What are the chances of a Grand Tour champion winning Milan-San Remo or any of the other spring classics coming up in the next four weeks? Not great.
In fact, of recent Grand Tour winners, only 2010 Vuelta a Espaa champion Vincenzo Nibali will be on the start line in Milan this weekend. No Brad Wiggins, no Cadel Evans, no Ryder Hesjedal, no Ivan Basso, not even Alberto Contador or Alejandro Valverde. They are all focused on the next major stage races, Spains Volta a Catalunya starting Monday or next weekends Critrium International on the French island of Corsica.
The last time a Grand Tour winner won any of the early-season classics was 18 years ago when Frenchman Laurent Jalabert came in first at San Remo. Before that, Italian Gianni Bugno won the 1994 Tour of Flanders and Sean Kelly the86 Paris-Roubaix. The only exception to the modern pattern of specialists winning the big classics has been the extremely hilly Lige-Bastogne-Lige (scheduled for April 21 this year), which has been taken by four Grand Tour winners in the past decade: Danilo Di Luca (2007), Andy Schleck (2009), Valverde (2006 and 08), and Alexander Vinokourov (2005 and 10).
That wasnt always the case. Tour de France, Giro dItalia or Vuelta contenders would always ride the classics. Until the early-1990s, most racers were much more versatile than they are today. Champions such as American Greg LeMond, Irishman Sean Kelly, Frenchmen Laurent Fignon and Bernard Hinault, Italians Gianni Bugno and Francesco Moser, Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk and (of course) Belgian Eddy Merckx would ride (and often win) single-day classics, and not just the hilly ones. Merckx and Fignon both won San Remo multiple times; Bugno and Merckx won Flanders; and Kelly, Hinault, Moser and Merckx all won at Roubaix.
That scenario began to change when 1986 Tour champ LeMond turned his back on the classics after his hunting accident the following year and decided to focus on winning the Tour again. In his formative pro career, LeMond had taken podium spots at three of cyclings monuments, Milan-San Remo, Lige-Bastogne-Lige and the Tour of Lombardy. He even placed fourth at the most rugged of the spring classics, Paris-Roubaix. Since then, multi-time Grand Tour champions have focused almost exclusively on stage racing. Thats what happened in the 90s with Miguel Indurin, Jan Ullrich and Marco Pantani, and in the past decade with Contador, Evans and Wiggins.
The sport is less rich because of the Grand Tour champions absence from one-day racing, though the spring classics themselves continue to be must see races. Just think back to last year. The palpitating finale into San Remo when Fabian Cancellara couldnt get rid of his two breakaway companions, Nibali and eventual winner of the three-man sprint, Simon Gerrans. Or Tom Boonens amazing sweep of the cobbled classics: E3 Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgem, Flanders and Roubaix.
The racing would be even better if the Grand Tour contenders entered the frayespecially this weekends Milan-San Remo, which looks like taking place in wet weather, with a favorable wind that will encourage breakaways. There was a hint at Tirreno-Adriatico this past week what things would look like if Contador and the other Grand Tour champs decided to ride the magical Italian classic.
In horrendous conditions last Monday, Astanas Nibali turned Tirreno-Adriatico on its head by making a fierce attack on the third pass of the ultra-steep hill at SantElpidio, where only Cannondales prodigious Peter Sagan (Nibalis former teammate) could follow, before last years world No.1, Joaquim Rodriguez of Katusha, joined them on the 10km descent to the stage 6 finish. That breakaway was enough to drop race leader Chris Froome of Sky into second overall, while Contador took third in the final standings.
Sagan won that incredible difficult stage, to add to his growing reputation, at age 23, and put him in the favorites role this Sundayeven though the hugely confident Slovak has yet to win a classic. But being the man to beat could work against Sagan. None of the likely attackers will want to work with him because they know he will beat them in a sprint.
Other more experienced racers, who also perform well in the rain, could easily spring a surprise. That could mean a victory for Boonens Omega Pharma-Quick Step teammate Sylvain Chavanel, former world champ Thor Hushovd of BMC Racing, or Edvald Boasson Hagen or Team Sky. Chavanel won last Saturdays final road stage of Paris-Nice in a mass sprint over BMCs world champion Philippe Gilbert; Hushovd showed rising form at Tirreno; and Boasson Hagen (along with all his classics teammates at Sky) made the bold experiment of skipping the stage races in favor of altitude training in Tenerife.
All of those men will be comfortable riding in any breakaways that form on the half-dozen hills that punctuate the final third of the 298-kilometer course. Others to look for on Sunday (and in the following cobbled classics) are former San Reno winners Cancellara of RadioShack-Nissan, Mark Cavendish of Omega-Quick Step, Filippo Pozzato of Lampre-Merida, and Matt Goss of Orica-GreenEdge.
Facing all these classics specialists, Team Astanas Nibali is at a theoretical disadvantage. But after winning Tirreno for the second straight year, his confidence has never been higher. Asked the other day about his chances in Milan-San Remo as the events only Grand Tour winner, Nibali said, Its not really a race for me, but Im Italian and I love to do it. Ive often had bad luck here, and you always need a little. On Sunday, whatever happens, Ill try to play my own card.
If that card comes up trumps then Nibali might begin to reverse a trend that LeMond started 25 year ago.