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OUDENAARDE, Belgium (VN) — In an instant, the complexion of the 2012 spring classics season changed.
With 62km remaining at the Tour of Flanders on Sunday, in an innocuous, paved feed zone, the rider widely predicted to win the race, and possibly Paris-Roubaix one week later, was on the ground and out of the race, his collarbone shattered into four — or even five — pieces.
With Fabian Cancellara’s injury, the Ronde van Vlaanderen quickly fell into Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s hands, evidenced by a 10-man escape in the final 40 kilometers that featured Tom Boonen, Sylvain Chavanel and Niki Terpstra. No other riders were willing to commit to that group — and why would they? There had been only one rider in the race truly capable of disrupting Omega Pharma’s stranglehold, and he was in an ambulance.
It was as if the schoolyard bully, who had been kept in check by a protective older brother, suddenly had full reign to pick on the rest of the class. A race that was already being ridden tentatively, due to its new, demanding course, had suddenly became a death march towards the inevitable.
This time, unlike one week earlier at E3 Prijs Harelbeke, the Swiss champion would not get up off the ground after a crash and chase valiantly back to the front group.
The fact that Cancellara’s injury opened the door for Omega Pharma to control Flanders, and likely will mean the same for Roubaix, is a testament to the influence the RadioShack leader wields when it comes to the cobbled classics.
Even an on-form Boonen admitted in the build-up to Flanders that Cancellara was “probably one or two percent stronger than I am.” (To which Cancellara had joked Friday, “Tom says I am one or two percent stronger than him — what is he, a scientist?”)
The truth is, however, the new Flanders course, with its three trips over the Oude Kwaremont, was better suited to Cancellara than Boonen. If there was one rider capable of powering away on the final trip over the Kwaremont, as Alessandro Ballan attempted to do, it was Cancellara. Whether the big Swiss rider would have been capable of holding off a chase in the headwind-battered run-in to Oudenaarde would have depended largely on the size of the chase group, and shall remain a question for the ages.
After the podium celebration, VeloNews asked Boonen to articulate what Cancellara’s crash meant, both for Flanders and for the anticipated battle at Paris-Roubaix.
“It’s a pity for Fabian, I know how it feels, you do a lot of work, and then you lose all your chances,” Boonen said. “But that’s bike racing, sometimes you are lucky, sometimes you are not. I can’t say what it would have meant for the race, it’s impossible to know.”
Instead, Boonen is a three-time Flanders winner, poised to tie Roger De Vlaeminck next Sunday as a four-time Roubaix winner, while Cancellara is recovering from surgery and changing his focus towards the Tour de France and London Olympics. Had a stray bottle in the feed zone not caught Cancellara’s front wheel, it could all have been so very different; he might have become a two-time Flanders champion, tying Boonen, with an epic duel slated for Roubaix.
At the very least, it would have been much more enjoyable to watch.