear in mind that in the past two years, the winning group only had a gap of four or five seconds at the top of the Poggio.

One of the main reasons why the peloton didn’t catch the leaders is Fabian Cancellara. Both times, Cancellara was a machine on the descent and the flat part, and nobody left in the peloton could match him. This year, Cancellara — once again — seems to have timed his condition perfectly and I would be surprised not to see the Swiss in the front group on top of the Poggio.

In case this race ends in a bunch sprint, look to Mark Cavendish. He’s a former winner of Milan-San Remo and he always steps up for the big races. Cavendish wasn’t late to criticise the new course as he saw his chances of ever winning again disappear. However, without Le Manie and Pompeiana, Cavendish now has a last chance to win this race.

In Tirreno-Adriatico, he proved to be in good shape as he stayed with the favourites when Cannondale hit the front on the climbs on stage 6. Ever since the rumours started that the Pompeiana might be taken out, Cavendish changed focus and started to prepare for Milan-San Remo. It hasn’t been an ideal preparation, however, since the news wasn’t confirmed until less than a month ago.

Mark Cavendish gets the better of Heinrich Haussler in the 2009 edition of Milan-San Remo.

Mark Cavendish gets the better of Heinrich Haussler in the 2009 edition of Milan-San Remo.

According to the original plan, Cavendish wasn’t set to peak right now. Therefore, it will be interesting to see if he’s strong enough to stay in the peloton on the Poggio and still able to outsprint the rest if it comes down to a bunch sprint.

The last one of my personal favorites is John Degenkolb. He finished fifth behind Peter Sagan in 2012 and seems to be in great shape right now. He won all three sprint stages in Tour Med last month, and in Paris-Nice he finished second on the first two stages before winning stage 3. In both races he also won the points classification.

Degenkolb is the sole leader of Giant-Shimano in this race and he has big ambitions for Milan-San Remo. The strong German is good on these kind of climbs and he’s very fast on the line. In his own words “There is no other rider in the bunch more similar to me than Sagan”. This shows pretty well why Degenkolb is among the favourites for this race. I don’t think he can beat Sagan in a sprint but a lot of things can happen in Milan-San Remo, as we saw last year.

The outsiders

One of my personal outsiders for the win this year is Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEDGE). The young Australian was no less than outstanding in Paris-Nice where he managed to stay with the GC favorites even on the steepest of climbs. It even came close to being bizarre when Matthews was the one chasing down the overall winner, Carlos Betancur as he attacked on a steep ramp of 20%.

Matthews didn’t manage to win a stage but he seems ready to take on Milan-San Remo, his first big target of the season. Orica-GreenEDGE also has two former winners, Simon Gerrans (2012) and Matt Goss (2011), among the contenders for this race but in my opinion, Matthews is their best card to play.

I imagine Gerrans will try to attack on the Poggio, hoping to get away in a select group like he did when he won in 2012. This would give GreenEDGE the green light to let the other teams do the chasing, hoping for a sprint. However, this wouldn’t increase Michael Matthews’ chances of winning. He’s fast — very fast — on the line but not as fast as Mark Cavendish.

The best scenario for Michael Matthews would be if he managed to get away on the Poggio. In Paris-Nice he showed that his climbing legs are great right now and I don’t think he will have problems following the attacks. However, in the end it all comes down to team tactics. In Paris-Nice, GreenEDGE sent a horrible team to support Matthews. He had nobody in the final and this probably cost him a couple of stage wins. The Milan-San Remo team is a lot stronger and if they play their cards right, GreenEDGE will be fighting for the win again this year.

Simon Gerrans won in 2012. Will Orica-GreenEDGE be able to take another win this year?

Simon Gerrans wins in 2012. Will Orica-GreenEDGE be able to take another win this year?

Another very interesting outsider, should this end in a bunch sprint, is Sacha Modolo. After joining Lampre-Merida, Modolo has taken a step up the ladder and I honestly believe that he can beat Mark Cavendish head-to-head in sprint. In his first year as a pro Modolo finished fourth in Milan-San Remo, proving he can last the distance and still be competitive. The fast Italian has already won four races this season, beating Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish.

Lampre-Merida sends a very strong team to the race including the former winner Filippo Pozzato, Damiano Cunego and Diego Ulissi. All three are strong candidates for an attack on the Poggio. Actually, it would be a surprise not to see a Lampre rider in the attack over the top of the final climb. However, if not, they will definitely work hard to set up Sacha Modolo for the sprint.

Modolo is still gunning for that big win which will put him among the best sprinters in the world. Personally, I have no doubts it will come this season. Don’t be surprised if it comes in Milan-San Remo this Sunday!

Sacha Modolo is in great form, having won four races in 2014 already, including stage 7 of the Tour de San Luis, pictured here.

Sacha Modolo is in great form, having won four races in 2014 already, including stage 7 of the Tour de San Luis, pictured here.

For other strong outsiders for an attack in the final, look to Philippe Gilbert, Ian Stannard, Roman Kreuziger, Luca Paolini, Stefano Pirazzi and, of course, Vincenzo Nibali. Should it come down to a sprint, focus on Arnaud Démare, Gerald Ciolek, Alexandre Kristoff and the unofficial world champion at finishing fourth, José Joaquin Rojas.

Andre Greipel also seems to be in good shape. He has already won six races this year but he seemed to lack a little in the sprints in Tirreno-Adriatico. Greipel didn’t plan to do Milan-San Remo this year. He only changed his race schedule recently, after Pompeiana was taken out of the equation. The German is strong on the climbs but he doesn’t seem to be in peak condition for the bunch sprints right now.

If you are looking for a super-super joker, try Bauke Mollema. He would have been a strong contender had Pompeiana still been on the menu. Mollema packs a strong kick on the climbs and he’s actually very fast on the line as well. He can’t beat Peter Sagan in a sprint, but he showed in the Vuelta last year that he’s not afraid of attacking in the final kilometre if he sees an opportunity.

The Dutchman had a very poor Tirreno-Adriatico by his high standards, but he’s still facing Milan-San Remo full of confidence. It will be interesting to see what he can do on the Poggio this year.

Click here for the startlist for the 2014 Milan-San Remo. SBS will broadcast and stream the last three hours of the race live, starting from 12:30am AEDT. Check your local guides for TV coverage elsewhere in the world. Wherever you are, you can join the conversation about the race live on Twitter, just by using the hashtag #MSR.