|Milan-San Remo 2012 (click to enlarge)
All the Classics have history, but Milan-San Remo has more history than most. For many fans, it is the most important of the five Monuments, the venerated races that are the most prestigious of the Classics and widely considered secondary only to the Grand Tours. A list of winners is a list of the fastest riders from the last 105 years: Petit-Breton, Christophe, Garrigou, Pélissier, Defraye, Girardengo, Binda, Bartali, Coppi, Bobet, Van Steenbergen, Van Looy, Poblet, Poulidor, Simpson, Merckx, De Vlaeminck, Moser, Kuiper, Kelly, Fignon, Chiappucci, Zabel, Cancellara, Cavendish.
The final climb, Poggio de Sanremo, was introduced into the race in 1960 in an attempt to prevent it from ending in a bunch sprint every year and despite being known as the Sprinters' Classic, there are hills: the Passo del Turchino is a long grind up to 532m, not steep but for the final part, Le Manie tops out at 318m but is much steeper, Cipressa only hits 239m but is also steep - it's the reason many people though Cav couldn't win this one. He took them all by surprise in 2009 when he climbed them with relative ease, then beat Heinrich Haussler across the line to become the first British rider to win this race since Tom Simpson in 1964. Now he says that a second victory is one of his main targets for 2012, and when Cav locks onto a target he's as good as unbeatable.
The race begins at the Piazza Legga Lombarda in Milan (45°28'39.56"N 9°10'51.64"E); an attractive city street with flat cobbles and tramlines by the neoclassical Arena Gianni Brera, previously known as the Arena Civica, which in the 19th Century hosted Bill Cody's famous Wild West Show - as did the Buffalo Velodrome in Paris, once run by Henri Desgrange. It then runs south along the Via Legnano to begin a neutral zone of approximately 7.21km, following the streets through to the famous Castello Sforzesco. This vast citadel, one of the largest in Europe, was once the seat of the powerful Duchy of Milan - itself dating back to pre-Roman times - and now houses several important museums and art collections in addition to the Salla delle Asse, a room with a ceiling decorated by Leonardo da Vinci. Having played an instrumental role in the early days of the Christian faith in Europe, the area surrounding the castle is sometimes known as the Centre of Christianity. After following the road around the castle, the riders turn left into the Via Marco Minghetti and come out at the Piazza Cadorna with its fountains and colourful modern sculptures, then pass into the Via Giosue Carducci. Just visible at a few points are Basilia of Sant'Ambrogio, dating from the 4th Century AD and one of the oldest churches in the city. It is the burial place of several martyrs, killed as a result of Roman persecution of Christians, and of Emperor Louis II. The basilica was much damaged by Allied bombing in 1943, as can still be seen in some parts, though arguably more damage has been done to the complex by the inclusion of the modern and spectacularly ugly museum and office building. That's just the first few kilometres.
|Certosa di Pavia
(image credit: Tango7174 CC BY-SA 3.0)
Once the capital of Lombardy, Pavia is home to a university founded in 1361 and has many important buildings, the most famous of which is the Cathedral - begun in the 15th Century, it's still not finished. For a short time, the city was also home to Albert Einstein. A short while after passing Cava Manara, the riders arrive at a bridge crossing the Po at 38.7km from the start of the race. Gradually, after Bressana Bottarone, the road begins to climb; almost imperceptibly at first and then more rapidly at Voghera after 59.8km where there is a museum that exhibits the gun that was used to execute Mussolini. Here, the parcours takes the SP93 and continues south-west to Tortona, the largest conurbation the race has seen since Milan and the chosen home of Fausto Coppi who died here in 1960 - the city's stadium is, unsurprisingly, named after the man who for many is Italy's greatest sporting hero but it seems a pity that the race does not pass through Castellania 12km to the south-east, his birthplace. From this point, the altitude rises far more steeply and for the first time becomes a problem for the sprinters, once of whom will most likely win the race - look to see who shows signs of suffering and then keep an eye on them in the steeper climbs to come, as this may be indication that they won't have the strength to compete in the final sprint to the finish line.
|Altimetry (click to enlarge)
(image credit: Davide Papalini CC BY-SA 3.0)
Once the Turchino has been passed, the race becomes a very long, very fast sprint for much of the remaining 155.7km with only a few smaller climbs - Le Manie, the three Capi, Cipressa and the Poggio del San Remo to break things up. Expect a large breakaway, and probably several smaller ones too, to try to gain an advantage here and also keep your eyes on the sprinters as their teams nurse them through the kilometres in an attempt to conserve their energy for the last section.
