Milan San Remo 2013: Who will win?
Simon Gerrans wins Milan-San Remo 2012
The brief seems fairly simple: write a story listing favourites for Sunday's opening Classic, Milan-San Remo.
The thing is, it's not a simple task.
One thought leads to another that contradicts the first, especially when you begin to consider all the variables - the weather, team dynamics, leaders, luck, crashes, punctures, form, tactics and so on.
We'll try and skip the clichés about this majestic 298km lottery. You know them. It's an event that builds to a beautiful crescendo, or there is the champagne analogy - the finale akin to popping the cork only after you've given the bottle a good shake.
If you go to the bookmakers for an indication not a lot has changed since last year. Peter Sagan [Cannondale] is again odds-on favourite ahead of Mark Cavendish [Omega Pharma-Quick Step] with 2011 champion Matt Goss [Orica-GreenEdge] and Andre Greipel [Lotto Belisol] also high in the mix. Odds aren't necessarily insightful however. Defending champion Simon Gerrans was apparently 150-1 last season and teammate Goss 16-1 the year prior.
San Remo is one race that still gives even esteemed and long-standing cycling editors butterflies. It hasn't come down to a larger group finish since 2010 where Oscar Freire edged out Tom Boonen [Omega Pharma-Quick Step] for his third title. Perhaps such a finish is overdue.
If there's a headwind and the main group can clear the Poggio and then manage attacks on the descent we'll probably all be wracked with the nerves a bunch sprint evokes. Let's say this situation plays out. The 2009 winner Cavendish says he doesn't want a team built around him contrary to last season with Sky. There's been a suggestion that Boonen, who is coming back from a disrupted off-season and late start, will have the majority of support with Cavendish allocated Martin Velits. Boonen hasn't opened his season account yet but his outfit is hopeful the Belgian will arrive in Italy "fresh".
Circumstances can all change though on the day, especially if the race comes together. Cavendish is off to his most successful start and if the 27-year-old is there at the finish he has the form to win a second Monument title. The 23-time Tour de France stage winner is unlikely though to have two teammates per climb - on the Manie, Cipressa and Poggio - like he did with Highroad in 2009.
Goss too is in good shape. The Australian won a stage at Tirreno-Adriatico and it seems his team will back him more so than defending champion Gerrans, who abandoned Paris-Nice. Goss sounds as focused as he was in 2011 and that win itself can only help with confidence.
It's already been said, rightly or wrongly, that Milan-San Remo is now Cannondale phenom Peter Sagan's race to lose. Sagan's versatility seems to have no bounds with the Tour de France green jersey champion besting Cavendish and Greipel in a sprint finish at stage three of Tirreno and then former team-mate Vincenzo Nibali [Astana] and Joaquim Rodriguez [Katusha] days later.
Cannondale is fielding a strong team and has a secondary option in Strade Bianche victor Moreno Moser. It was responsible for splitting the race on Le Manie last year, which eliminated some pure sprinters including Cavendish. But whether the peloton is as willing to cooperate with the outfit Sunday only time will tell. There certainly seems to be more outfits putting confidence in their fast-men this year.
Sagan is only 23 and some have suggested the distance will be too much. However, he is now a fourth year professional, and won the sprint for fourth in San Remo last year. Provided he doesn't make a tactical error, the Slovak champ can be in the mix whether it's as part of a main group or as one of a few riders that arrive at the finish.
Sky is targeting a Classics win and although San Remo is not a priority its performance will be worth noting. The team's Classics squad has been training and racing together since December and, in a different move, will arrive in Italy on the back of a Tenerife training camp as opposed to traditional lead-up races. Its major objectives are the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix but how the British outfit fares will be interesting.
Fabian Cancellara [RadioShack Leopard]
Cancellara was unable to defend his Strade Bianche title this month, finishing fourth in what he described as a harder race than last season. The support, or lack thereof, from team-mates has already come into question ahead of the first Classic that the Swiss master finished second, in as many years, in 2012. Cancellara's strength and ability to be in the mix at the finish isn't in question, but whether he can employ a tactic or find another kick to shake those who will inevitably sit on is another story. His inability to do so last year cost him the race.
