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99th Milano-Sanremo - HC

Italy, March 22, 2008

Easter weekend Sanremo slugfest

Modified percorso and in-form attackers likely to change finale

By Gregor Brown in Milano

Spaniard Oscar Freire (Rabobank) – pictured here winning the 2007 Sanremo – will be one of the top favourites for the 2008 Milano-Sanremo, this Saturday
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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The 99th Milano-Sanremo is set to be an Easter weekend slugfest along the Ligurian coast thanks to the number of attacking-type riders who are on form. The single-day race – 298 kilometres from Milano to Sanremo on March 22 – is the traditional first of five Monuments of the year, known as La Classicissima.

Italian cyclists will fight tooth and nail to win the biggest single-day outing of the year, and for every sprinter it is the race to have in one's palmarès. Win this race and you are cheered like a champion up and down the Via Roma and remembered forever in the books of cycling lore.

Strangely enough, this year the race will not finish on the famous Via Roma in Sanremo, but closer to the seaside due to construction and the Easter weekend. As normal, the race will descend the Poggio after 291.8 kilometres, head west on Corso Cavallotti, Via Fiume and pass under the red triangle on Corso Orazio Raimondo. However, it will then avoid Via Roma for the finishing stretch on Lungomare Italo Calvino - closer to the Mar Ligure – by taking a left at the fountain. The left will be followed by a quick right for 250 metres on Via Nino Bixio, a left on Giardini Vittorio Veneto and the final turn – a right – on to Lungomare Italo Calvino for the final 250 metres.

Riders along the Ligurian coast in the 2007 edition of the Milano-Sanremo
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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The race, organised by RCS Sport, will start near Milano's Piazza Duomo, in Castello Sforzesco. The castle, home for many of Milano's refugee cats and collections of artwork, will be the official partenza at 9:20 on Saturday. Leaving the fashion capital's glitz and glamour, the riders will roll out onto the race's parcours.

Two-hundred participants will head south across the Lombardia plain and Po River on their way to Campo Ligure. There they will encounter the race's first major obstacle, the Passo del Turchino (532m). The mountain pass, 24 kilometres long, is a little too early (155.7 kilometres remaining) and steady to decide the race. Most riders will roll the climb in their big rings and by the summit we should see an already-established escape group with minutes in hand.

Philippe Gilbert (Française des Jeux) had a go last year on the Poggio with Riccardo Riccò (Saunier Duval-Scott), but the duo were caught at 1200 metres remaining
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
(Click for larger image)

Out of the 180-metre tunnel and over the summit of Turchino, the riders will smell the salt air off the Mar Ligure (Ligurian Sea). After a descent of 12 kilometres, they will be cutting along the edge of the coast on the narrow roads towards Sanremo.

The Milano-Sanremo features another change for 2008. Le Mànie was introduced due to road blockage and construction. The 4.7 kilometre climb comes early at 94 kilometres to go, but will be felt in the riders legs. "There is that extra climb, and it has become harder for the sprinters this year. Even if that climb comes early, it will remain in the legs," noted Italian Alessandro Ballan (Lampre).

The sprinters' henchmen will be sent to the front following Le Mànie to control the pace over I Tre Capi. I Capi consist of the Capo Mele (km 245.6), Capo Cervo (km 250.9) and the steep Capo Berta (km 258.4). Capo Berta leaves 39.6 kilometres remaining and only 17.5 kilometres before the Cipressa. Any rider who wants to battle for victory will need to be in the top thirty of the peloton to avoid disaster as the road continues to stake along the coast.

The race will be on the verge of exploding as it passes Imperia and leads to the Cipressa (240m) and Poggio (169m). The remaining climbs, Cipressa (5.65km long at 22.1km to go) and the Poggio (3.7km at 6.2km), are not all that difficult but given the distance already covered, 270 kilometres, the effort will be felt. With early weather forecasts predicting dry roads and highs of 12°C (55°F), it should be a perfect day for the favourites to shine.

