Britain's Mark Cavendish is maintaining hopes of pulling off a rare double by winning the gruelling Milan-San Remo when it opens the one-day classics season on Saturday.
But more than one of the Isle of Man sprinter's rivals are aware of his apparent lack of form, and they will be ready to anticipate the kind of move that handed Cavendish a shock, but deserved, victory last year.
In 2009 Cavendish started 'La Primavera' as an outsider after what some now believe was a deliberately mediocre performance on the hills of the Tirreno-Adriatico stage race the week before. But after sailing over the Cipressa and Poggio climbs, Cavendish chased down Heinrich Haussler after the German launched a late bid for the win to claim his first major classics crown, and become the first Briton to win the race since Tom Simpson in 1964.
A year later, Cavendish's late start to competition due mainly to dental problems appear to have left him short of full fitness. And although some, including Italy's 2006 champion Filippo Pozzato, have doubts Belgian rival Tom Boonen won't count the Manxman out.
Tom Boonen and Daniele Bennati - rivals for the San Remo crown
"I'd also have Cavendish in the reckoning although he still must improve a bit," said the Belgian, whose personal favourite is on-form Italian sprinter Daniele Bennati of Liquigas.
Traditionally, Milan-San Remo is settled with a select bunch sprint after nearly 300km of racing, during which the Cipressa and Poggio climbs help deplete the field significantly.
Boonen, the 2005 world champion whose best finish was a third place in 2007, wouldn't have it any other way: "San Remo is a classic sprint, as simple as that. It is an extremely difficult sprint; it's hard, very hard."
However a few non-sprint specialists will be hoping for a different ending.
Katusha rider Pozzato, Fabian Cancellara, the 2008 winner, and emerging Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen will spearhead teams hoping to upset the sprinters' plans. And while Pozzato has tipped Boonen, Bennati and Cancellara to be in the running, he practically ruled out Cavendish's chances in his blog for cyclingnews.com.
Filippo Pozzato is one to watch
"As you'd expect from an Italian and a former winner, I can't wait for Saturday," said Pozzato, who admits he was impressed with the way Boonen and Bennati were climbing and sprinting at the Tirreno last week. "Cancellara also seemed to be coming into form. He kept well hidden at Tirreno but he could be there in the finale and ready to give it a go on the flat road before the finish."
Pozzato believes this year Cavendish was truly suffering at Tirreno, and added: "You don't need to be 100 percent to win Milan-San Remo, especially if you're as fast as Cavendish but even so, I don't think he'll be a threat this year."
Cancellara, of Saxo Bank, will return to the race for the first time since he powered away from a small group in the final two kilometres in 2008 to end Switzerland's 21-year wait for a win.
Boasson Hagen, of Team Sky, won the last stage at Tirreno and despite San Remo being considerably longer his teammate Michael Barry is confident: "It's a race we can win and we are going there with a plan to do just that.
"Edvald is in great form and we will ride for him."
Cavendish's sports director Brian Holm at Team Columbia, meanwhile, says he won't be ruling the Briton out.
"I think his chances are more or less the same as last year," he said. "He surprised everyone last year and in some ways it looked too easy. We know it's going to be difficult, but we'll give it a try.
"I do truly believe he can do it again."
© AFP 2010
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