Outsiders at their own race: Milano-Sanremo

After ten years of waiting, will 2016 see an Italian win in Sanremo? (Cor Vos)
Is Vincenzo Nibali the man to break Italy’s Sanremo drought? (Cor Vos)

After ten years of waiting, will 2016 see an Italian win in Sanremo?

Last Autumn, the Italian drought finally ended. It was October 4th, and at the 107th edition of the Giro di Lombardia Vincenzo Nibali rode into Como alone, having been alone for some 16km since his attack on the Civiglio climb.

The Italian announcer was yelling as the Italian champion rode across the line, arms in the air, in Italy. A very Italian scene, and the first time a home rider had won the race (or any other Monument for that matter) since Damiano Cunego’s triumph all the way back in 2008.

The 2016 edition of the Giro di Lombardia is a long way away, but the other great Italian Classic is almost upon us. In fact it’s on Saturday, though everybody is already aware of that. One thing you perhaps aren’t aware of is the similar drought suffered by the Italians at La Classicissima di primavera.

Once upon a time, home domination was expected, with names like Girardegno, Binda, Bartali and Coppi filling the roll of honour during the first half of the 1900s. More recently Cipollini, Bettini and Petacchi joined the list, with Filippo Pozzato the last man from the Peninsula to cross the line first, back in 2006.

And now? The Italians are enduring their longest dry spell since the 1960s.

With 61 Italians lining up at the start in Milan, let’s assess the chances of those having dreams of spraying the Prosecco on the final podium.

Vincenzo Nibali ends
Vincenzo Nibali ends seven years of Italian hurt in Lombardia last October (Cor Vos)

First up, it’s the star man – certainly the biggest star in Italian cycling, anyway.  The race wasn’t originally part of Vincenzo Nibali’s plans for 2016, but he’ll be there, back for the ninth time.

He’s fresh from finishing sixth in a neutered Tirreno-Adriatico, and will have a point to prove having been taken out of contention for victory by the cancellation of stage five. And just as the lack of hills hindered him in The Race of the Two Seas, it is likely that he’ll have the same problem here – Nibali will be hard pushed to replicate his podium finish back in 2012.

Lampre-Merida, the last remaining Italian WorldTour team, come to the race with an all-Italian line-up, and they have some interesting options to choose from. Davide Cimolai was eighth last year, but you would always bet on him getting burned by the likes of Alexander Kristoff and Peter Sagan in a sprint finish.

Puncheur Diego Ulissi is another decent outsider, but once again there are better options, and a huge dose of luck would be needed for second-class sprinter Sacha Modolo (fourth in 2010) to prevail. Barring a big crash somewhere in the finale, don’t expect a Lampre winner in Sanremo.

One man who they will regret having to let go over the winter is 22-year-old Niccolò Bonifazio. He sprinted to a surprise fifth here last year but will ride in support of Fabian Cancellara over at Trek-Segafredo this time around. He’ll be right up there again should the Swiss veteran falter though.

Paris - Nice 2015 Stage - 1
Could the young Bonifazio make a step up from last year’s fifth place? (Cor Vos)

Sprinter Giacomo Nizzolo is another backup plan for the cosmopolitan team, but he’s more frequently seen on the second and third steps of the podium, rather than the first. The versatile Fabio Felline belongs in the same category.

Now at this point understand that we are already plumbing the depths of implausibility. Things aren’t looking good. Scanning the startlist, there are only five other men who have finished in the top ten.

First up we have the last Italian to win the race, Southeast-Venezuela’s Filippo Pozzato. He finished sixth here in 2012 and hasn’t won a race since 2013, so extrapolate from that what you will. Edit – His teammate, the 21-year-old sprinter Jakub Mareczko is certainly a name to remember for the future. Then there’s Daniele Bennati, who is 35 and will be riding firmly in support of Peter Sagan.

Fourth in both 1995 (!) and 2008, 44-year-old Davide freakin Rebellin is riding here for the first time in seven years. He is certainly not going to win but admit it, it’d be pretty hilarious if he did, right?­ BMC’s Daniel Oss has finished ninth here before but will be supporting the in-form Greg Van Avermaet’s bid for victory.