Edvald Boasson Hagen [Sky]
The Norwegian puncheur was a secondary option for Sky last year and one of only two team riders to finish the Monument. Sky's Classics squad has bought into an untested approach designed to win a Classic, if not this year then in the next few, and the team has substituted traditional lead-up races Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico with a Tenerife training camp. How it performs on the back of that we can't speculate on but Boasson Hagen is a contender based on his strengths plus the collective experience of the outfit.
Peter Sagan [Cannondale]
Sagan won the bunch sprint for fourth last year in what was just his second race appearance and behind then team-mate Vincenzo Nibali, who will again be a contender only this time for Astana. Sagan's team was chiefly responsible for splitting the race on the Le Manie in 2012 and eliminating Mark Cavendish. However, the peloton may not be so willing to co-operate with the squad this time. The 23-year-old Tour de France green jersey winner has the talent and self-assured attitude characteristic of all champions and is the bookie's favourite.
Matt Goss [Orica-GreenEdge]
Goss competed at Paris-Nice before his 2011 Milan-San Remo victory where he shared leadership with Cavendish. He was the first Australian to win the race and after a slump in form, due to illness and injury, this time last year is back and in-shape as demonstrated at Tirreno-Adriatico.
"It's only my fourth time doing the race this year so there are people that have a lot more experience than me, but hopefully I've got enough knowledge to put myself in the right spots," he told CW. Goss's young team also features the defending champion Simon Gerrans, who despite abandoning Paris-Nice, has had a solid season start.
Andre Greipel [Lotto-Belisol]
Milan-San Remo is again an objective for the German giant who so far has not had an opportunity to contest the finish. Greipel was on track last season, climbing well and still in the mix after the first decisive point - Le Manie - but came in more than a minute adrift of winner Gerrans. His now complete team, with the benefit of another season together, has already flexed its collective muscle and with the right tactics and race circumstances could ensure Greipel is there.
Heinrich Haussler [IAM]
Haussler hasn't forgotten having victory snatched from him - on the line - in 2009 but has been looking to rectify the result ever since. The 29 year old seems at home with new Pro Continental team IAM and is an outside chance should the race end in a sprint. Haussler was caught behind a crash involving Philippe Gilbert [BMC] on the Cipressa last season. Thomas Löfkvist, who helped Cavendish to his narrow 2009 win over him, is now a team-mate.
John Degenkolb [Argos-Shimano]
Degenkolb - just behind Peter Sagan in the group sprint for fourth last season - will again be one to watch with his Argos-Shimano team likely to work toward a sprint finish. The squad has joined the WorldTour this year and whilst still somewhat finding its feet is definitely on the fast track. It suffered a knock with one of Degenkolb's key lieutenants, Koen de Kort, breaking his collarbone at the Tour of Qatar. However, the Dutchman was back racing at Tirreno-Adriatico ahead of the Monument where his five-time Vuelta a Espana stage winner team-mate define a "good result" as a podium finish.
Mark Cavendish and Tom Boonen [Omega Pharma-Quick Step]
Boonen is a bit of an unknown given his disrupted start to the season. However, San Remo is virtually the only Classic he hasn't won and with a powerhouse team behind him should not be discounted after finish Paris-Nice.
Cavendish has been under no pressure to perform early season with his new team. He opted out of January's Tour Down Under, citing fitness, but replaced Boonen at the Tour de San Luis, which attracted more GC riders than sprinters. "Just before Christmas they asked me if I'd be interested in doing that," he said. "I was a bit like, nah, and then I thought actually it brings the season forward a couple of weeks, which will keep me on it that bit more over Christmas and New Year, so why not?"
Vincenzo Nibali [Astana]
Nibali - third last year - will be working towards a select finish. The Italian is a renown descender and won overall honours at Tirreno-Adriatico this week. The Poggio will be all important for the Italian who will need to shake the likes of Sagan and Cancellara, if they are there, or surpass them at exactly the right time in the final run-in.