The favourites

Italian Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas) won the 2006 edition by attacking on the Poggio
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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The Cipressa, introduced in 1982, and the Poggio, 1960, should see lots of explosions as this year there are a long list of attacking riders on form as witnessed in Tirreno-Adriatico and Paris-Nice. Respective overall winners of those recent races, Fabian Cancellara (Team CSC) and Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner), will have a go, with the former following the attacks instead of initiating them.

Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas) made his winning move two years ago on the Poggio after the initial surge by friend and training partner Ballan. Both Italian riders from Veneto are on hot form; they had a test run in Tirreno's stage to Civitanova Marche and 'Pippo' Pozzato nearly took out the stage to Castelfidardo. "I will certainly try something on Saturday. We are in Italy – Sanremo for an Italian means everything. ... We will see if there are the protagonists like two years ago, who will want to work in an escape based off the Poggio," confirmed 28 year-old Ballan, winner of last year's Ronde van Vlaanderen and Hamburg Cyclassics.

Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) proved he is on grand form by winning the Paris-Nice overall
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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Fiery Italian Riccardo Riccò (Saunier Duval-Scott) and Belgian Philippe Gilbert (Française des Jeux) had a go last year on the Poggio but were snuffed out with 1200 metres to racing winning stardom. Riccò looks to have been weakened, if not sidelined, by Tirreno's stage three crash; however, the Walloon who won Omloop Het Volk in impressive style will make his presence felt in the race's finale.

Barloworld's Enrico Gasparotto also reckons that the Sanremo - the day of his 26th birthday - will be played out differently and not end in a sprint. "This year, it will be a different Sanremo," the Italian said. "I think that of the sprinters there is only [Alessandro] Petacchi, who is on really good form. ... This will open a different possibility for Sanremo."

If the attacks are not strong enough or if the sprinters' teams succeed in shutting every attempt down, there will the high-speed slugfest on Lungomare Italo Calvino. The sprinters will have 2.9 kilometres of flat roads and four significant turns to organise their lead-out men.

Tom Boonen (Quick Step) should get support from World Champion Paolo Bettini
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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Robbie McEwen (Silence-Lotto) is one sprinter who believes that the number of attacking riders could work in the fast men's favour. "Sometimes, for the sprinters it is better to have the group of attackers because they all neutralise each other. It creates one long line, and if they look at each other it creates hesitation," noted the 35 year-old Australian.

McEwen listed the number one favourite as three-time World Champion and two-time Sanremo winner, Oscar 'The Cat' Freire. The cagey Spanish sprinter of Rabobank tends to find his way through any situation. He has proved the form is on target with two wins in the Tirreno-Adriatico, the second one coming on a power-climb, where he battled the likes of Pozzato and Danilo Di Luca (LPR Brakes).

2005 winner Alessandro Petacchi (Team Milram) will have the help of Zabel for the sprint
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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Belgian Tom Boonen (Quick Step) would dearly love to add this to his Monument palmarès that already includes two editions of the Ronde van Vlaanderen and one Paris-Roubaix. He will find help from World Champion Paolo Bettini, who is not on the top of his game. The two-time World Champion and winner of the 2003 Sanremo will dedicate himself to Boonen if he does not follow the early attacks.

2005 Sanremo winner, Italian Alessandro Petacchi, has the help of four time-time winner Erik Zabel. Last year, the 34 year-old from La Spezia seemed to lack the explosiveness to beat Freire but looks to have his sprinting fine tuned for the 2008 edition. Petacchi pulled out his sixth season win after a long lead-out from Milram team-mate, Zabel, in Tirreno's fourth stage.

Other sprinters will be Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole), Stuart O'Grady (Team CSC), George Hincapie (High Road), Julian Dean and Magnus Backstedt (Slipstream Chipotle - H30), Robert Hunter and Baden Cooke (Barloworld), Maximiliano Richeze (CSF Group Navigare) and Danilo Napolitano (Lampre).

Early forecasts have the riders on dry roads, with partly cloudy conditions predicted and highs of 12°C (55°F).


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Images by Roberto Bettini/www.bettiniphoto.net