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96th Milan - San Remo - PT

Italy, March 19, 2005

Five firm favourites

By Anthony Tan in Milan, Italy

2004 M-SR: Still painful to look at, 12 months on
Photo ©: Olympia

Traditionally the season-opener of the now-defunct World Cup (for the men, at least), the 96th edition of Milan - San Remo still holds its place as the first of the five monuments in world cycling, but is now the third event on this year's ProTour calendar after Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico.

Also known as 'La Primavera' or 'La Classicissima', the race is held close to the hearts of the Italian people - because it marks the first weekend in Spring; because of its almost 100 year history; because over half the winners have been Italians (48 out of 95); and, of course, because the race is in Italy! However, the award for the winningest rider goes to none other than 'the Cannibal' - a.k.a. Eddy Merckx - the Belgian triumphing on the Via Roma no less than seven times (1966, '67, '69, '71-'72, '75-'76). Local rider Costante Girardengo came close with six wins, also done in the space of 10 years (1918-28), but like so many of Merckx's records, this one looks like staying for a while yet, regardless of what happens in 2005.

Milan-San Remo is also the longest of the modern-day Classics at almost 300 kilometres long; this year is no different, the 294 kilometre-long parcours following a very typical route. And unlike the two ProTour races that have preceded M-SR, adverse weather conditions are unlikely to affect La Classicissima, with a bella giornata on the cards: a minimum of 11°C and a max of 17°C, relative humidity of 58 percent, and a slight breeze from the west.

Beginning at the very civilised time of 9.30am Saturday morning, riders will leave the from the Via della Chiesa Rossa and head southwest from Milan. Passing through the Provincia di Milano at km 13, and into the Provincie dei Pavia e Alessadria, the plotone, most likely still ambling at this point, will cruise through the towns of Casteggio, Tortona, Basaluzzo, Silvano d'Orba and Campo Ligure (also the first feed zone), before taking a right turn at Voltri (km 155), now in the Province of Genova.

At this halfway point, the race hugs the coastline all the way to the finish in San Remo, and although an ambitious few may have got away, the speed of the bunch for the next 100 or so kilometres makes the opportunists appear more like publicists. Invariably, the most valuable result for the breakaway is a couple extra hours' TV time, before the inevitable begins on the Cipressa (km 272.4), the first of the race's decisive climbs.

Those that just survive the Cipressa will no doubt be disheartened to see the infamous Poggio not much later, its summit reached after 288.4 kilometres of racing. The climb is not an overly difficult one (at just under four kilometres long with a vertical elevation of 162 metres), but what makes it so hard is that it comes at the end of almost 300 kilometres in the saddle, and is raced at warp-speed. Il Poggio may not determine the overall winner of La Primavera, but it will most certainly take care of the those not in contention before the final sprint along the Via Roma.

So, who are these five firm favourites, you ask?

Well, after Tirreno-Adriatico, one cannot go past triple stage winner, overall race winner and last year's M-SR man of the moment, Oscar Freire (Rabobank). The triple world champion needs little racing to reach top form, and after Tirreno, Oscarito's guns are already blazing.

Next in line (though some way down the queue) would be 2003 winner Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step) and four-time winner of La Classicissima, Erik Zabel (T-Mobile Team). Right now, the Olympic road race and 2004 World Cup champion seems to be struggling a little with his form, but a big win is all Il Grillo needs to find those jumpy little legs again. Similarly, 34 year-old Zabel needs a victory or two himself to kick-start 2005, but one can never discount the veteran of 12 years in the peloton - or forget the moment Freire stole victory from underneath the German's nose in last year's edition...

Alessandro Petacchi also notched three wins at Tirreno; the only question mark would be that of Ale-Jet and his ability to stay close to the front after the Poggio, but lucky for him, it's tutto per Alessandro at Fassa Bortolo.

Now, the dark-horse: Allan Davis. This 23 year-old young-gun from Bundaberg almost became Australia's first world road champion in what was a breakthrough year for him in 2004; this year, Liberty Seguros directeur-sportif Manolo Saiz has shown the confidence he has in 'Alby' by awarding him with equal team leader status for M-SR, along with Ángel Vicioso.

The others? Take your pick from Tom Boonen (Quick.Step), Alejandro Valverde (Illes Balears), Mario Cipollini (Liquigas-Bianchi), Danilo Hondo (Gerolsteiner), Fabrizio Guidi (Phonak), Laurent Brochard (Bouygues Telecom), and George Hincapie (Discovery Channel).

Live coverage

Cyclingnews will be covering the 96th Milan - San Remo live, beginning at 9.30am Eastern European time.