(image credit: Nijnemans CC BY-SA 3.0)
|Fortezza del Priamar
(image credit: Basilico CC BY-SA 3.0)
7km later, the race reaches Spotorno and passes through a 220m tunnel. 3.5km further on is Noli (44°12'20.96"N 8°24'59.01"E) - a tiny town nestling in a wooded valley, but one with an impressive past: between 1193 and 1797, Noli was a self-governing independent nation, the smallest of the Maritime Republics that included Venice and Pisa. The church, San Paragorio, was the cathedral until independence ended with the Napoleonic invasion of 1797. Just outside Noli the race reaches the 200km point, roughly two thirds of the way to the finish, then the following 4.7km become harder on the sprinters as the parcours briefly leaves the coast and they climb Le Manie. Once again the hill is not high nor steep enough at 318m to decide the race nor prove too much of an obstacle, but coming after so many kilometres it's far from easy.
|Porta di Finalborgo frescoed gatehouse,
(image credit: Mau CC BY-SA 3.0)
Having negotiated streets of varying prettiness and width through Albenga, site of an 11th Century cathedral, the riders cross a bridge and take the SP1 leading to Alassio (44° 0'14.07"N 8°10'5.72"E), which inspired Edward Elgar to write an overture (the town repaid the honour by naming a street after him) and which is usually included on lists of the most beautiful locations in Italy. Laigueglia is next, then it's on to the first of the three Capi, hills low enough to have little if any effect on the outcome of the race. This one is the 67m Capo Mele where there is a lighthouse bulit originally in 1856, then extensively rebuilt in 1947-8 after it was badly damaged by Allied shelling in the Second World War. At the bottom of the descent the riders arrive at Andora and have 50km left to the end of the race. There is a velodrome in the town and the environs are popular among mountain bikers. The 61m summit of Capo Cervo is reached 3km after the town, then we drop into Cervo which marks the beginning of the Cervo/San Bartolomeo al Mare/Diano Marina conurbation where the three towns have grown to become contiguous. Diano San Pietro, up in the hills, will soon join them.
|Porto Maurizio, seen from the west
The peloton enters San-Remo along the Via Aurelia, continuing when it becomes the Via Guiseppe Mazzini and then the Corso Felice Cavallotti. This leads them to the Rondo Garibaldi where they will turn left onto Via Flume, then right onto the Corso Orazio Raimundo and left 300m later for the Via Nino Bixio. From here, it's all about high speed as the teams lead the sprinters left at the Giardini Vittorio Veneto ready for them to switch on the afterburners and launch themselves at the finish line by the seafront on the Lungomare Italo Calvin (43°48'49.96"N 7°46'28.97"E).
|Thor Hushovd - Cav's biggest rival
(image credit: PB85 CC BY-SA 3.0)
It's hard to see any other team working so well together as Sky who, as became apparent at Paris-Nice, have spent all winter honing their technique. BMC are likely to be the biggest threat - the team as a whole may not work so well but Thor Hushovd, Alessandro Ballan and Philippe Gilbert (assuming he's improved his form since the Tirreno-Adriatico) are each capable of winning this race. If they can operate as a unit, Sky will need to work extra hard. GreenEDGE will certainly be wanting to win, not least of all because a Monument in their first season - after a start which some have called "lacklustre" - would silence the critics. Then there's RadioShack-NissanTrek - their team seems less likely to operate as one somehow, but with Cancellara aboard it might not matter: on a good day, Cancellara could win this race solo.
TV: In Britain, the race will be televised live on Eurosport from 13:15. It will also be showing on Eurosport in most other European nations and live streams will be available from all the usual sources.