Italian cyclists will be desperate to impress on home turf on Saturday in the most prestigious race in the country: the Milan-San Remo.
Many of the top contenders warmed up for the 298km run along the Ligurian coast over Easter weekend with competitive displays in the Tirreno-Adriatico and Paris-Nice stage races last week.
Milan-San Remo will likely be won by either one of two types of racers: a sprinter or a puncher.
The three main sprinters, incidentally the winners of the last three Milan-San Remo races, all lined up at Tirreno-Adriatico with Spaniard Oscar Freire winning two stages, Italian Alessandro Petacchi claiming one and his countryman Filippo Pozzato coming close on more than one occasion.
However, the punchers who make long breaks for home will also be out in force with two of those showing their form by claiming the overall victory in the two recent stage races: Italian Davide Rebellin in France and Swiss Fabian Cancellara in Italy.
One puncher unlikely to be making much of an impact, unless he finds his way into a successful early breakaway, is Italy's two-time world champion Paolo Bettini as he is slated to help his Quick Step team-mate Tom Boonen of Belgium.
The race will be a cat and mouse affair between the sprinters, whose teams will try to keep things tight until the final run-in, and the punchers who will look to escape over one of the Tre Capi - the three peaks at 55-40km from the finish.
After that there are two more peaks to cross, the Cipressa and the Poggio, where Pozzato made his victorious move two years ago.
But the number of punchers in the pack could work against them according to one of the sprinters, veteran Australian Robbie McEwen.
"Sometimes, for the sprinters it is better to have the group of attackers because they all neutralise each other," he told cyclingnews.com. "It creates one long line, and if they look at each other it creates hesitation."
However, not everyone is agreed with Italian Enrico Gasparotto, who showed good form at the Tirreno-Adriatico, claiming that not many sprinters have run into form at the right time.
"This year, it will be a different San-Remo," he said. "I think that of the sprinters there is only Petacchi who is on really good form. This will open a different possibility for San-Remo."
Lampre's Alessandro Ballan, who helped his team-mate and countryman Pozzato to victory in 2006, is sure the Italians will all be pushing near the front.
"I will certainly try something on Saturday. We are in Italy - San-Remo for an Italian means everything," he said.
© BikeRadar & AFP 2008