HARELBEKE, Belgium (VN) — It would be unfair to say that “Spartacus” ever truly left. It was imagined that he was still only trapped inside Fabian Cancellara’s unlucky body, waiting to return.
On Friday on the Flemish cobblestones, “Spartacus” emerged, as Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) won E3 Harelbeke by a little more than a minute over a premier group, dropping both Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) in the process.
“It’s never easy. I’m not a pure sprinter. I’m not a pure climber. I have to do what I have to do,” he said after the race. It was not this race but these same roads that put him out last season, as Cancellara suffered a broken collarbone in the feedzone at the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders). But on Friday, and in the training leading up to the race here, he embraced the roads and the difficulty of the races.
“There were different feelings. When I did recon the other day, and I was lying almost a year ago there, and then we went to the roads today. It’s nice. It feels like home. I love those races, I like those kind of parcours. I’ve done my job. The goal was to win. How I was going to win was not important.”
Cancellara won in grand fashion, drifting off the front, seated until his wheel had gone clear and sucked the air from his quarreling pursuers. When Cancellara was at his most dominant, it was this strongman approach he employed to four monument wins.
It is a tactic that observers began to question after he towed his rivals to wins at the Tour de France and Milano-Sanremo last year. But Cancellara showed today that when he’s on form and the race is just right, he can still ride away from anyone.
“He had a great race today. He was in front for a long time, and he can still improve. But after what we’ve seen today, he’s at least one of the three strongest in the peloton,” said RadioShack director Dirk Demol. “There are no words for it. We had such a bad season — such bad luck — last year. This victory … Yes, we are really happy. Especially the way he did it. It’s promising for next week.”
Next week, of course, is the Ronde van Vlaanderen, which is shaping up to be a battle of stars Sagan, Cancellara, and Boonen, who showed he was heading back to form after a tough offseason by attacking on the Taaienberg. It was that attack that thinned the peloton and drew out Cancellera, who then waited until the Oude Kwaremont, 35 kilometers from the line, to put in a dig to free himself.
“I didn’t really expect this kind of victory,” said Cancellara. “I just kept going, all day. I’ve always said, ‘you don’t know what is tomorrow, and it is always a risk when you give everything, and you win like this,’ but when I went, it was on purpose, it was an acceleration, to see who could follow, and also because I saw too many Omega riders. I tried to make a first selection, then Dirk told me on the radio, ‘Just go and go, and then we’ll see later,’ and later was the finish line.”
Demol cited Cancellera’s bad luck last season (other than a week in yellow at the Tour) as perhaps a motivation for his Swiss rider.
“His Tour of Flanders, his Olympics, everything. I won’t say this is his revenge, but he was super motivated. He really wanted a big victory as soon as he could,” Demol said. “We saw at Strade Bianche he wasn’t as good as last year, but he was good. And today, I saw him growing. … You see how he won today, I think he’s at the right moment and in top form.”
He will have to be. Sagan has shown his class this year in tough races with two second places now (Milano-Sanremo and today) and Boonen certainly was able to carry speed at Harelbeke, but faded late. The others, though, know “Spartacus” is one they’ll have to break in order to win on the cobbles.
“When Cancellara attacked, we tried to follow him. But the situation was not easy,” Sagan said. “We tried to follow him hard, but Cancellara was too strong today.”
Strong, and patient.
“I’ve been waiting for victory. But still, it’s not over. It’s the start. We’re coming to the special Christmas week, next week,” Cancellara said. “No, it’s going to be even harder.”