Milan-San Remo through Aussie eyes

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Matt Goss from Australia. AFP PHOTO / MARK GUNTER

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Milan-San Remo. La Classica di Primavera. The sprinter’s classic. Call it what you will, but there is little doubt that Italy’s most famous one day race is under siege from Australian cyclists.

Stuart O’Grady was the first to mount a successful assault. In 2004 he finished third behind Spaniard Oscar Freire and German Erik Zabel.

Zabel should have won the race except for a premature victory celebration that allowed Freire to sneak past and claim victory on the line. It mattered naught to O’Grady though, who took his place proudly on the podium.

In 2007 Allan Davis went one better, snagging second, sandwiched between Freire (who took the second of his three wins) and Belgian champion Tom Boonen.

A dramatic sprint finish in 2009 saw Heinrich Haussler break early for the line and open up what seemed to be an unbeatable lead. But enter the Manx Missile, Mark Cavendish, who used all of his remarkable speed to peg back Haussler and beat him on the last pedal stroke of the day.

A disbelieving Haussler had to settle for second, with Thor Hushovd making up the podium in third.

Then came 2011. After years of threatening to take the main prize, an Australian finally broke through to win the prestigious spring classic.

Riding a smart race, Matthew Goss crossed the line ahead of the highly fancied duo of Fabian Cancellara and Phillipe Gilbert.

It was the biggest win by an Australian cyclist since O’Grady’s surprise win at Paris-Roubaix in 2007 and would have remained so if Cadel Evans hadn’t claimed victory in a certain French race four months later.

And in 2012, the irrepressible Australians did it again. Having already been crowned the hero of that year’s Tour Down Under, Simon Gerrans led GreenEDGE to the biggest victory of their debut season by outpointing Cancellara and Vincenzo Nibali.

While Goss went into the race as the most likely of the GreenEDGE riders to contest the final sprint, Gerrans was the insurance policy in case of a breakaway.

When Nibali attacked near the top of the Poggio climb with just six kilometres to go, it was Gerrans who reacted, jumping on the Italian’s wheel. Cancellara, sensing the danger, quickly bridged the gap, and the final selection was made.

Holding a tenuous lead of only a handful of seconds for the remainder of the race, the trio of Gerrans, Cancellara and Nibali entered the finishing straight together with Gerrans holding out Cancellara to claim a momentous victory for himself and his team. A tiring Nibali took third.

For Gerrans, it capped off a remarkable start to the season which began with a win at the national championships in Buninyong, took in the overall victory at the Tour Down Under and saw him just miss out on a stage win at Paris-Nice.

Although no stranger to victory (he has won stages at each of the three Grand Tours), his Milan – San Remo triumph, leading an Australian team, was without doubt his sweetest.

And now the race has rolled around again. The usual suspects – Goss and Gerrans – will be flying the flag for Orica-GreenEDGE, but will they be able to complete a hat trick of wins for their homeland?

We know they can last the distance, all 300 kilometres of it. We know they can survive the seven climbs that include Le Manie, the Cipressa and the Poggio.

But can they survive a withering attack from Peter Sagan?

Goss rode around Sagan on stage two of Tirreno-Adriatico to take an emotional win, but Sagan bounced back the very next day, beating home Mark Cavendish and Andre Greipel.

His form a few days later, as he conquered the 30 percent gradient of the vicious Muro di Sant’Elpidio, augers well for a good result here. The Poggio, a natural launch pad for attacks, should be child’s play in comparison.

Others will be desperate to chase glory as well. Nibali, Gilbert, Hushovd, Cancellara, Boonen, Cavendish and Edvald Boasson Hagen are among the biggest names in cycling, and each is in with a chance.

While the Aussies have shown good form here over the past few years, the chance of a third successive victory seems slim. Recent history would suggest it is near impossible.

It has been 40 years since a country produced a three-peat. Belgium armed with Eddie Merckx in 1971-72 and Roger De Vlaeminck in 1973 were the last country to achieve it.

So while Goss is gaining in confidence and Gerrans can never be written off, even my heavily biased Australian eyes cannot dismiss the Slovakian threat.

It is Sagan for me.

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