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Fabian Cancellara: A Slave To His Own Success?

On the eve of Belgium’s greatest race, speculation is rampant as to how considerable course changes and the improved form of certain perennial race favorites will play on what many are calling the most challenging Tour of Flanders of the modern era. One such rider is 2010 winner Fabian Cancellara who believes the more difficult course will prove to be a better overall race that favors the strongest and smartest riders. While Cancellara is widely considered a favorite this weekend, it remains to be seen whether Spartacus can repeat his 2010 success and claim a second win in Vlaanderens Mooiste.

Contributed by Dylan Todd

A Perennial Springtime Favorite
Over the past couple of years the Swiss time trial specialist has been considered a solid favorite at Flanders and with good reason. Recall, Cancellara’s 2010 victory was so explosive and dominating that it inspired a new wave of tabloid journalism when YouTube videos suggested that Spartacus’ strength had more to do with a motorized bike than anything else. Cancellara attacked on the Molenberg, the 10th of the day’s 15 rated hills, causing a momentary lapse by race favorites that allowed him to break free with fellow classics heavyweight Tom Boonen. The partnership lasted only until the fabled Muur van Geraardsbergen, otherwise known as “The Wall” when, without ever leading the saddle, Spartacus upped the pace and simply rode away from Belgium’s two-time winner en route to a minute and 15 second gap at the finish.

Rumors of PED-injected carbon frames notwithstanding, Cancellara went on to reaffirm his superior form and power taking Paris-Roubaix in equally impressive fashion. In fact, so common was the scene from television cameras of Spartacus in his Swiss National Champion’s jersey soloing to a commanding lead while kissing the angel pendant that casual spectators might have assumed they were watching reruns of a solitary victory at E3 Prijs Vlaanderen as opposed to what has been widely viewed as one of the most dominating performances of a classic season. While repeats at Flanders and the Hell of the North eluded him in 2011, Cancellara’s position as a favorite in the spring was renewed the previous year. Spartacus followed up that win with strong showings at Milan-San Remo, Paris-Roubaix and Flanders, taking two seconds and a third respectively.

Like the past two years, Cancellara arrives at this year’s Ronde van Vlaanderen in top form. Having taken the Strade Bianchi with a solo break that broke the will of BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet and Alessandro Ballan enroute to a 42 second gap, Cancellara furthered his classics form with a near miss taking second once again at Milan-San Remo (MSR). Although much of the attention this spring has centered around other pre race favorites such as Bonnen, Philippe Gilbert and others, there is no doubt that Cancerllara is still considered a dangerous man for Flanders.

A Marked Man
Reaching the podium on successive occasions at Flanders and Paris-Roubaix would likely make the career of any would-be classics racer. Even without a victory to his credit, riders who have made the podium of the most important Spring Classics enjoy a level of deference that tends to always place them as ones-to-watch in these races. For example, Heinrich Haussler’s second place in 2009 at Milan-San Remo and Flanders seems to make him a dark horse favorite among fans. The same goes Thor Hushovd thanks to his second and third place finishes at the Hell of the North. That being said, it is easy to see why Cancellara’s string of victories and podium placings at Flanders would make him a legitimate favorite in 2012. However, the past successes that make him a pre race favorite also appear to have worked against him in his quest to reclaim his supremacy in the spring.

Examining Cancellara’s races since his dominating 2010 performance it is clear that Spartacus has been a marked man. While Cancellara himself has indicated his near misses were a result of decreased fitness and form, evidence suggests a concerted effort to mark the former world champion as the most likely culprit. For instance, following his defeat in 2011, Cancellara told sporza.be that he was unable to shake the pack because of cramps. He stated, “On the Muur I was struggling with cramps. My world collapsed.” The cycling world seemed to accept this explanation considering how his 2011 performance seemed to lack the same explosiveness exhibited the previous year. However, L’Equipe revealed that Cancellara’s time up the Muur was only 5 seconds slower than his 2010 pace. These numbers put his 2011 performance on par with 2010 and seemed to indicate that something other than Spartacus’ form might have been in play.

