Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
KORTRIJK, Belgium (VN) — Nearly a year ago now, the helicopters hovered above Fabian Cancellara’s crumpled body, after a stray bidon in a feed zone put him on the ground, breaking his collarbone.
Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) returns a year later, on form again after riding away from Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) to win E3 Harelbeke, last Friday’s Tour of Flanders tune-up race. He rode the final 35 kilometers alone, his pursuers doomed to sprint for second.
It’s not quite right to say Spartacus was ever gone, but he was back, powerful than ever, showing the same form that saw him win Harelbeke, Flanders and Roubaix in 2010.
Cancellara enters Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) as a heavy favorite, but he told a packed room full of journalists on Friday that the only pressure he feels comes from him, and him alone.
“It’s my pressure, because I know what I want,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for a long time. My goal is to win the race. With all the experience I have, when everything goes in this direction, you never know. For me it’s important to stand on the start line in Brugge and say, ‘I did what I had to do.’ That’s what is, for me, the most important thing — to be calm, to be rational. I know sometimes I can make mistakes.”
Indeed, on occasion, Cancellara is too strong for his own good, hoping to grind away his competitors but ultimately dragging them home to the line. At last week’s E3, he rode off the front and to a solo win after the Kwaremont; at last year’s first road stage of the Tour de France, he towed Peter Sagan (Cannondale) to the line and was bested in a sprint.
Sagan is Cancellara’s most obvious foe if the “Swiss Time Machine” is to win another Flanders crown, and he’s mindful of the fact Sagan has a wicked sprint. After all, it’s beaten him before.
“That’s a good question,” he said after asked if he absolutely had to rid himself of the young Slovakian before the closing kilometer. “I have my weapons, that I know I have good skills. That still, there could be a possibility. Because in races, sometimes, you have to say, it is not possible to do something. But on the other hand, I’m not racing for second place.”
The 2.2km cobbled Kwaremont, which the group climbs three times, will be where the fireworks happen in the 97th Tour of Flanders, but a climb such as the Paterberg, which immediately follows the Kwaremont, could be where a rider fades. “The Kwaremont will be the key to the race, but the race has some tricky points — you can come to Paterberg and you could go more back than up,” Cancellara said.
Cancellara said if it came down to the two of them, he wouldn’t tow the faster man to the line, as he’s done before, adding that he couldn’t believe the 11 men in the breakaway helped bring Sagan to the line in Ghent-Wevelgem, which Sagan easily won on a late flyer. The battle between the two comes as both appear at the peaks of their respective fitness, and pits the older pro against the young phenom.
“This is a different period. And of course a young rider is totally different. He goes with less stress, more coolness. Of course I won’t say young kids, but younger people, they’re totally different in the mind when they get older,” Cancellara said. “He won his classic. I won my classic. And now we are one and one. Now we see Sunday whatever will come. But of course it’s not just Peter alone. In the end, I know how strong he is. I know his kind of weakness. I know the things I need to get out.”
When he mentioned a possible weakness in the Sagan machine, journalists perked up. “I have seen a few things, but of course I don’t want to point it out,” Cancellara said “There’s still many, many other ones who have a possibility… they will be there. I’m not making this famous five-star list of riders. I’m just doing my job, what I have to do.
“I’ve already won Flanders. If they are racing just against me — the others will be limited. And someone else will win besides those riders that probably, or could, win. That’s why we have our cards and believe in our team. We have possibilities to do things that maybe people don’t expect.”