When he lines up in Harelbeke's market square on Friday morning for the 56th E3 Prijs Vlaanderen-Harelbeke, Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) will be just about five hours short of a two-year dry spell at the northern classics. After a third-place performance at a frigid and frenetic Milano-Sanremo, the big Swiss looks like he's back at top form. But will renewed success on the cobbles follow?
While onlookers noted Cancellara's strength, they also noted the absence of challengers like Tom Boonen, a four-time winner, as well as Philippe Gilbert and Alessandro Ballan, all saving their strength for the more valuable Ghent-Wevelgem race the next day. But while the field didn't have the quality of the Ronde van Vlaanderen (what classic does?) Cancellara's Harelbeke performance felt like a continuation of his storming 2010.
In 2010, the Swiss won Harelbeke before going on to taking both the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) and Paris-Roubaix. He added the historic "Holy Week" double to his 2006 Roubaix and 2008 Sanremo wins, making for an even four monuments. As the dust settled in Roubaix, he talked of trying to shed some kilos to win Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Giro di Lombardia in the coming years, a feat that would give him wins in all five of cycling's monuments. It was a goal that long seemed impossible in modern cycling, where there is a fair bit of difference between a cobbled classics rider like Cancellara and the wiry winners of hilly tarmac classics like Liege and Lombardia. But, seeing Cancellara glide over Harelbeke's climbs at the dawn of the 2011 season, the idea didn't seem entirely laughable.
It would be unfair to say that things went dry for Cancellara after his 2011 Harelbeke win. He followed that win with his second Swiss road title, the prologue and long time trial at the Tour de Suisse, and was the locomotive behind Leopard's team time trial win at the Vuelta a Espana. He was also second at Roubaix and third at Flanders. In 2012, he won the nouveau classic Strade Bianche for a second time and came second in Sanremo before crashing out of the Ronde in the feedzone, breaking his collarbone into four pieces and scuttling an already frustrating classics season. He was back by the Tour, though, where he won the prologue and wore the yellow jersey for seven days. But where did the classics wins go?
To hear Cancellara tell it, he was a victim of his own success, marked out of the 2011 classics after his peerless performances the year before. There is some truth to that, and the competition's reluctance to work with Cancellara is a vital narrative in Nick Nuyens' 2011 Ronde win and Johan Vansummeren's Paris-Roubaix coup a week later.
But favorites are always marked, as evidenced by the several seasons Boonen has spent with Filippo Pozzato staring cross-eyed at his rear wheel. Museeuw, Van Petegem, De Vlaeminck, Van Looy -- all were marked men in their classics of choice; all found ways to win even after they became favorites. But their ability to do so was afforded by tactical flexibility and reliable strongman's sprints, indispensable classics tools that Cancellara's great strength allowed him to get along without. Until 2011.
Though the exact structure varies a bit, Cancellara's blueprint for classics success is no secret, and by 2011, everyone had enough tape on file to figure it out. His wins are forged in one or two accelerations, with Cancellara, seated, churning his massive thighs and burning off the competition before settling into his time trial rhythm, eyes on the finish.
There are long- and short-range versions, deployed alone or in tandem. The long move typically comes around 40 kilometers from the finish. Sometimes, it is a culling move, as it was at the 2010 Ronde, when his Molenberg attack cut the race down to only himself and Boonen. Other times, it is a killing move, as it was a week later at Roubaix, when he rode away from all comers on the stones of Mons-en-Pevele with a bit over 40 kilometers remaining, carving out two minutes over second-placed Thor Hushovd by the time he hit the velodrome.
The short version, when it's necessary, comes between the kites at five kilometers and one kilometer to go. Cancellara jets out of a group, putting his hands in the drops and his head down until he hits line. He famously debuted the move on stage 3 of the 2007 Tour de France into Compiegne, blowing past leadout trains in full cry and stealing the win on a day earmarked for the sprinters. He deployed the same tactic to win the 2008 Sanremo from a post-Poggio group of fast finishers.
The problem is, Cancellara's rivals have seen both scenarios enough times to know what's coming. They also know that if they can grit their teeth and hang on to Cancellara's wheel through those two moments -- granted, no small task -- he has little else in his arsenal. He becomes frustrated and befuddled when the competition does not simply fall away. And while he will gesticulate and curse at whoever remains to pull through, when they do not, his instinct is to either sulk or keep pulling, to predictable results.
At the 2012 Milano-Sanremo, he led Vincenzo Nibali and Simon Gerrans from the top of the Poggio, but when he failed to burn them off in the flats or convince them to pull through, he continued to drag the group to the line. Gerrans came around for the win. In stage 1 of the 2012 Tour, Cancellara attacked inside the last two kilometers, only to be marked by Peter Sagan and Edvald Boasson Hagen. Again, Cancellara gestured, but continued to pull; Sagan jumped around to his first Tour de France stage win.
If Cancellara possessed a finishing kick, or more confidence in whatever sprint he does have, he would be better equipped to play the "I guess we'll just get caught then" poker game and more able to navigate the cat-and-mouse of a small group classics finish. But without it -- and with all parties well aware he is without it -- he seems to believe his only option is to bite the bars, churn away, and hope nobody can come past. In the era of Sagan, or against last year's Boonen, it is a fairly empty hope.
The answer is yes
So, with no kick to take to the line, and with challenges from fast-finishing old foes like Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Hushovd (BMC Racing), and newer ones like Sagan (Cannondale), Sep Vanmarcke (Blanco), and Matti Breschel (Saxo-Tinkoff), can Cancellara still hope to carry home a cup or a cobble this year? Despite it all, the answer is still yes.
When his power and confidence are there, even Cancellara's predictable attacks can be devastating. They are not the stuff of tactical genius, but his force can be overwhelming. No rider since Miguel Indurain has been referred to as being "like a motorbike" more times in post-race interviews (or, in Cancellara's case, accused of actually using a motorbike). Hard races -- particularly Paris-Roubaix, which favors brute force more than any other race -- are still well within his grasp, especially if they unfurl at consistently high speed. The company he keeps in late moves will also influence his results. Going to the line with Boonen and Sagan is a far different scenario than rolling into Oudenaarde to fight over the Ronde with riders like Juan Antonio Flecha (Vacansoleil-DCM) and Alessandro Ballan (BMC Racing).
His range, too, remains an asset. The number of contenders who can threaten to stick an attack from 60 kilometers out is exceptionally low. As a result, marking Cancellara is more than a last-hour task, and with this year's deep pool of contenders, focus will be more divided than it was in 2011. If one of Cancellara's accelerations catches other favorites off guard, as when he caught Boonen at the back of the line at the 2010 Roubaix, and he gains even 10 meters, there are few who can bring him back.
Absent the possibility of developing a wicked sprint at age 32, though, Cancellara's best hope of returning to the top of the classics dog pile may come next year. With RadioShack pulling out of cycling and his contract with the Leopard management company ending in 2013, Cancellara will be shopping for a team that can offer him a level of support he's lacked since leaving Saxo Bank at the end of 2010. After two tumultuous years that have seen him in open conflict with management, RadioShack has tried to buy Cancellara some cover by bringing on Stijn Devolder this season, but it remains to be seen whether the inconsistent Belgian will give the team enough flexibility to shake loose a Cancellara victory. Even if it does not, strong rides this season could see a team willing to piece together a formation to give Cancellara an answer to Omega Pharma classics Cerberus in 2014. And a "Spartacus" with top-notch support will be a tough gladiator to contain, sprint or no sprint.