Indeed, the same L’Equipe article went on to explain that Gilbert posted the quickest time in 2011 up Muur at 1 minute and 43 seconds. This is particularly eye opening when considering that Gilbert’s time was 4 seconds faster than Cancellara’s 2010 time. Gilbert, the unquestioned king of the Spring Classcis last year, singlehandedly brought the chase group to Cancellara and Sylvan Chavanel erasing a 40 second lead following the Muur. Being firsthand witness to the Swiss’ power and staying ability in 2010, the peloton which included other Classics heavyweights like Ballan, Boonen, Sebastian Langveld and others were not about to give Spartacus any leeway. While he attempted another attack in the final kilometers, Cancellara and Chavanel were unable to pry Nick Nuyens from their wheels as Nuyens was able to hold the pace just long enough to claim victory at the line.

Foiled By Negative Racing Or Team Tactics?
Many believe that the peloton’s awareness of Cancellara’s abilities has led to negative racing. In speaking at a BMC press conference on the subject of Flanders, Gilbert voiced his disapproval over the tactics used against the Swiss powerhouse in 2011. “I hope they don’t do like last year.” Gilbert said. “It’s never been my tactic to just follow one guy. Of course, if you give Fabian five seconds, it’s hard to get it back, but I’m not going to be the guy who is always behind him. If he attacks I’ll have to follow him, but I’m not a guy like [Filippo] Pozzato, always following.”

Gilbert’s words seem to echo Cancellara’s own sentiments on the topic telling sporza.be, “For 95 percent of the peloton I was the target. This makes it extremely difficult.” Marking Cancellara seems to have become commonplace in the Spring Classcis. In discussing his surprising second place finish at Ghent-Wevelgem, Peter Sagan acknowledged he was firmly attached to Cancellara’s wheel. He stated, “Maybe my error was to mark Cancellara so much…” Evidence of how Cancellara’s constant exposure in the peloton does not sit with him is also apparent. In speaking to Corriere della Sera Cancellara stated, “It didn’t immediately following last year’s Flanders. I’m very happy: there were fifty of them behind a gladiator,” Cancellara continued. “…I lost by trying to win, the others rode only to make me lose. And in the end the one who was always in the wheels won. Congratulations to Nuyens, but for me [winning] like that has no value.” Cancellara also told L’Йquipe that same week that he preferred to finish third in Flanders rather than let Boonen win the race. He later claimed those comments were taken out of context, explaining that if he hadn’t driven the winning break in the finale, he may not have even finished on the podium.

While there is no doubt riders have been paying more attention to the Swiss’ location in the peloton following his 2010 exploits, another likely reason for Cancellara’s misses since then might be his lack of team support. Time and time again, Spartacus has shown the ability to muscle his way to a winning solo break through sheer strength and mental toughness. However, 2011 saw the improvement in several teams’ classics rosters as well as a textbook example of team tactics in the largest races. While BMC has been known as a strong classics team since its debut in 2010 with the likes of Hincapie, Ballan and Van Avermaet, the merging of the Cervelo Test Team and Garmin-Transitions created arguably the most dangerous classics team on paper. Garmin-Cervelo’s superior implementation of team racing was on display at Paris-Roubaix in 2011 with Johan Van Summeren staying away for a large portion of the race while other favorites were marking Hushovd. Garmin again demonstrated its deep classics lineup earlier this year when Sep Vanmarke pipped Boonen at the line at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (OHN) with Haussler also taking fourth.

If BMC and Garmin-Barracuda are said to be classics powerhouses, the same most assuredly cannot be said for Radioshack-Nissan-Trek (RNT). RNT, along with its predecessor Leopard-Trek, has never been known as formidable group in the Spring. Cancellara’s unique abilities in the Classics and against the clock are generally considered an aberration from the Realpolitik of a team whose sole focus is attempting to place Andy Schleck in yellow at Paris. Cancellara seems to understand this better than most. In explaining his goals for the 2012 Olympics he recently told Velo, “You won’t see me at the back of the peloton during the race, I’ll do my work. But one thing is certain: in July I won’t be 110 percent for the others as I have been in the past. I’ll only be thinking of myself and on being concentrated on my objectives.”

