HARELBEKE, Belgium (VN) — Wearing race number 1 as the defending champion and combating multiple mechanical issues, Fabian Cancellara soloed to an impressive victory at the E3 Prijs Harelbeke that surely struck fear into his closest rivals for the upcoming cobbled classics, the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix.
Although given the demonstrative manner that Cancellara took his second consecutive Harelbeke victory — alone, with a one-minute gap, reminiscent of his dominating victories at Flanders and Roubaix in 2010 — it’s becoming debatable if there are any riders the Swiss rider can truly consider as rivals at all.
Though he struggled with two rear punctures and a subsequent bike change, Cancellara regained contact with the front of the race each time, and when a dwindling peloton hit the Oude Kwaremont climb with 37km remaining, the Leopard-Trek rider known as Spartacus looked like a man pedaling among boys as he blew the race apart, dropping cobbled classics stars such as Thor Hushovd, Lars Boom, Bjorn Leukemans and Stijn Devolder.
Cancellara’s attack went unanswered, and he quickly picked up a chase group containing Bram Tankink (Rabobank), Svein Tuft (Spidertech-C10) and Sergei Ivanov (Katusha) that struggled to hold his wheel.
The Leopard rider then dragged that group up the Knokteberg, a paved 1.75km climb that averages 5.3 percent. With 20km remaining, and with Spartacus driving the chase, they’d caught the front group, containing Heinrich Haussler (Garmin-Cervélo), Gustav Larsson (Saxo Bank-Sungard) and Cancellara’s teammate, Stuart O’Grady.
With only the Tiegemberg, a 1.4km climb averaging 9 percent, remaining, Tankink took the dubious honors as the only rider brave enough to attack Cancellara’s front group in the lead-up to the climb. Upon Tankink’s attack, the three-time world time-trial champion waited as the rest of the riders looked at each other. And once Cancellara quickly closed down the move, the race was all but over. The “Swiss Time Machine” counterattacked, riding straight through Tankink, who began cramping; the Dutch rider could only sit up and shake his head.
Seated in the saddle Cancellara hit the Tiegemberg with a 10-second lead, which stretched to 30 seconds over the top. Behind, a chase group of 14 riders assumed the battle for a podium step.
“When Cancellara caught us he was just going so fast,” said Tuft, who finished 13th, in the first group. “I’ve never seen anything like it. There wasn’t anything anyone could do. And once he attacked, pretty quickly we were racing for second place.”
Not even his own bike can beat Cancellara
At 201km, with 14 climbs, and held one week before the most important race in Belgium, the E3 Harelbeke is an ideal Flanders warm-up. Held under mild conditions, this year’s race was missing several big names, however, as, for the second year in a row, it shared a weekend with Ghent-Wevelgem, a WorldTour race with a longer history that finishes just a 15-minute drive from Harelbeke.
Because Harelbeke is a UCI Europe Tour event, race radios were not allowed. And while Cancellara chose to return to Harelbeke — “I needed to race these cobbled climbs,” he said — many other big names, such as Matt Goss, Philippe Gilbert, Alessandro Ballan, Tyler Farrar and Tom Boonen, a four-time Harelbeke winner and an outspoken critic of the new date conflict — all chose to chase WorldTour points on Sunday.
The last time Boonen missed Harelbeke was in 2002.
The race’s demanding parcours was made more difficult by an aggressive field; after two hours of racing, no breakaway had taken more than 30 seconds from a peloton driven by Leopard-Trek and Garmin-Cervélo.
Finally, following the feed zone, with 100km to go, a group of eight pulled away — O’Grady (Leopard), Sep Vanmarcke (Garmin), Jurgen Vandewalle (Omega), Sébastian Hinault (AG2R), Aliaksandr Kuschinsky (Katusha), Michael Morkov (Saxo Bank-Sungard), William Bonnet (FDJ) and Ben King (Team Type 1).
At around 70km to go, Cancellara pulled over with his second rear puncture of the day. While the first had come early on, by that point the race had begun in earnest. Teammate Robert Wagner sacrificed his own wheel to his team leader — however, the change wasn’t ideal, and Cancellara could be seen struggling with his shifting.
