• Peter Sagan (Tinkoff), Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo) and Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) tuck in to Cancellara's birthday cake (RCS Sport)Source: RCS Sport
And...relax. The first monument of the year is here!
Jamie Finch-Penninger

Cycling Central, RCS Sport
19 Mar 2016 - 11:54 AM  UPDATED 19 Mar 2016 - 12:05 PM

LIVE: Milan-San Remo
The 291km Milan-San Remo will be broadcast on SBS/HD and streamed right here on Cycling Central, Sunday 20 March from 12:30am AEDT.

291 kilometres of the familiar Milan-San Remo course awaits the peloton in what promises to be some of the best racing conditions in recent years. No icy crusts, near-blizzards or driving rain expected this year, just mild temperatures and light winds. The expected conditions may encourage more attacks than last year’s race seemingly stifled by a lack of aggressive moves.  

Milan-Sanremo is one of the few monuments the fast men have a real chance of taking from the classics specialists. Sprinters hope the pace up the famous climbs of the Cipressa and the Poggio is easy enough to keep it together for a sprint in the finale.

The climbs themselves are far from tough; the Cipressa averages 4.1 per cent over 5.6 kilometres and the Poggio is a gradient of 3.7 per cent over 3.7 kilometres.

The difficulty lies in the 250 kilometres of racing before the renowned ascents, and how legs are coping. 

The Cipressa is often considered too far out for the serious winning chances to attack, but with only 5.4 kilometres remaining from the Poggio's top, it is often the scene of the decisive move of the race. Many an attack manages to gain a gap on the climb, maintain or increase it on the descent, and then manage to hold off the peloton into the finish line on the Via Roma.

A varied cast of rugged sprinters and strong, classics types hope to spoil the party.

Last year’s winner John Degenkolb will unfortunately not be present, as he recovers from the nasty incident at the Giant-Alpecin preseason training camp, but the rest of 2015's top 10 will be there hoping to take that next step up to the top of the podium.

Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge) carries the majority of Australian hopes going into the race. Third last year behind Degenkolb and Kristoff, the 25-year-old is set to lead his team on the back of two Paris-Nice stage wins, the points classification and time in the leader’s jersey. That was only his first race back this season.

“It’s one of those races that has something over me and I really want to conquer it. For me, even when I say Milan-San Remo it gives me that little tingle,” Matthews said.

He has proven ability over long distances, and can maintain his sprint the longer the race goes on. In contrast, pure sprinters may find their legs stinging from the late climbs. ‘Bling’ won’t be dropped over the climbs, and can launch his own moves, but will find himself in an interesting tactical situation if in a small group over the Poggio, as not many riders will fancy their chances against him in a sprint if taking the Australian to the line. For a bunch sprint scenario, other riders are arguably faster so Daryl Impey will be key for Matthews' lead out. 

In-form Matthews ready for all Milan-San Remo scenarios
Australia's Michael Matthews has a “love/hate relationship” with Milan-San Remo.

Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) is the epitome of the tough man. As the race gets longer and harder, the Norwegian appears to get quicker come the finale and if you can win the Tour of Flanders, the slight gradients in Milan-San Remo aren’t going to bother you much.

"I won this race in really bad conditions two years ago but I still look forward to a sunny San Remo. If the attackers make the race hard in the hills, I’ll use my team-mates to keep the race together."

"In the past two years, I had Luca Paolini to guide me in the sprint. It’ll be different this time but I have faith in my team-mates," Kristoff said

Nonetheless, he may not have the explosion to follow the absolute best over the top of the climbs, and will have to rely on others to bring the attacks back. In the last two years, Luca Paolini (Katusha) has been crucial to Kristoff’s results, but is serving a ban for cocaine use. Kristoff must rely on someone else to step up and be that linchpin. He has been in top form this season, already with five wins to his name, and will be looking to add a second Milan-San Remo victory to his palmares.

Kristoff says he won't win a Paris-Nice drag race
Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) was a toast of the spring classics last season but won’t acknowledge a changing of the guard there just yet with Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara set to return to the scene.

World Champion Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) has yet to shake the alleged curse of the rainbow jersey, but it is not for lack of form; he has looked sharp this season. What will worry Sagan is his losses to Greg van Avermaet (BMC) in sprints at the end of hard races, as he finished second behind the Belgian in both Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and a stage in Tirreno.

"I’m not sure if I am in the best form of my life after my second place at Tirreno-Adriatico but I’m well. Everything will be decided in the last 30km," Sagan said. 

His pure speed will shine through here, but he will have to take the win from a smaller group, rather than trying his luck in a bunch kick. He faces a similar situation to Matthews, in that many won’t want to work with him to the finish. If he can form a partnership, it would be no surprise to see the Slovakian win his first monument.

Dimension Data boast very real dangers in Edvald Boasson Hagen and Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data). It may be too soon after the track worlds to expect a super performance from Cavendish after almost 300 kilometres. 

Australian Leigh Howard (IAM) is clearly revelling in his off season change of team with a win at Clasica de Almeria, a second at Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, and fifth behind Gaviria, Ewan, Viviani, and Sagan in Stage 3 of Tirreno Adriatico. With this form and the sort of parcours that suits him perfectly, Howard can't be discounted. 

Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), local Nicolo Bonifazio (Trek-Segafedo) and Sonny Colbrelli (Bardiani-CSF) are all likely to pop up at the end of the race but may lack the endurance and top-end pace to actually win the event.

Looking to spoil the fast men party will be a host of pure classics riders, too many to give full justice to here. The big names are Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo), Greg van Avermaet (BMC), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Michael Kwiatkowski (Sky), Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-Quickstep) and the Lotto Soudal pair of Tony Gallopin and Tim Wellens.

It is hard to go past the record of Cancellara at this race, after his win in 2008 he has finished on the podium four times, only missing it twice. He’s not a recognised sprinter, but at the end of 291 kilometres, the Italian holds his own with anyone. He is coming in with some top notch form, winning Strade Bianche before blitzing the final time trial in Tirreno to put his rivals on notice.

"As for myself, I’ve already won this race so I don’t feel an extreme pressure to win it again," Cancellara said. 

With the arrival of Milan-San Remo all the excuses of early season form and limited preparation go out the window. Anyone hoping to be at the pointy end of the race needs to be firing on all cylinders to take what is one of the biggest wins of any rider’s career.