Five months have passed since Rohan Dennis abandoned the Tour de France in mysterious circumstances, climbing off the bike seemingly without cause during stage 12, the day before the race’s major time trial.
The European Spring Classics season kicks off on Saturday with the first of the ‘Five Monuments’, Milan-San Remo, in Italy.
The race, known as ‘La Primavera’ (‘The Spring’) is the longest one-day race on the professional cycling calendar.
This year’s edition covers 291 kilometres on relatively flat terrain, from the fashion and industry centre of Milan to the resort town of San Remo on the Mediterranean coast.
John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin), winner of last year’s prestigious Milan-San Remo, Paris-Roubaix double, will not compete as he recovers from shocking injuries from a training accident in Spain back in January.
La Primavera tends to favour the sprinters, or least the ones who have the legs after nearly 300 kilometres in the saddle. Here are the top five favourites.
Fernando Gaviria (Etixx-Quick Step_
At the tender age of 21, Colombian rider Fernando Gaviria already has a swag of stage victories in his short career as a pro-cyclist, including two this year from Tour de San Luis and a stage at Tirreno-Adriatico.
He’s also a talent on the track, winning gold in the omnium event at the World Track Cycling Championships in 2015 and 2016.
But will those young legs last the distance?
Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo)
Swiss classics specialist Fabian Cancellara celebrates his 35th birthday the day before La Primavera, and won this race back in 2008.
This is the final year as a pro for the man known as ‘Spartacus’, and he’s going all out to make the most of it. He started 2016 with a victory in Trofeo Serra de Tramuntana, and won the individual time trials at Volta Algarve and Tirreno-Adriatico.
But his most stirring victory was in the Strade Bianche, which he won for the third time out of just ten editions of the race. In honour of his achievement, organisers will name the sixth gravel sector after him – and please God let it be ‘Via Spartacus’.
Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEDGE)
Aussie rider Michael ‘Bling’ Matthews finished second to Peter Sagan in the 2015 World Championship road race.
More recently, he won the prologue and held onto the yellow leader’s jersey for four stages at this year’s Paris-Nice, and was awarded the win in Stage 2 after Frenchman Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) was disqualified for swerving wildly in the sprint to the line which nearly pushed Bling into the side railing.
Matthews, who finished third in this race last year, is on fire at the moment and looks set to join previous Aussie winners Matthew Goss and Simon Gerrans.
Peter Sagan (Tinkoff)
The current world road race champion finished fourth in Milan-San Remo last year. Early this month he placed fourth in Strade Bianche, and was second at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in February. The Slovakian won the points classification at Tirreno-Adriatico and finished second overall.
Sagan’s performance in last year’s Spring Classics was somewhat disappointing to team owner Oleg Tinkov, but he starts this year’s campaign in the rainbow jersey of a world champion, and a win here will make amends.
Alexander Kristoff (Team Katusha)
The Norwegian sprinter and one-day specialist won Milan-San Remo in 2014 and was runner-up in 2015. He then went on to win the Tour of Flanders and the Scheldeprijs within a week of each other.
Kristoff has had a brilliant start to 2016, collecting six stage wins from the Tours of Qatar and Oman in February. More recently, at Paris-Nice, he had three top-four finishes, including second on Stage 5. On current form he’s the man to beat.
Weather conditions look favourable, with temperatures in the high teens – a vast improvement on the 2013 edition, which saw riders battle with freezing rain and snow.
Hopefully the sun will be out for the victor as he crosses the line in San Remo, and with the first of the monuments down we’ll know the European Spring has well and truly arrived.