OUDENAARDE, Belgium (VN) — You know you’re good when you make it look easy.
That’s what Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) did Sunday with his sublime victory against the odds in a wild and unpredictable Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders).
Stranded without teammates deep in the final hour of racing, Cancellara leaned on his depth of experience to out-wile younger, skittish rivals to win his seventh monument.
When asked if it was a “piece of cake,” Cancellara replied his record-tying third win was anything but.
“Maybe on TV it looked easy,” Cancellara said. “I was mostly on the defense. I only had one card to play. I wanted to go with them to the finish line and give everything. To win the sprint, and to repeat, it’s very special. It’s not just a piece of cake. It’s a huge piece of cake.”
Cancellara hoped to play his trump card and tried to ride away from the pack on Oude Kwaremont, but a new course and mild weather meant this Flanders was different than any other.
More riders and teams had more options late in the race. When Cancellara forced the selection on the final climb up Oude Kwaremont, only Sep Vanmarcke (Belkin) could follow, but Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) and Stijn Vandenbergh (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) were already up the road.
This time, Cancellara wasn’t going to finish alone in the photograph. And just as he had done throughout much of the race, he was forced to improvise.
Crashes took out key teammates Stijn Devolder and Yaroslav Popovych, and Gregory Rast was ill, abandoning early. Cancellara had to do it all alone.
“I could see there were four Quick Step riders in the front,” Cancellara said. “I knew they would attack, and I had to be on the defensive. Maybe this was the best way. Maybe there were some mistakes from the others. I knew it would come down to the man-against-man finish.”
Cancellara’s surge on the Kwaremont did, however, eliminate the chances of archrival Peter Sagan (Cannondale), so at least that much went to plan. Sagan was so angry after the race, he refused to speak to journalists.
“We know the Kwaremont is Peter’s weak point,” said Trek sport director Dirk Demol. “Fabian went full-gas on the second part, because that’s where it opens up to the crosswinds.”
That is just one example where Cancellara’s experience helped carry the day.
The classics are not only won with the strongest legs, but also with the smartest tactics.
Cancellara soon realized that with mild weather, a banged up team, and powerful riders, he was going to have to race with finesse to find a way to win.
Cancellara did the little things right, for example, when he forced Vanmarcke to chase down an attack with 3 kilometers to go by Vandenbergh. Cancellara was saving his legs for the sprint.
“Fabian is very experienced. He was calm, he knew what he had to do,” said Trek manager Luca Guercilena. “The big difference to the others was his experience. Fabian made a masterpiece today.”
Cancellara was lucky, too, avoiding crashes and mishaps that sideswiped his teammates and rivals alike.
When he opened his finishing sprint, he ramped up at just about the same time as Van Avermaet. The Belgian was the day’s main protagonist, going on a long-distance attack on the Kruisberg with 25km to go, but coming so close to victory left him feeling bittersweet.
“[Cancellara] was a little bit stronger than me. It is a little bit disappointing for me because Flanders is a dream,” Van Avermaet told reporters. “It is too bad I don’t have it, but I am happy that I was up there in the first group. It gives me confidence and should also give the team confidence. I am only 28 years old, so there are still a few years to come.”
Van Avermaet will surely be replaying the Flanders finale over and over again in his mind in the coming years, looking for clues of what he did wrong and how he could have won the race.
Cancellara handled the finale with the finesse of a veteran. It was all or nothing, a game that Cancellara’s played more than a few times over the past decade.
Van Avermaet was racing as a team captain for the first time. Vandenbergh is a journeyman helper who usually does the heavy lifting before Tom Boonen rides clear. And Vanmarcke, the youngest of the three at 25, is just cutting his classics teeth.
Cancellara’s been in the classics game for more than a decade, and with the chance to join the elusive Flanders three-win club, there was no way he was going to lose.
“I knew I had one card to play. I have been in this position many time in my career,” Cancellara said of the looming finale. “These other guys, each of them were in this position for the first time. That experience makes a difference.”
Cancellara read the race perfectly and delivered what might have been the most “beautiful” of his seven monument victories.