Milan-San Remo 2011: Who will win?
Oscar Freire wins, Milan-San Remo 2010
Milan-San Remo is a war of attrition. Despite there being just under 300km of racing, there are very few genuine places for an attack to stick - the pace is kept so high throughout the race that it takes a very special rider with good form to break free.
The lack of opportunity for escapees to release themselves from the grip of their opponents is what often keeps the race together for a bunch sprint. Seven out of the last 10 editions of the race have concluded with a bunch gallop.
Two traditional flashpoints of the race are the legendary climbs of the Cipressa, 20km from the finish, and Poggio, the summit of which is 6km from the finish. Attacks will inevitably be launched on both, but the Cipressa is too far from the line and the Poggio too close for any but the most perfectly-timed attack to have a chance of success.
So will it be a sprinter or attacker that wins the day? Here we rate the chances of the pre-race favourites for Saturday's race, sit back and wait for your messages of abuse via Twitter.
Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto)
Gilbert has made a very decent living so far in his career by launching successful late attacks, and he rates as only one of a handful of riders who could make it work here. He's already won twice in Italy in recent weeks - on the gravel tracks of Montepaschi Strade Bianche and Tirreno-Adriatico's longest stage. On form and dangerous.
Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad)
Cavendish took a sensational win in 2009, defying his critics to conquer the race's climbs and have the motor to sprint past Heinrich Haussler on the line. Off form last year, Cavendish has had a busy year so far albeit with only a single win at the Tour of Oman to show for it. He's got arguably the strongest team backing him, one that in itself also contains a couple of other candidates for the win should Cav falter - Matt Goss and Mark Renshaw. Cavendish's main danger is of being enveloped by the hype swirling around his bike, the new Specialized Venge.
Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervelo)
World champion Hushovd was on flying form at Tirreno-Adriatico - although working for team-mate Tyler Farrar, on stage three it looked like the American simply couldn't follow Hushovd's pace. The Norwegian has made no secret that he's aiming for the classics this year, and his campaign starts here.
Heinrich Haussler (Garmin-Cervelo)
Beaten on the line by Cavendish in 2009, and absent due to injury in 2010, Haussler has a score to settle with Milan-San Remo. Having clinched the points classification at Paris-Nice without winning a stage, Haussler can't match the pace of the pure fastmen and will have to attack hard near the finish, watch over his shoulder and hope for the best.
Fabian Cancellara (Leopard-Trek)
Cancellara was the last rider to make an attack stick in Milan-San Remo, soloing to the line to win in 2008. If anyone can distance themselves from a baying bunch, it's the Swiss classics/time trial machine. A recent win in the Tirreno-Adriatico time trial shows his form has come on at the right time - if he successfully attacks on the Poggio there will be few who can match his speed and descending skills to the line.
Oscar Freire (Rabobank)
No one knows how to win Milan-San Remo as well as Freire. With three wins - in 2004, 2007 and 2010 - Freire races as defending champion. He will undoubtedly be a heavily marked man, and quite rightly so with two stage wins in the Vuelta a Andalucia already under his belt.
Tom Boonen (Quick Step)
Boonen's season so far has been less than stellar, with only a stage win at the Tour of Qatar to his name and a muted performance in the sprints at Tirreno-Adriatico due to illness. Runner-up to Freire last year, Boonen needs to up his game to take his first win at la Primavera.
Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Cervelo)
Farrar is the third Garmin-Cervelo rider listed here, such is the US squad's embarrassment of riches. More of a pure sprinter that Haussler or classics-focused Hushovd, Farrar will be there if the race concludes on the San Remo seafront in a close bunch finish.
Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky)
Boasson Hagen falls into the 'attackers' category and needs to position himself wisely in the finale to monopolise on a late move. Has a strong squad riding with him, including Bradley Wiggins fresh from his third at Paris-Nice.
Michael Matthews (Rabobank)
Young Aussie sprinter Matthews has been the revelation of the season so far for a squad that itself has been a revelation. Matthews' inexperience may be his undoing, but the hype surrounding him after stage wins in the Tour Down Under and Tour of Murcia means he shouldn't be ignored.
Filippo Pozzato (Katusha)
The Italian with the hair talks up his chances for every race, particularly on home soil. He's another rider who's had a quiet start to the season, but his understanding of the race and drive for success can't be underestimated.
Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale)
Fifth overall in Tirreno-Adriatico and one of the main protagonists during the tough finale on stage six, Nibali could put in a move here before taking a break to prepare for the Giro d'Italia in May.
Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-ISD)
2005 winner Petacchi has been suffering from a cold and asthma in the past two weeks on top of a fairly poor start to the season. He was third last year but, taking into account his current form, is unlikely to appear on the podium this year.
Daniele Bennati (Leopard-Trek)
Fifth last year and sixth in 2009, Bennati will be hoping to give his new Leopard-Trek squad a high-profile win and give his own palmares a much-needed boost.
Giovanni Visconti (Farnese Vini)
The Italian champ put in a good show at Tirreno-Adriatico and would surely love to show off the tricolore jersey on the podium.
Also watch out for...
We list a load of other riders in case they win and we look stupid. Again.
Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD), Peter Sagan (Liquigas), Allan Davis (Astana), Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky), Robbie McEwen (Radioshack), Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil), Alessandro Ballan (BMC Racing), Sacha Modolo (Colnago-CSF Inox), William Bonnet (FDJ), Karsten Kroon (BMC Racing), Jose Rojas (Movistar), Francisco Ventoso (Movistar), Borut Bozic (Vacansoleil)
Milan-San Remo 2011: Related links
Milan-San Remo 2011: The Big Preview
How Milan-San Remo was won
Spring Classics 2011: Cycling Weekly's coverage index
Cavendish counts down to Milan-San Remo
Milan-San Remo 2010: Stealthy Freire wins third San Remo