MILAN (AP) — Fabian Cancellara is preparing once again to battle with Slovakian rival Peter Sagan for the Milan-San Remo race title on Sunday.
Cancellara won the season's opening single-day classic in 2008 and has finished runner-up in the past two editions of the 298-kilometer (185-mile) race. There is little love between the Swiss time trial specialist and Sagan, and the friction intensified after the first stage of the 2012 Tour de France in which the Slovak sat back on the final kilometer before pulling away and narrowly winning from Cancellara, putting his hands on his shoulders as he cycled over the line.
"I respect him as a rider," Cancellara said. "He's a young talent and it's good we've got some good talent riders. But as I said after the Tour de France, he's still got a few things to learn. I'll ride my race and he and the Cannondale team will ride their race.
"I have my ideas how I'm going to race Milan-San Remo but I'm going to keep them to myself. It all depends on how the race goes. He wasn't such a gentleman with me. ... It all depends who is in the group, but I don't think I'll take riders to the finish like I did last year. No."
Sagan won a bunch sprint to finish fourth in the Milan-San Remo last year, and has since won three Tour de France stages and captured the green jersey for the points classification. He also beat sprint specialists Mark Cavendish and Andre Greipel to claim one of his two stage wins in last week's Tirreno-Adriatico.
Cavendish is also among the favorites and will be eager for revenge after the 2009 winner was edged out on the Le Manie climb with 100 kilometers (62 miles) to go last year. The Briton missed out in two sprint finishes last week but that was in part due to the narrowness of the roads, which will not be a problem in San Remo.
"It's so difficult to forecast the protagonist of this race, the group of possible winners is very large," 2006 winner Filippo Pozzato said. "I could say that Sagan and Cancellara are the favorites, but pay attention to Cavendish. If there will be a sprint in San Remo, he'll be the No. 1.
Cavendish has said he doesn't want a team built around him at Omega Pharma-Quick Step, like last season at Sky. "There's no pressure from the team, it's always pressure I put on myself," Cavendish said. "I mean, as my first goal of the year I once demanded the team be built around me and things haven't paid off in the past. This year it's been completely different. I was asked if I want to target this and I honestly don't want to target this.
"I think it's going to be very difficult to beat Sagan. He's clearly a favorite. He's in incredibly good form and Cannondale is riding so, so strong as a team. Sagan got close last year and I really believe, barring accidents, it's going to take a miracle to beat him this year really. But we will do our best."
Cavendish taking a step back could ensure most of the support goes to Belgian teammate Tom Boonen, who was third in 2007 and second in 2010. "I will be ready to do a good race on Sunday," Boonen said. "I've started to feel like my normal self and it is about time. But I have no goals set up. It will be a very successful race if I pass the first portion with the first group, but of course I think in the back of your mind you're thinking about a little bit more.
"With Sagan, it will be very hard to win this race. Still, we're thinking about a good tactic for Sunday. One option is to beat Sagan in the sprint. I think we have to focus on that. But how we will do it, that's our little secret."
Cavendish, who is from the Isle of Man, and Boonen are used to bad weather and that could be a factor on Sunday, with rain and even snow expected to cause havoc along the route. The race begins in central Milan and ends seven hours later on the Ligurian coast. In between, the course goes over the Turchino pass near the race's midpoint, then there is another small climb to Le Mani. It's the final two small climbs — the Cipressa and Poggio — where most of the action will occur.
It will be on the Poggio and the descent afterward that the race is likely to be decided. Vincenzo Nibali, who finished third last year, is one of the best descenders. If he manages to shake off Sagan and Cancellara, the Italian could add to his victory in the Tirreno-Adriatico.