OUDENAARDE, Belgium (VN) — If there’s been an asterisk on Fabian Cancellara’s otherwise stellar spring classics resume, it’s been his track record in sprint finales.
Coming into Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), the Trek Factory Racing superstar had won, or finished on the podium, at the last 10 of the sport’s monuments that he had finished, with four wins.
Of pro cycling’s five monuments, Cancellara annually rises to the occasion at Milano-Sanremo, the Tour of Flanders, and Paris-Roubaix; he does not contend at the hillier Liège-Bastogne-Liège or the Giro di Lombardia.
No other active rider even comes close to his podium placings at the monuments, and his winning percentage could’ve been even better if Cancellara packed a more potent sprint.
In all but one of his previous six monument wins, the Swiss powerhouse was the only rider in the photograph, meaning that he had ridden everyone off his wheel — no sprint necessary.
Yet in six of his other seven monument podiums, he lost in a reduced bunch sprint, settling for second or third. The one bunch sprint he won, when he was second in Paris-Roubaix in 2011, Johan Van Summeren was already across the finish line.
So it was understandable on Sunday in Oudenaarde that Cancellara was surprised as anyone when he came up on top to take his third win at De Ronde. His joy at the finish line punctuated that he didn’t know whether or not he could win until he’d crossed the line.
“I was almost expecting to have a wheel come past me in the sprint,” Cancellara said. “I knew I only had one card to play. I was saving everything for the sprint.”
It was a dangerous bet considering Cancellara’s track record in monument sprints.
The only time he won in a sprint for victory was a one-on-one duel against Sep Vanmarcke (Belkin) at last year’s Paris-Roubaix. In seven other northern classic finales, a tally that includes the 2004 Paris-Roubaix, when Cancellara arrived with the winning group to the line, he always came up short.
So the nerves and tension were ratcheted tight when Cancellara roared under the flame rouge with Vanmarcke, Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) and Stijn Vandenbergh (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) in tow.
Gregory Rast, Cancellara’s Trek teammate and Swiss compatriot, was watching nervously from inside the team bus. Falling ill Thursday to a stomach bug, Rast was among the early abandons, and rode to Oudenaarde without finishing.
Even Rast, who knows firsthand just how strong Cancellara can be, wasn’t sure of the outcome.
“In a finish like this, you could still lose it. I thought Van Avermaet might have won, but Fabian did a great sprint,” Rast told VeloNews. “After a race this long, anything could happen in the sprint.”
Cancellara had no choice Sunday. After his expected surge on the Oude Kwaremont shattered the group of main contenders, drawing out only Vanmarcke, Cancellara realized it would be difficult to get rid of Van Avermaet or Vandenbergh — the dangerous pair of Belgians who had been off the front, and then latched on to Cancellara and Vanmarcke after the final climb, the Paterberg.
But Cancellara had another ace up his sleeve. As part of his preparation for the 2014 spring classics, Trek general manager Luca Guercilena implemented specific sprint training to give him an added dimension.
After watching Cancellara come so tantalizingly close so many times, Guercilena knew they needed to add some speed work to complement his power. Guercilena put Cancellara through sprint interval training, designed to increase his finishing speed after a long, hard effort.
“We worked on Fabian’s sprint. It was important that we do some work in this area,” Guercilena said Sunday while celebrating outside the Trek team bus. “We could see more riders were at a high level during this spring. We knew it would be more difficult to finish alone.”
And with the rise of Peter Sagan (Cannondale), bettering Cancellara’s sprint has become even more urgent. Although Sagan was out of the picture Sunday, the young Slovakian has more pure speed than Cancellara ever will. Clashes between the two riders of similar qualities are all but inevitable.
Coming into De Ronde, Cancellara was becoming understandably frustrated with his recent run of near misses — second, to Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff, at Milano-Sanremo, and ninth at E3 Harelbeke, where he chased valiantly, after being stuck behind a crash, finishing ninth.
When Cancellara was strong enough — think the 2010 classics season, when he won Harelbeke, Flanders, and Roubaix, all on his own — he simply left everyone choking on his dust.
Yet when his rivals had the legs to follow him, they would inevitably out-smart him or out-kick him in the sprint finale.
That is particularly true at Milano-Sanremo. Cancellara won the so-called “sprinter’s classics” in 2008 when he surprised the sprinters in a daring, solo blitz after coming off the Poggio, winning four seconds clear of the pack. In the past four editions, however, he’s either been second or third, coming up short in sprint finishes in the Italian classic.
At the more selective Flanders and Roubaix, Cancellara was the only rider in the photograph every time he won, except for last year, where he outsmarted and outsprinted Vanmarcke in the Roubaix velodrome.
When he’s been unable to shed his rivals across the pavé, Cancellara has also come up frustratingly short. At the 2008 Roubaix, he had no answer to a superior Boonen on the velodrome, while at the 2011 Flanders, a crafty Nick Nuyens took the win out of a group of four, with Cancellara settling for third.
On Sunday, Cancellara was intent on ending his run in the sprints.
“It’s always better to finish alone, but I saw it was going to be difficult today,” Cancellara said. “It came down to man against man. Winning a sprint, it shows I have some new sprinting skills. It makes me very satisfied.”
Cancellara knows he will never be a pure sprinter, but with only a few more classics wins left in his legs, he doesn’t want to leave anything to chance.
Up next is Paris-Roubaix. With another shot at a Flanders-Roubaix double, Cancellara will be doing everything he can to be the lone rider in the photograph. But if it comes down to a sprint, as he proved on Sunday, don’t count him out.
No one else in the photo: A look at Fabian Cancellara’s classics successes
2006 Paris-Roubaix: His first Roubaix win came after he dropped Vladimir Gusev on the Carrefour de l’Arbre, winning by 1:49.
2008 Milano-Sanremo: His lone win at the “sprinter’s classic” came when he attacked on the flats, after the Poggio descent, to surprise the pack, crossing the line four seconds ahead.
2010 Tour of Flanders: His first Flanders win came when he gapped Boonen on the Kapelmuur climb, to win by 1:15.
2010 Paris-Roubaix: Cancellara completed his first Flanders-Roubaix “double” by dropping the field on the Mons-en-Pévèle cobbles with 50km to go, winning two minutes ahead of Thor Hushovd.
2013 Tour of Flanders: Flanders win No. 2 was secure when he dropped Sagan on the Paterberg, crossing the line 1:27 ahead of the Slovakian.
2013 Paris-Roubaix: Cancellara outkicked Vanmarcke in a two-up sprint to complete his second double
2014 Tour of Flanders: Cancellara proved he could win a reduced bunch sprint, joining the elite club of those who have won Flanders three times.
Mr. Bridesmaid: Fabian Cancellara’s close calls at the classics
2004 Paris-Roubaix: Early years, taking fourth in a four-up sprint on the oval with Magnus Backstedt winning
2008 Paris-Roubaix: Second to Tom Boonen in a three-up sprint, with Alessandro Ballan third
2011 Milano-Sanremo: Second to Matt Goss in a seven-up sprint
2011 Tour of Flanders: Nick Nuyens wins a four-up sprint, with Cancellara third
2011 Paris-Roubaix: Cancellara wins three-up sprint for second, 19 seconds behind winner Johan Van Summeren
2012 Milano-Sanremo: Second to Simon Gerrans in three-up sprint, with Vincenzo Nibali in third
2013 Milano-Sanremo: Third to Gerard Ciolek and Sagan in seven-up sprint
2014 Milano-Sanremo: Second to Alexander Kristoff out of group of 26 riders