Britain's Mark Cavendish would be forgiven for harbouring secret dreams of being crowned champion of the season's first major one-day classic at Milan-San Remo this Saturday.
Though the normally ambitious Columbia team are keeping their real hopes for Cavendish in the 298km Italian epic under wraps, it could be argued that circumstances should allow the Manxman to dream on.
For starters, normally unstoppable Swiss tough man Fabian Cancellara - Saxo Bank's defending champion - has pulled out with an infection. Cancellara sprung the sprinters' trap last year by pulling off the front with two kilometres to go and setting an unassailable pace all the way to the San Remo finish line, where Filippo Pozzato finished four seconds behind.
Two-time Milan-San Remo champion Oscar Freire of Spain has also been forced out because he is still nursing injuries suffered in a crash while racing in February's Tour of California.
Another world champion, Alessandro Ballan, has also upset his team's plans although the Lampre rider, arguably, was not among the top five favourites for the race known as 'La Primavera'. The 2008 rainbow jersey winner pulled out of last week's Tirreno-Adriatico and has been ordered to rest for two to three weeks - time that he would have spent honing his form for more realistic goals at the Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix.
Cavendish's best chances of claiming only Britain's second win in Milan-San Remo - after the 1964 triumph of Tom Simpson - would be for the race to end with a bunch sprint.
But despite the absence of Freire, a wily sprinter who has won three world championship crowns, danger still lurks - and Alessandro Petacchi fancies his chances in what will be the race's 100th edition. It is four years since 'Ale-Jet' last won in San Remo but Petacchi says he's ready for another.
"I'm in great shape, and so I'm confident," said Petacchi, who recently won a stage in the Tour of Sardinia and last week's Tirreno-Adriatico.
The 35-year-old Italian said the inclusion last year of the Manie climb, which features at the 204km mark - is a formality.
"It does make San Remo harder, but with the form I have I'm not worried."
Perhaps the biggest factor for victory contenders is handling the pace on the race's last two climbs. After tackling the Tre Capi - a series of three climbs at the 52.4, 47.1 and 39.6km to go marks - nerves will jangle by the time the peloton hits the 5.6km long Cipressa climb 27km from the finish. Once on the Poggio, shorter (3.5km) and easier than the Cipressa, teams will be cranking up the pace to drop the slackers.
Although the last two climbs are comparatively easy, a combination of the pace, nearly 300km of racing, and impromptu attacks - from real contenders and sly team decoys - leaves little room for last-minute mistakes.
It is Cavendish's first participation, and Columbia, understandably, are keen not to heap on the pressure.
"If he's there in the front group after the (final climb of) Poggio, then of course the team will back him up 100 percent for the sprint," said sports director Valerio Piva.
"But if he's not up there, it's not the end of the world. This is his first San Remo and his main objective to get the experience of racing it."
However, the temptation not to think big - and put everything into getting Cavendish to the front of the bunch after the Cipressa - must be preying on Columbia's minds.
Last year his four stage wins from bunch sprints at the Tour de France caused a relative media frenzy in Britain.
Having won the final stage at Tirreno on Tuesday, to follow up by winning one of cycling's five one-day 'monuments' would send Cavendish's rocketing reputation into orbit.
© AFP 2009