Ahead the O’Grady group reached a maximum advantage of three minutes — however, its lead was halved on the Taaienberg, a 500-meter cobbled climb 60km from the finish that reaches a maximum gradient of 18-percent.
As the breakaway struggled, a chase group formed on the Taaienberg, containing Haussler, Larsson, Niki Terpstra (Quick Step), Jurgen Roelandts (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Steve Chainel (FDJ) and Vincent Jerome (Europcar). Unhappy after his wheel change, Cancellara pulled over at the bottom of the Taaienberg to take a bike change; he would finish the race on a spare.
With 40km remaining, a splintered race approached the Paterberg, a 400-meter cobbled climb that maxes out at 20 percent.
Vanmarcke, who had also suffered a puncture, rode away from his companions over the Paterberg and soon found himself alone off the front of the race with a 40-second gap over the Haussler group and 25 miles to ride.
“I didn’t mean to drop the rest of the group,” said Vanmarcke, the 22-year-old Belgian who finished second at Ghent-Wevelgem in 2010. “ I just wanted to push a hard pace, and the next thing I knew I was alone. I gave it everything, but I knew it was a long way to go to the finish.”
Behind, Tuft and Brankink jumped from the peloton, with Ivanov quickly following suit, 1:30 behind Vanmarcke.
It was on the Kwaremont that a fed-up Cancellara finally made his move. In one fell swoop he dropped what was left of his rivals and quickly caught the Tuft group, dragging those who could hold on across to the Haussler group, which had picked up Vanmarcke.
After sitting on O’Grady long enough to suck down a gel, Cancellara countered Tankink’s desperate move in the final 20km.
And as it was at Paris-Roubaix last year, once Cancellara had attacked, a chase group of strong classics riders simply watched him ride away. By the time the chase group had crossed the line — led by Roelandts and Vladimir Gusev (Katusha), with Vanmarcke taking an impressive fourth — Cancellara was already giving interviews.
“I learned today that I’m ready for De Ronde,” Cancellara said. “There were a few riders that were not here, but at the end of the day, it’s a bike race, on a hard course, and it’s not easy to win. I did everything I could to win. I didn’t look who was here or not here, we just rode our race, with our tactics, our plan.”
Cancellara said his victory this year was even more special than last year — which, for one week, was his only Belgian cobbles win, until he defeated Boonen at Flanders.
“Today was special because I had a lot of bad luck,” Cancellara said. “I had two punctures and then changed the bike, and all this without radio, and we were car number 23 in the caravan. But I knew we had Stuart in the front, and I was calm for that even though (after the third mechanical) I was really far back.
“I had to pull hard to be close to the front, and then I tried to be on the wheel, and to be calm and without stress. I had it in my head to attack on the Kwaremont, and then I moved up until I was with Stuart; he pulled as long as he could and then I went away. It was a perfect plan.”
A perfect plan — Cancellara makes it look, and sound, so easy. There’s little doubt that after his demonstration Saturday at Harelbeke, Cancellara’s rivals are anxiously assembling plans of their own to try, however they can, to combat a rider who on the cobbles is head and shoulders above the rest.
- 1. Fabian Cancellara (Sui), Leopard-Trek, 4:34:51
- 2. Jurgen Roelandts (Bel), Omega Pharma-Lotto, at 1:00
- 3. Vladimir Gusev (Rus), Team Katusha, at 1:00
- 4. Sep Vanmarcke (Bel), Garmin-Cervelo, at 1:00
- 5. Bram Tankink (Ned), Rabobank Cycling Team, at 1:00
- 6. William Bonnet (Fra), Française des Jeux, at 1:04
- 7. Heinrich Haussler (Aus), Garmin-Cervelo, at 1:08
- 8. Sébastien Hinault (Fra), Ag2r La Mondiale, at 1:08
- 9. Stuart O’Grady (Aus), Leopard-Trek, at 1:08
- 10. Serguei Ivanov (Rus), Team Katusha, at 1:08