Fabian Cancellara isn’t interested in attacking for show.
Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), who has finished his last 10 monuments on the podium, could have followed Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) when the Sicilian launched a Hail Mary on the Cipressa, 25 kilometers from the finish at Milano-Sanremo on Sunday. The link-up would have provided an absolutely beautiful display of finesse and deft bike-handling on the two technical descents between the top of the Cipressa and final approach to Sanremo — if they made it that far.
The Swiss could have scored major points with the social media peanut gallery by hooking up with Nibali and taking up the majority of the pace-making (he is “Spartacus,” after all). He could even have come up short on the line and still ignited a fanbase as eager to celebrate his wins as accuse his rivals of wheel-sucking.
Instead, Cancellara quietly rolled over the Cipressa and Poggio in the group and sparked a late sprint to finish second in an important final tune-up for the northern classics — the races that really move the former world time trial champ.
In the recent past, he has attacked over the Poggio and finished third (2013), held tight in a small group and finished second (2011), and attacked 2km from the line to win the season’s first major classic (2008). All this in a finale he called too easy on Sunday.
“Second at Milano-Sanremo, that’s fine, but the course is not hard enough,” he said. “I hope that the course will be changed next year. Especially when weather conditions are difficult, the race is completely closed.”
When Cancellara flinches, he’s marked, and with roughly 60 riders left in the peloton on the Cipressa Sunday afternoon, a busload of men waited to jump onto his wheel — many of them motivated by the presence of teammates Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol), and Peter Sagan (Cannondale).
Those poor odds didn’t stop Nibali from wondering aloud why riders like Cancellara and Sagan didn’t dare follow him.
“Maybe it was a lack of courage, a lack of legs, or maybe because of the cold, I wouldn’t know,” Nibali said. “There were a lot of sprinters still there on the Poggio, like Cavendish. I don’t know what happened behind. The word in the bunch was to try and make Sanremo a lot more difficult in the finale because there wasn’t either Le Mànie or the Pompeiana. In any case, I think I did a good race. It would have been pointless for me to wait for the sprint. Maybe if I’d known it would be like that, I could have waited for the Poggio, but it was very difficult. I was waiting for an ally and I turned around a few times to see if anyone was coming but nothing.”
It may have come down to numbers and sheer predictability. Nibali jumped into what amounted to a choreographed attack, but old-hand Cancellara didn’t bite.
At the finish, Cancellara again found the bitter taste of a lesser podium place at “La Classicissima.” The 2008 Olympic time trial champion banged his handlebars coming across the line a bike length short of Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), who immediately saw his star rise with a virgin monument victory.
“I could have finished fifth or even crashed out. I’m not a sprinter, but after 294km, I was able to beat the likes of Cavendish and other sprinters, so that’s satisfying,” said Cancellara. “There was only one rider who finished ahead of me, and unfortunately the finish came too soon for me to get past him, but Katusha deserved to win. They did a good race, too.”
Cancellara owns six winners’ trophies from the monuments — cycling’s most important one-day races. In 2010 he won Paris-Roubaix on a 50km flyer. He knows when a race is hard and when it is not, and while many riders were suffering in the wet, cold conditions Sunday, the Swiss said afterward that the race was not hard enough for him to make a difference with a long-range attack. Not without the bone-jarring cobbles or steep, bumpy hellingen of the northern classics.
“I couldn’t really make a move earlier because there were too many riders who were still fresh,” he told journalists at the finish. “I’m not interested in attacking just to put on a show, either. There’s also the descent, other climbs, the flat, and lots of attacks. Races change and end as they end. This time it was in a sprint and I finished second.”
Simply put, Cancellara has to “attack when others are tired.”
After six-and-a-half hours, Cancellara didn’t think the peloton was worn out enough for one of his motorcycle-like barrages to work. He did admit that he nearly jumped over the top of the Poggio, and that the wait-and-see approach dulled the excitement for fans in the finale.
“It was hard because it was a race where you had to be patient — to wait and wait,” he said via the Trek team’s website. “Maybe it was a little bit boring because of that. Today was not Flanders or Roubaix. I thought maybe I should go on the top of Poggio, but there were too many riders that looked fresh, so I did not make a move. Same after the descent; there was no moment to go, so the best plan was to wait for a sprint. The sprint was the only solution of today.”
Dubbing Sunday’s finish at Sanremo “boring” is a reach. Was it Cancellara, Nibali, and Simon Gerrans attacking in 2012? No. But it was classic Milano-Sanremo drama, with all the usual questions. Can the long-odds Italian climber hold off the charging peloton? Who will push the pace impossibly hard coming off the Poggio? Will the attack with 2km to go stick? And, finally, who can cut out the most noise from his failing legs after an astonishing 294 kilometers?
That man was Alexander Kristoff on Sunday, but it certainly wasn’t for a lack of cunning on the part of the man called “Spartacus.” He played the sprint in Sanremo and lost. Cancellara’s turn for putting on a show will come later this week when the world’s attention turns to Harelbeke and three weeks of racing in Flanders and northern France. By the time the peloton reaches the Roubaix velodrome on April 13, no one will be asking for harder racing.