In his own words: Cavendish talks about his San Remo chances>>

CAN CAVENDISH WIN IT?

Mark Cavendish makes his debut at Milan-San Remo tomorrow (Saturday) and the big question is whether he can become the first British winner of the race since Tom Simpson in 1964.

Cavendish will surely win La Primavera at some point in his career, but to be victorious at the first attempt would be a truly stunning achievement. It usually takes a few years to learn the nuances of the course and the style of this type of race, because the big Classics are not run-of-the-mill events.

The 23-year-old Columbia sprinter has proved time and again that he is the fastest in the world over the closing few hundred metres of a race, but it is the preceding 297-and-a-bit kilometres that make the difference.

It is the addition of La Manie, the new climb included last year at the 204-kilometre mark that stings the sprinters. Although not as long as the Turchino, La Manie is longer and steeper than the climbs in the final third of the race. This is where the race really kicks off, and if they go hard at the front here, it?ll make life difficult for all the sprinters.

Cavendish has checked out the final 150 kilometres of the route with Columbia?s directeur sportif, and four-time winner Erik Zabel. He will know to a certain extent what to expect, but riding the route and racing the race are very different things.

Again all the talk among fans is that Cavendish can?t climb and some give the impression he struggles to get over a railway bridge. Apparently he only wins pan flat races, but that is not actually true. The way he climbed at the Monte Paschi Eroica earlier this month did not go unnoticed by the Italian press, for example. At Tirreno-Adriatico, he was not at the front every day the stage culminated in a sprint, but he was not turning himself inside out either.

If, for some reason, it is a relatively quiet race on La Manie, it will play into the hands of the sprinters, but particularly the likes of Cavendish and Robbie McEwen. Cavendish is a superb bike-handler and he can recover ground on the descents if he does slip backwards.

Should the race end in a sprint, and if Cavendish is there with some team support, he could certainly win it tomorrow.

But if he doesn?t, it?s far from the end of the world for him. In the main, Milan-San Remo is not a young man?s race. In the modern era, the race has been won by the experienced and the wily, although Filippo Pozzato was only 24 when he won three years ago.

In 1966 Eddy Merckx was still a couple of months shy of his 21st birthday and he won a year later as well. Since then, Gabriele Colombo is the only rider under the age of 24 to have won the race, at the 23 years and 10 months, the same age Cavendish is now. He?s also the last debutant to win the race. Colombo rode for the Gewiss-Bianchi team.

THE MAJOR ABSENTEES
Fabian Cancellara ? defending champion out of action after a training crash
Alessandro Ballan ? reigning world champion is suffering with a virus
Frank Schleck ? one of the usual agitators on the Cipressa is out after a training crash this week
Oscar Freire ? twice Milan-San Remo winner broke his collarbone at the Tour of California
Kim Kirchen ? another attacker taken out of the equation
Steve Cummings ? not listed in Barloworld?s team
David Millar ? injured in a crash on the last day of Paris-Nice. Has had an operation on his collarbone and will be out of action for a few weeks.

CW?S PREDICTIONS

THE SPRINTERS
If it comes down to a gallop?

*****
Alessandro Petacchi Team LPR Brakes
Much as we don?t really want to tip Petacchi to win, if it comes down to a sprint, it could be a repeat of his 2005 win. Word in Italy is that he?s back to his pre-knee injury best. Heart says Cavendish, head says Petacchi this year.

Daniele Bennati Liquigas
Hasn?t ridden Milan-San Remo the past couple of years, but will lead Liquigas here. Has the luxury of being able to wait until team-mates Franco Pellizotti, Vincenzo Nibali and perhaps Ivan Basso are done attacking on the hills.

Thor Hushovd Cervélo
Won Het Nieuwsblad recently, crashed in Tirreno-Adriatico and pulled out but continued to train. Has the endurance for this, and the speed in the final stretch.

****
Mark Cavendish Columbia
If he?s there at the finish, he can win it because no one can match him over 300 metres. But he loses a star for Milan-San Remo because it?s a question of getting there. And at the first attempt that may be asking too much.

Tom Boonen Quick Step
The Belgian?s form has been fairly even, if not spectacular. Not as fast as either Petacchi or Bennati, and maybe not even as fast as his own team-mate Allan Davis.

***
Mirco Lorenzetto Lampre
Was fifth at Milan-San Remo last year, has won three races this season. Will be Lampre?s leader and their best chance, even if Enrico Gasparotto thinks differently.

Heinrich Haussler Cervélo
A very handy second option for the Cervélo team.

Filippo Pozzato Katusha
Hasn?t had the greaest of form but as a former winner, can?t be ruled out

**
Gerald Ciolek Milram
Robbie McEwen Katusha

*
Robert Hunter Milram
Aurelien Clerc AG2R
Francesco Ginnani Diquigiovanni
Tyler Farrar Garmin-Slipstream

THE ATTACKERS
The men to watch on the Cipressa, Poggio and the final straight.

Luis Leon Sanchez (Caisse d?Epargne) ? not listed on most start lists but according to the team the Paris-Nice winner is riding
Stefano Garzelli (Acqua & Sapone)
Davide Rebellin Diquigiovanni
Michele Scarponi Diquigiovanni
Vincenzo Nibali Liquigas
Franco Pellizotti Liquigas
Danilo Di Luca LPR Brakes
Sylvain Chavanel Quick Step
Philippe Gilbert Silence-Lotto
Thomas Lovkvist Columbia
Andy Schleck Saxo Bank
Kurt-Asle Arvesen Saxo Bank

RELATED LINKS
In his own words: Cavendish talks about his San Remo chances
Milan-San Remo 2009: Preview