If pre-race prognostications are to be believed, Milan-San Remo is a straight fight between Oscar Fr
PIC BY TDWSPORT.COM To judge by the tips being made before Saturday’s opening Classic of the season, it seems almost certain that the peloton’s leading sprinters will decide Milan-San Remo between them on the Via Roma on Saturday afternoon. Oscar Freire and Alessandro Petacchi are everyone’s favourites given their form in Tirreno-Adriatico, while Tom Boonen, Mario Cipollini, Erik Zabel and Danilo Hondo have all got their backers as well. The overwhelming focus on the sprinters is not surprising given their recent domination of the race. Paolo Bettini did get away on the final and crucial climb of the Poggio in 2003, but the previous rider to pull off something similar was Gabriele Colombo, whose intial attack came even earlier, on the Cipressa. A mention should go too to Andrei Tchmil, who attacked in the final kilometre in 1999 and hung on to win as the sprinters bore down on him. But such has been the sprinters’ dominance that next year’s race is set to see the Cipressa replaced by the Pompeiana climb. It is not so much the difficulty of this climb that has resulted in it being drafted into San Remo, but the fact that the descent off it ends 4km before the Poggio. Currently, there are 9km between the end of the Cipressa and the Poggio, giving some riders at least a chance of recovering lost ground. If the sprinters are to be denied, three names stand out: Alejandro Valverde, Bettini and Alexandre Vinokourov. All can be expected to attack on the Cipressa or Poggio or both, but the Spaniard looks the pick of the trio based on his stage-winning ride on the last day of Paris-Nice. Bettini and Vinokourov have not looked as strong as they previously have at this time of year. The big question mark against Valverde – and also against the well-tipped Boonen – is lack of experience in San Remo. Valverde has ridden ‘la Classicissima’ twice before, but only last year he was saying that it was more important for him to win the Tour of Murcia than Milan-San Remo, a not unusual philosophy for a Spanish rider, particularly one who actually comes from Murcia. But Valverde is taking San Remo very seriously and now rates as the pick of the dark horses for this title which only two Spaniards have won before – Miguel Poblet in 1957 and 1959, and Freire last year. Valverde’s Paris-Nice stage win and close second place finish to Bobby Julich revealed that he could be competitive in a major race outside Spain, and San Remo should to some extent reveal whether he has the aptitude for the Classics. “I know that it will be very difficult to win, but I am sure that I am going to be right at the front,” said Valverde, who was well placed when he last rode, in 2003. “I was among the leading 10 on the Poggio, but then in the sprint I got an elbow from someone and finished at the back of the group. “But I wasn’t that well known then. Now people know who I am and respect me, although whenever you try to get on Petacchi’s wheel there is always going to be a lot of elbowing.” The likelihood is, though, that Valverde won’t join the fight to get on the Italian’s wheel and will try his luck on the Poggio. That would seem to be his best chance – and perhaps THE best chance – of anyone denying the sprinters.