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2016 Spring Classics Preview: Milan-San Remo

Photo by Gruber Images

So often in cycling, a race is defined by its climbs. This is true from the grades around Lake Cuomo to the impossible wall of the Mortirolo to l’Alpe’s 21 switchbacks, which every cycling fan knows by heart. But the 2016 edition of Milan-San Remo race is defined, like so many of its forebearers, by 293km of mostly flat endurance followed by the most important sprint finish in cycling.

Yes, we’re not just implying that the Via Roma is even more important than the Champs-Élysées on the Tour’s final day, we’re stating it outright. And we’re not going to provide any justification for that assertion; we’re just going to let it stand on the shoulders of 106 editions of one of the most breathtakingly beautiful and maddeningly unpredictable races on the calendar.

La Classicissima’s route is always a study in Old World scenery and breathtaking Mediterranean vistas.

MSR route
This year’s edition omits the additional climbs that RCS tried, with varying success, to incorporate in recent years.

A big part of Milan-San Remo’s appeal lies in the fact that it spends a lot of time making the gods of cycling look mortal. Riders like Tom Boonen and Peter Sagan—two undeniably talented monsters on the one-day scene—have a less-than-satisfying relationship with the race, with those two alone accounting for six top fives, three podiums and … zero wins. Including Fabian Cancellara in this list brings these totals to 11, eight, and one, respectively, with his single victory coming as the result of his signature move: jump off the front in the final kilometers and punish the bottom bracket till you hit the line. Call it a long sprint or a short ITT. Whatever the case, it’s clear that whether it comes down to a reduced sprint or a daring solo move, La Classicissima in the modern age seems to be the monument for the opportunists.

For us, few MSR winners have done so with the grit and heroics of opportunist-in-chief, Óscar Freire. Freire’s McEwen-esque talent for always being on the right wheel—or managing to find impossible seams when he isn’t—made him an integral element in the universe’s ongoing plan to deny Boonen a Primavera title. He also produced one of our favorite cycling moments of the 21st century when an uncharacteristically premature celebration from Erik Zabel (himself a four-time winner) let the Spaniard pip him at the line.

Bunch sprints have long been the norm in MSR; however, in recent years, RCS Sport has attempted to throw the fast finishers off their game with the inclusion of two additional climbs: Le Mànie and Pompeiana. The latter of these two was especially threatening as it rose in the middle of the race’s finale, further complicating things for sprinters. This year, both climbs are absent, and the only significant obstacles in the race’s climax are the signature antagonists: the Cipressa and the Poggio, easily cycling’s two most beloved hills.

With those absences, the present edition of MSR is likely to be a sprinter’s affair similar to Freire’s penultimate win in 2007, which saw the villainous Ricardo Riccò and an up-and-coming Philippe Gilbert scatter themselves across the Poggio before a robust peloton swept them up in the final kilometers. The final climbs will pose little to no problem for this year’s undeniable favorite, 2014 winner and 2015 runner-up Alexander Kristoff. That’s not to say he doesn’t have any plausible challengers, with Orica-GreenEDGE’s Michael Matthews in particular showing some spectacular spring form. Given his wins to date, it’s conceivable that he’ll be neck and neck with Kristoff on the far side of the Poggio.
Other riders will see the final climb as a ramp for launching attacks, and if the main bunch is sufficiently gapped at the top of the Poggio, a cyclist with the descending skills of Sagan or Vincenzo Nibali—both of whom have shown more than a glimmer of early season form—could have a chance on the shortened run-in to the Via Roma.

Though Alexander Kristoff (center) may miss the firepower of the majestically bearded Luca Paolini, John Degenkolb’s absence will be a boost to confidence on the run-in to the Via Roma.

How to tune in

With the demise of Universal Sports, the list of races broadcast in North America has gotten thinner than The Chicken at race weight. We don’t condone illegal streaming, but finding a legitimate way to watch races live can feel like grinding up a steep hill. TV often falls short of meeting our needs, and when the choice is between pirating a sketchy live feed or waiting for a truncated recap that often broadcasts as much as a week later, even the most by-the-rules cycling fan can feel the pull of their inner Pantani.

We’ll try to post North American viewing information for races whenever available, but if you do take to the high seas in search of a live feed, we find that maximizing the window of some streams eliminates the pop-up ads. This makes for a less cluttered (but often grainier) viewing experience, and it reduces the chances of clicking on a decoy “X” while trying to close fake Flash Player updates and possible phishing scams.

Highlights of the 2016 Spring Classics Season

March 19: Milano-San Remo, ITALY
March 25: E3 Harelbeke, BELGIUM
March 27: Gent-Wevelgem in Flanders Fields, BELGIUM
April 3: Ronde van Vlaanderen/Tour des Flandres, BELGIUM
April 10: Paris-Roubaix, FRANCE
April 17: Amstel Gold Race, NETHERLANDS
April 20: La Flèche Wallonne, BELGIUM
April 24: Liège-Bastogne-Liège, BELGIUM


Our Predictions for the 2015 Tour