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A few things may have changed ahead of this year's Milan-San Remo – the route, the size of the teams and, perhaps most importantly, its place on the calendar as a result of the coronavirus pandemic – but one constant remains: it will be a rider of the highest quality who prevails on the Via Roma on Saturday afternoon.
The expected hotter weather – compared to the race's normal March slot – and the more-open-than-usual field due to a number of top-name riders keen to get the kilometres in their legs ahead of the rescheduled Tour de France at the end of the month will certainly give things a different feel, but we've nevertheless identified the 10 riders most likely to make the running at the relaunched 2020 season's first Monument this weekend.
Have we reached the exhibition phase of the Peter Sagan show, whereby rider performances are replaced with media opportunities and social media campaigns as brands try to eke out the last few drops of fame from a rider that redefined what being a cycling star means? Let's hope not. Let's hope that the move to racing the Giro d'Italia isn't related to pure finances, and that the three-time world champion still has the drive, the legs and the fortitude to remind everyone that on his day he can be an untouchable force.
Milan-San Remo has been the itch Sagan has never been able to satisfy, and his form is still somewhere between lukewarm and toasty, but if he can sizzle in San Remo, this could go down as one of his best-ever wins. After all, with the talk at Bora about new-signing Nils Politt and the post-Sagan future, it would be wonderful for the 30-year-old to remind any doubters just how good he still is.
Julian Alaphilippe used his press conference on Thursday to play down his chances of victory, but it will take more than a slightly withdrawn Zoom call and a mechanically hindered performance at Strade Bianche to erase the Frenchman from our list. He's class and panache personified, while his Deceuninck squad is arguably the most complete unit in the race.
With Sam Bennett ready for the sprint, they have four potential cards to play – assuming Tim Declercq does the heavy-lifting early on – with Alaphilippe the defending champion and man most likely. No one can discount that the last few weeks have been tough on the Frenchman from a personal perspective following the death of his father, but if he lines up at the start physically and mentally prepared, there will be few riders who can stop him.
The narrowing down of riders on teams from eight to six highlights just how strong the American squad has become in recent years in the Classics. Sep Vanmarcke and Sebastian Langeveld add steel and experience, while Michael Woods and Alberto Bettiol provide the finesse that separates the very good from the truly excellent. Vanmarcke wasn't joking when he told Cyclingnews back in December that this was the strongest Slipstream Classics squad that he had ridden for, and that included the 2011 'Galacticos' team of Hushovd and Haussler.
It's Bettiol, however, that looks primed for San Remo success. Fourth at Strade Bianche illustrated his condition, and given the unusual circumstances surrounding this season, it's easy to forget that his best ride at San Remo was 36th in 2019. This is a man who could now very easily come away with two Monuments in the space of just a few months, and, at 26, become Italy's biggest star in the sport.
The 35-year-old put in a dogged display during Strade Bianche last weekend to rescue a top 10, and then backed that up with third place at the Gran Trittico Lombardo to prove that although the form isn't exceptional, it's still in the right ballpark. Truth be told, the Olympic road champion isn't a five-star favouite for Milan-San Remo, but the magnitude of winning for his team could have huge ramifications. Victory could provide a massive boost for the management as they look to recruit a new sponsor and stave off the attempts from the Manuela Foundation that would reverse all the hard work over the last two years.
Maybe the deal is inevitable, and maybe 'Golden Greg' is already off to AG2R, as rumoured in the press, but winning San Remo could be the catalyst to revive a team that's sadly running out of time to retain their identity. The Belgian's record at the race isn't anything special with his best results – fifth – coming back in 2016. That shouldn't discount him this time around given the season we've had, and with Matteo Trentin also in the team, CCC have two possible options.
Lotto Soudal have two cards to play in Milan-San Remo with Philippe Gilbert and Caleb Ewan on their roster, but the scales are slowly tipping in the Belgian's favour. The slightly tougher route, the smaller teams and the unpredictability of racing close to 300km without much of a back-lift in racing suit a wily old fox like Gilbert.
He also has that other intangible factor in his favour – destiny. After all, the 38-year-old is aiming to join an elite club of riders who have won all five Monuments, and even though we've seen few signs of form since racing restarted, only a fool would write the former world champion out of the equation. One can imagine that he's spent every waking hour since last winter preparing for San Remo, and even with the new date, route and roster limits, he'll be ready.
It often feels as though we only really appreciate Vincenzo Nibali's talent when he wins a significant race, but in years to come, the sport will hopefully recognise him as one of the most complete riders of the post-war era. In many ways, he's a throwback to a generation of riders that coupled the cobbles with the capi and the mountains with the Monuments to leave him with a glittering palmarès that separates him from the majority of his Grand Tour peers.
Nibali's fifth place at the Gran Trittico Lombardo earlier this week demonstrated that he can be a factor, while his experience and the eye for the right moment to attack make him a formidable force for Saturday. His team is solid and devoted to one goal, while the tougher course and potential heat also lend themselves to a rider more than capable of holding his own in an old-fashioned slugfest.
We could have picked several UAE riders for this slot, with Fernando Gaviria, Tadej Pogacar and Alexander Kristoff all genuine contenders. Kristoff hasn't raced since March, Pogacar is aiming to peak at a later date, and the conditions and smaller teams gently tug the rug from under Gaviria's feet – despite his recent impressive form – leaving Formolo as the man of the moment.
Somewhat bizarrely, he's never raced Milan-San Remo, but his second place in last year's Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and his runner-up spot at Strade Bianche last weekend, demonstrate his growing stature on the one-day scene. At 27, Formolo's close to his peak, and there's a sense within Italy that the former Bora and Cannondale rider is on the cusp of truly delivering on the early promise his career suggested.
The winner of Strade Bianche and a certain favourite for Milan-San Remo. In this week’s Cyclingnews podcast we debated as to whether the Belgian was the most complete rider in the world right now and his skills against the clock, in sprints and in the mountains certainly make a good case. He was the strongest and the smartest in Strade Bianche and came away with a deserved win, and while he will be a marked man on Saturday, he has enough versatility to ensure that he will be in contention come the finale.
The 2017 winner will be there or thereabouts on Saturday, as his form steadily improves since outings at Strade Bianche and the Gran Trittico Lombardo. He knows how to win San Remo, having won in 2017, and he was close last year, too, but it's his all-round game that puts him on our list. He should be able to follow the very best on the final climbs, and his sprint is always good enough after almost 300km in the saddle.
It seems cruel to leave off a rider like AG2R's Oliver Naesen, who was second last year and has all the necessary skills to go one better, but Van der Poel is a rider who's always worth watching. The results haven't been great yet this year, but this is a rider who can turn on the afterburners with the flick of a switch. Like Naesen, he has the power and finesse to match the best riders on the climbs, and he's already proven that going the distance in 300km races isn't a problem, if you exclude last year's World Championship road race.
His team isn't a WorldTour-level one, a Dutchman hasn't won in San Remo since Hennie Kuiper in 1985, and he's only raced two high-profile road races in Italy in his entire career – which have both come in the last six days – but the Alpecin rider is a special talent, and come Saturday he'll leave everything out there on the road. Where that leaves him, we'll just have to see.