MEERBEKE, Belgium (VN) — Fabian Cancellara didn’t just enter the Tour of Flanders as a race favorite — he entered the race as the defending champion and the overwhelming favorite.
After his impressive wins at last year’s Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, and strong showings at Milan-San Remo and E3 Harelbeke over the past month, the Leopard-Trek rider took the start of the Ronde van Vlaanderen as the rider the rest of the 198 starters would key their tactics around.
When Cancellara attacked with 41km remaining and bridged across to Quick Step’s Sylvain Chavanel, opening a one-minute gap, it seemed that no tactics would prevent the inevitable — another solo victory for the three-time world time-trial champion.
However, several factors played into a very different outcome, with Cancellara ultimately caught atop the Kappelmuur with 15km to go — leg cramps on the Muur, an unexpected shadow in Chavanel, and a strong BMC Racing team, which organized a successful chase.
Once that chase group of race favorites brought back the leading pair, Cancellara went through a bad spell on the final climb, the Bosberg, before clawing his way back on to the front group.
He attacked again, with 3.5km to go, drawing out Chavanel and eventual winner Nick Nuyens (Saxo Bank). A last-gasp sprint from 300 meters to the line fell short as Nuyens and Chavanel both came around to take the top podium steps.
The rider who was deemed unbeatable appeared showed that he is, in fact, mortal. Afterwards, though he said it was “a strange day,” Cancellara was positive about his performance.
“The dream is always to finish in Meerbeke alone,” he said. “I fought until the finish line, and that shows me I didn’t give up, I believed in this victory, and finishing third is satisfying. I’m not frustrated, I’m not disappointed; I have done an amazing race. I can be happy with this.
“It was a strange day — the race was strange, the parcours was new, it wasn’t raining (as was forecast), and in the end it was (warm) like a summer day,” Cancellara continued. “They were all racing against us, we lost (Joost Posthuma), an important rider. The team did the maximum they could, and I did the maximum I could.”
When Cancellara attacked on the Leberg climb, the consensus among riders and the media was that the race was suddenly for second place. Cancellara said he felt like he was having one of his “special moments,” but later, it felt like the world was “falling down around” him.
“I just tried to do something … to see how everything went,” he said. “I had Chavanel with me … I was trying to get alone. I believed it was possible. But we had BMC and Sky chasing, and on the bottom of the Muur I had cramps. Chavanel could see I wasn’t super. If Chavanel could have ridden with me I think we would have battled for first and second spot. (In the end) he gets second, and we still went away from the group with all the favorites that were there at the end, after the Muur.”
Though he didn’t attribute a lack of water in the final 30km as the reason his bold attack didn’t succeed, it certainly didn’t help prevent Cancellara’s subsequent leg cramps. As BMC amassed at the front of the chase group, Cancellara could be seen looking for water and shaking an empty bottle. His team car was not allowed to come across, as the gap was under one minute, and the rider known as Spartacus finally took a bottle from a Shimano neutral support car.
“Okay, I missed some bottles, but that’s not an excuse,” Cancellara said. “That’s how things went. At a certain moment I lost a bottle (on the cobbles), and I had only a little left in the other bottle, and with these temperatures, it was almost a summer day. I also lost my SRM on the cobbles. I was looking for bottles from other teams. … I don’t know, maybe they were searching for their own riders to come. The whole (Leopard-Trek) team, staff, everyone has been perfect. Just the car was coming a bit later, and you need every millimeter of liquid. Yesterday, before the race, I drank enough, but in the race, sometimes things can change.”
Cancellara called the final 10km of the race “like a lottery,” adding that he never gave up the belief that he could still pull off the victory, either as he did at Milan-San Remo in 2008, when he attacked alone with 2km to go, or as he nearly accomplished at San Remo this year, when he finished a close second to Matt Goss in the bunch sprint.
“When you look at the last 10km, from the Muur … still with (Philippe) Gilbert, then he attacked, then (Alessandro) Ballan was there, I was with (Bjorn) Leuekemans and Chavanel, then we came back, then the rest of the back was coming, and suddenly it was like a lottery. You could win, or you could lose. Even as a favorite, a Superman that had a weak moment, even then you could lose.
“But I believed even then that it was still possible. You only need something little that will make a small gap. The problem is they know me, and they won’t let me go. But to go away with 3.5km shows me I have done the maximum to try and get this victory.”
After his late attack was neutralized, Cancellara and Chavanel shook hands. Asked about it, Cancellara called it “fair play,” and also took a jab at Nuyens.
“(Chavanel) has done what he had to do. He has done his race, like we have done our race. I think Nick, he has done this one move. That’s with the sprint, because I was the rider that went away with 3.5km from the finish line. With a perfect day, maybe I could go alone, but if you have cramps, riders will follow you, and it’s hard that they let you go. I was targeted by 95 percent of the bunch, so I’m happy to have finished third at this beautiful race.”
Cancellara also expressed frustration at BMC for chasing him down, but in his estimation, failing to animate the race.
“The tactics from (BMC), they should maybe try something differently,” he said. “When you have so many riders at the bottom of the Muur, and you don’t even finish with a rider on the podium, you shouldn’t be happy. They tried like everyone else. It’s never easy making tactics, riding in the end. We had different plans, and we did what we could, and for this we can be happy. But a lot of other teams should not be happy.”
As for his decision to start his sprint early, Cancellara said it was Chavanel’s Quick Step teammate Tom Boonen that forced his hand.
“I just had to open the sprint,” Cancellara said. “I could see Tom coming from behind. But I couldn’t see if there were other riders following it. That’s why I opened my sprint early. In another situation, without Tom in the back, I would make the sprint later. One (effort), okay, another time, okay, but the third time, at the end, I finished third.”
Looking forward to Paris-Roubaix, Cancellara said he thinks his chances are as good as ever to take a third cobblestone trophy.
“San Remo second, Harelbeke I won … it looks like, on paper, I must win Roubaix,” Cancellara said. “But it’s another day. Today shows I’m strong, but it also shows that they don’t have to only race against me. I said earlier, like (Philippe) Gilbert (said), it’s a bike race, nothing more.
“It’s too easy to say, ‘We’re following them.’ You have to make your own tactics. We did our tactics, but it looked like some teams were riding only against me, and they’ve lost the race. Like I said, I’m going to make other teams lose when they’re not riding their own tactics.”