The additions of Chris Horner, Adreas Klцden and Mathew Bouche might very well go a long way towards finally reaching that goal without the assistance of a doping suspension. There is little doubt however that the Radioshack Leopard-Trek merger did nothing whatsoever to assist Cancellara in his own Classics goals. The weakness of Spartacus’ team in the Classics has already been called out by other riders. Following Milan-San Remo Gilbert appeared to place the blame for Cancellara’s near misses in the Classics squarely on the shoulders of RNT when he stated, “Cancellara was really strong at Milan-San Remo, he’s the number-one favorite [for Harelbeke]… Maybe now other teams can ride, such as Cancellara’s team for example; they didn’t pull at all in San Remo. Maybe this weekend they can work.”

Boonen 2.0 And The Rest Of His Rivals
Being marked by other riders has not seemed to dramatically affect some of Cancellara’s main rivals however. 2012 has seen the return of “Tommeke” as the Omega-Pharma Quickstep (OPQS) rider has experienced a return to form winning E3 Harelbeke, Gent–Wevelgem and taking stages at the San-Luis, Paris-Nice and Qatar. Even the near misses, such as his second place at OHN have been nothing short of exciting. The additions of established winners Levi Leipheimer, Tony Martin and the return of former teammate and compatriot Gert Steegmans has re-energized Boonen and provided him with the training methodology and additional weapons needed to re-establish himself as one of the world’s best at 31 years old.

In stark contrast to Cancellara’s outfit, OPQS has been able to utilize its riders for the races Boonen targets. With the help of Steegmans and Gerold Ciolek alongside him at the front, Boonen was able to stifle a six-man move with 20 kilometers left to go in order to maintain great position for his sprint win at Ghent. Similar assistance was given to Vanmarcke by team co-captain Haussler in route to victory at OHN. Individual threats such as Sagan and Juan Antonio Flecha should likewise not be discounted. And with BMC securing the championship of off season transfer signings with Hushovd and Gilbert, Cancellara will likely have much more to worry about than whether someone is following his wheel. Although it has not yet claimed a Classics victory this season, BMC is sure to present a multiple-pronged attack with the likes of Hushovd, Ballan, Gilbert and Van Avermaet all lining up for the American squad.

Can Spartacus Overcome?
Cancellara’s power and break away abilities are unquestioned, and it’s a point that Spartacus seems to drive home every chance he gets. Speaking recently to Velo, he stated “With Nuyens at Flanders and Vansummeren at Roubaix, it was ‘foot soldiers’ who won. If you analyse it a bit, of the big favourites, I was the one who finished first in those classics,” he said. “Ok, they’re not victories but I did great things physically. I went beyond myself, much more than normal, almost to death.”

Certainly Cancellara believes that changes in route for 2012 will favor his aggressive riding style. He recently told Belgium’s De Laatste TV show this week, “When I looked around the parcours, after Tenbosse, there was always this dead moment until the Muur. After Bosberg, this moment goes out. Now we riders will make the race hard or soft, we will see. In the end, the strongest will win, the smartest.” These sentiments were echoed by Boonen who following a recon of the new course stated, “It’s going to be a discriminating race where the best are going to have to stay ahead.”

No doubt Cancellara anticipates the change in course will allow him to break the weaker riders and ensure that only the strongest and most realistic contenders will remain at the end, something he clearly believes was not the case in 2011. Yet while his fitness does appear good heading into this weekend, the resurgence of his main rivals and the inability of his team to protect his breaks in the face of other more established classics squads make Cancellara’s more vulnerable than last year. Still, if the Belgian classics have taught us anything, it’s that well timed luck and intestinal fortitude can win the day. The question remains whether Cancellara can power away to victory like he’s done so many time before, or like in Classics past Sparacus will be slave to own success and miss out on his second Vlaanderens Mooiste.

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