Next up, we come to Sonny Colbrelli of Bardiani-CSF – the other team with an all-Italian contingent. Sixth here two years ago, he’s one of several Italians in the group of not-quite elite sprinters. Still, he’s obviously in strong form, winning the GP Lugano two weeks ago, so a top five placing wouldn’t be a surprise – Bonifazio did the same last year remember.

Onto the other Italian ProContinental team next, and it’s Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec. Once upon a time, a line-up of Franco Pellizotti, Francesco Gavazzi and Francesco Chicchi would have been an interesting proposition here, but not anymore.

Etixx-QuickStep count punchy fighter Gianluca Brambilla, who had a great race at Strade Bianche, and fastman Matteo Trentin among their ranks. Both ride in support of Tom Boonen and Fernando Gaviria at Etixx-QuickStep, but should be strong enough to provide alternative options if the main men falter

Lastly, pure sprinter Elia Viviani will be riding as back-up for Geraint Thomas, Michał Kwiatkowski and Ben Swift at Team Sky. He has yet to prove he can handle the race though, finishing 108th on two occasions in the past. Salvatore Puccio finished twelfth in the 2012 edition.

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Viviani eases to the win at last year’s Tour of Britain but his odds of victory on Saturday are much longer (SweetSpot)

Honestly, I would be surprised if the duck is broken on Saturday. Several Italians are better suited to the race than Vincenzo Nibali, but frankly lack his talent.

At the moment the country has no riders that match up to sprinters and classics men like Kristoff, Van Avermaet, Sagan or Cancellara, and it looks like it would take a large slice of luck for any Italian to best them on Saturday.

There are some positive signs for the future though – most notably Bonifazio. The youngster has already proven that he can compete in the longest race on the calendar and knows the finale as well as anyone – he lives in Diana Marina, just down the coast from Sanremo and situated among the Capi climbs.

If any of this gang of outsiders can end the Sanremo drought this year, I’m going with him as the man most likely.



Giorgio Cecchinel, Francesco Chicchi, Marco Frapporti
Francesco Gavazzi, 
Franco Pellizotti, Mirko Selvaggi, Davide Viganò

Valerio Agnoli, Eros Capecchi, Vincenzo Nibali

Simone Andreetta, Enrico Barbin, Nicola Boem, Mirco Maestri
Sonny Colbrelli, Stefano Pirazzi, Marco Rota, Alessandro Tonelli

Damiano Caruso, Alessandro De Marchi
Daniel Oss, Manuel Quinziato

Cesare Benedetti

Alan Marangoni, Moreno Moser

Simone Ponzi, Davide Rebellin

Kristian Sbaragli

Gianluca Brambilla, Fabio Sabatini, Matteo Trentin

Jacopo Guarnieri

Matteo Bono, Davide Cimolai, Matteo Cattaneo, Roberto Ferrari
Sacha Modolo, Manuele Mori, Diego Ulissi, Federico Zurlo

Enrico Battaglin

Giovanni Visconti

Andrea Peron

Salvatore Puccio, Elia Viviani

Manuel Belletti, Samuele Conti, Andrea Fedi
Jakub Mareczko, Filippo Pozzato, Mirko Tedeschi

Daniele Bennati, Manuele Boaro
Oscar Gatto, Matteo Tosatto

Eugenio Alafaci, Niccolò Bonifazio
Marco Coledan, Fabio Felline, Giacomo Nizzolo

“The Northern Classic in Southern Europe”

The leaders tackle the sterrato last year (Cor Vos)

At least that’s what RCS claims, but is it an accurate comparison?

After the first classics of the season at last weekend’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, the peloton heads south to Italy and the Strade Bianche. It’s a race that feels decades-old but Saturday sees just the tenth edition of the Tuscan classic.

The wording in the title is from the organisers, RCS Sport, as part of the race promotion. Of course every promoter seeks to liven up their press releases and put a positive spin on their offerings. So, I thought I’d take a closer look at the race and see if the comparison to the likes of Paris-Roubaix and the Ronde van Vlaanderen holds up.

Non-tarmacked roads are a novelty common to all of these races, and realistically the basis of all comparisons between them. Strade Bianche is, of course, known for (and named after) the white gravel roads (sterrato) that make up sections of the course.

