Why Peter Sagan is favourite for Milan-San Remo

The first big race of the year, Milan-San Remo, is coming up on Sunday. Peter Sagan is the favourite and it’s a good time to look at why he is such a special cyclist as the nature of this race helps explain why that’s the case.

Sagan’s niche

Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France and Mark Cavendish is widely regarded to be the finest sprinter around – if not the finest ever – so where does that leave Sagan? Well, to put it bluntly, it leaves him with almost everything else. There’s a lot between those two extremes.

Peter Sagan doesn’t so much fall between two stools as crush the table between them, roaring like a big, goofy, Slovak Godzilla while he does it.

Sagan v Wiggins

Bradley Wiggins is a stage racer. He is well suited to prolonged efforts, day after day. Wiggins will rarely take a stage victory outside of time trials, but he is a hard man to shake, no matter what the terrain. Peter Sagan has many of these qualities, but as a more powerful cyclist in short bursts, he carries too much muscle to survive on the long, tough climbs where strengh-to-weight ratio is everything. This is why he isn’t really a stage racer, as to win the general classification you can’t really afford to have any weaknesses.

However, where Sagan scores over Wiggins is that he has that extra bit of power that can get him to the line ahead of others on individual stages, which is how he won the green jersey at the Tour last year.

Sagan v Cavendish

That power isn’t enough that he can pass as an out-and-out sprinter, but by Christ, he’s damn close. Mark Cavendish will more often than not beat Sagan in a sprint, but the Slovak can certainly compete.

Where Sagan scores over Cavendish is in his ability to thrive on all but the toughest climbs. This means he is likely to be fresher at the end of a tough stage, which can often prove crucial. However, an even bigger benefit is that he guarantees his presence in the front group as they approach the finish line, allowing him to compete in the first place. Sagan can compete for wins in a wider variety of races and in situations when the field’s been whittled down, there generally isn’t anyone who can match him in a sprint.

Sagan and Milan-San Remo

Mark Cavendish won Milan-San Remo in 2009 and it is considered the spinters’ classic. However, it does feature some climbs and last year other teams exploited this. A fearsome pace was set going up La Manie with 97km to go, the peloton split and Cavendish found himself in the wrong half.

You can’t do this to Peter Sagan. Last week at Tirreno-Adriatico, he won a flat sprint against Cavendish and the beast known as Andre Greipel on stage three and he then held his own with whippety Grand Tour contenders Vincenzo Nibali and Joaquim Rodriguez on the 27 per cent slopes of stage six – neither of those riders had a hope in hell of matching him in a sprint, so he won that too.

This is why Sagan is the favourite on Sunday. Try and shed the sprinters by increasing the pace on a climb and you improve his chances of victory by removing the men who threaten him most. But if you don’t do that, his team probably will. In a race like this, his only real weakness is the fact that at 298km, it is a painfully long slog.

The favourite rarely seems to win Milan-San Remo, but I wouldn’t bet against seeing yet another patented Sagan celebration at the line.