The cycling world witnessed a heavily anticipated showdown at the Ronde van Vlaanderen on Easter Sunday, with the mano-a-mano clash between Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan going down to the final cobbled climb.
Sunday’s culmination of their growing enmity was the first major showdown of what looks poised to become one of cycling’s great rivalries — the aging, decorated warhorse versus the precocious young phenom.
The Tour of Flanders surpassed expectations, and Cancellara’s explosive acceleration on the Paterberg to gap off Sagan revealed as much about each rider’s character as it did about this moment in time in their respective careers.
For the ever-proud Cancellara, his second Flanders crown was all about reconfirmation. It marked his return to the highest levels of the sport after a 2012 season ruined by crashes, including one at De Ronde, exactly one year earlier, that left him with a shattered collarbone.
At 32, the RadioShack captain shows no signs of slowing down. Instead, his fearless, attacking style in the final decisive hour of racing helped him re-stake his claim as the king of the classics.
The Swiss superstar also seemed hell bent on teaching the upstart Sagan a lesson. The rider known as Spartacus appears to be grating under Sagan’s showmanship — something Cancellara seems to take as a personal affront, never more evident than after stage 1 of the 2012 Tour de France, when Sagan sat on Cancellara’s late-race attack and then showboated across the finish line with a finish-line salute.
“I respect him as a rider, he’s a young talent and it’s good we’ve got some good talented riders,” Cancellara said in March, prior to Milano-Sanremo, where Sagan finished second and Cancellara finished third, behind winner Gerald Ciolek. “But as I said after the Tour de France, he’s still got a few things to learn.”
At the other end of the career spectrum is the wide-eyed Sagan, a natural-born showman whose insatiable desire to win is only matched by his zeal to bring some pizzazz into the sometimes-stolid sport of cycling.
Sagan’s role model is none other the charismatic Moto GP champion Valentino Rossi. Sagan’s audacious racing style, coupled with his finish-line wheelies and Forrest Gump impersonations, have evoked strong reactions from all quarters. Some have viewed it as fun and refreshing; others see it as a lack of respect for the peloton and its elder statesmen.
But just as Sagan’s legs failed to answer Cancellara’s move on the Paterberg, his proclivity to be the eternal showman got the better of him during the podium presentation. Ever the class clown, Sagan’s inappropriate gesture of grabbing the derrière of a podium girl, while she kissed Cancellara on the cheek, quickly erupted into an international firestorm that threatens to engulf his otherwise tremendous spring.
“Sagan’s Squeeze” has been loudly denounced as an immature, macho gesture unfit for the elite of the sport. Critics were quick to pounce on Sagan, accusing him of both objectifying women and sullying cycling’s image.
Whether that same logic could be extended to the presence of podium girls, an anachronistic yet an eternal part of cycling’s history, is an interesting question, and surely material for more analytical stories to come.
And though he was quick to apologize via Twitter to the podium girl, whose name is Maja Leye, and then follow up with a video apology, the uproar is sure to haunt Sagan for quite some time. How he handles it in the coming days will reveal if he will truly learn his lesson, and take steps to correct it, after his first major public faux pas.
As Cancellara said last month, Sunday’s events revealed that the 23-year-old Cannondale rider still has much to learn, both on and off the bike.
And as his bold victory at Ghent-Wevelgem confirmed, Sagan’s hunger for classics victories is just taking root, and he is sure to dominate one-day races in the coming years, assuming he stays healthy.
Cancellara, however, got the better of Sagan at De Ronde with the deadly combination of superior strength coupled with tactical guile. The Swiss champion knew he couldn’t risk arriving at the line with the quicker Sagan glued to his wheel, and he rode a savvy race to put the pressure on his younger rival.
Cancellara’s first surge up the final passage up Oude Kwaremont blew a hole in the peloton. Only Sagan had the gas to follow.
With a chase organizing behind, Cancellara then prompted Sagan to take a few pulls to cement their advantage. That gave Cancellara the respite he needed before his final coup de grâce up the Paterberg.
On the short, steep rise with 20-percent ramps, Cancellara used a decade’s worth of experience to turn the screw with Swiss efficiency.
Sagan cracked ever so slightly and a small gap of two meters opened. Then it was three, wide enough for photographer’s motorcycles to slip through. They didn’t want to miss the photo of the defining moment of the race.
That gap quickly fractured into an insurmountable chasm. Cancellara clicked into time trial mode and poured on the gas to win the best way possible, all alone in the photograph.
In a gesture that would be a marked contrast to what later unfolded on the podium, the first person Cancellara searched out at the finish line was his wife. To prepare for the classics, Cancellara said he’s been home a total of 10 days since November. The sacrifices of a professional cyclist are felt both on the road and at home, and Cancellara wanted to share that emotion with the person who’s stood by his side.
Cancellara’s two wins this spring — E3-Harelbeke and Flanders — have reconfirmed the best of his qualities of daring racing tactics and consummate focus and drive off the bike.
With arch-rival Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) out with bruises and stitches, Cancellara enters Paris-Roubaix on Sunday as the lone five-star favorite.
Sagan will have an extra week to mull over the events of Sunday’s battle. He will skip Roubaix for yet another year and reload for Amstel Gold Race on April 14, leaving the door open for a possible start at Flèche Wallonne.
That means the Cancellara-Sagan rivalry will go into a holding pattern, at least until the Tour de France and the world championships.
At Flanders, Cancellara’s experience and depth got the better of Sagan, while Sagan did himself no favors with his poor-taste attempt at humor. How Sagan responds in the coming weeks will reveal a lot about what kind of champion he will ultimately become.