These are roads that are unique in the sport, save for the rare occasion they find their way into the parcours of the Giro d’Italia. Brittany’s ribinoù – the dirt farm tracks found at the Tro-Bro Léon – are perhaps the closest analogue in terms of texture and ride-feel.

Certainly riding the sterrato gives a sensation unlike riding on any other road – the contrast between riding the white gravel or normal roads is as stark as the contrast in appearance between them. Two-time winner Fabian Cancellara is in a better position than most to comment, and the Swiss draws an interesting parallel.

“I remember once I came off the road when I punctured in Qatar,” he says. “I ended up riding through the sand there. That’s the kind of sensation you have at Strade Bianche.”

Sienna - Italia - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack - Nissan) pictured during Strade Bianche 2012 - Gaiole in Chianti > Siena 190 km - 03/03/2012 - foto RB/Cor Vos ©2012
Cancellara takes his second win in 2012 (Cor Vos)

These are normal roads too, used by all as opposed to the pavé of northern France – the exclusive domain of heavy-duty farm vehicles. As a result, the gravel is ground down into a mixture of sand and small stones – a world away from the bone-aching cobbles seen on the road to Roubaix.

“It’s harder to manoeuvre at Strade Bianche though,” says Cancellara. “Because when you are riding through a lot of gravel it’s very difficult to keep your bike steady.”

There is one similarity in terms of feeling, and that is the age-old law of ‘the faster you go, the smoother it feels’, as the bike almost glides over the harsher bumps. Well, not glide exactly but you get the drift.

Selectivity is of course an important factor in these classics – more specifically the road’s importance in how selective the race can be. At Roubaix, the cobbles are often where the race is won and lost, but here the hills are the main obstacle. In this regard, Strade Bianche has more in common with the Ronde van Vlaanderen, with gradients upwards of 10% the norm.

There are no stand-out climbs in the race yet, nothing to compare with lionised hills like the Koppenberg or Muur anyway. Instead it’s an attritional slog made up of innumerable of small but sharp hills and rises.

But while the north has Roubaix and its fabled and historic velodrome, the Strade Bianche has Siena and the Piazza del Campo. The town’s medieval main square is associated more with the famous Palio horse race than bike racing, but just look at it. That is a fitting end point for any bike race, and is certainly one of the more memorable finishes in the sport.

Siena - Italy - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - illustration - illustratie Vittoria pictured during Strade Bianche - By Limar 2014 - San Giminiano - Siena 200 km - 08/03/2014 - photo Claudio Minardi/Cor Vos © 2014
The Piazza del Campo, Siena (Cor Vos)

But before riders get there they have to put the hard miles in – and this is another instance in which the race bears no comparison to the Northern Classics. While 1.HC races such as this are restricted by UCI rules to 200km, WorldTour one-day races have a freer reign, and so we see the 250-260km norm for De Ronde and Roubaix. This year Strade Bianche is 176km long, so in that respect the races differ massively.

And what does Cancellara think about the Strade Bianche-Roubaix comparison?

“It isn’t similar to Roubaix at all. The gravel doesn’t feel the same,” he says. “There are some parts where the roads are a little fluffy, but the race is a different experience altogether.”

It’s an unequivocal statement from the man who will be riding his last Strade Bianche on Saturday, but just because the races are so different doesn’t lessen the value of the Tuscan classic.

So the promotional spin exists to draw attention to the race and boost the profile, but it has certainly worked. Strade Bianche has risen from 1.1 status to 1.HC and there’s even talk of it moving up to WorldTour next season. The startlist is already of a quality approaching Paris-Roubaix, with stars like Nibali, Van Avermaet, Valverde, Cancellara, Sagan and Kwiatkowski all riding on Saturday.

Probably the most important factor to consider though, is one that all of these races have in common – the excitement. The chaos, crashes, punctures and heavyweight battles right to the final turn of the wheel that characterise the Northern Classics are here too. And ultimately, that’s what it boils down to – it’s we watch bike racing for.

A final note: It looks like we might see the first ever wet Strade Bianche on Saturday, as showers and thunderstorms are likely in the morning and afternoon. We all know how revered a wet Paris-Roubaix is, but if you want a taste of what a wet Strade Bianche could be like, look no further than stage seven of the 2010 Giro d’Italia.

Strade Bianche 2012
The peloton kicking up dust in 2012 (Cor Vos)