BRUGGE, Belgium (VN) – Fabian Cancellara is the undisputed favorite heading into the Tour of Flanders and the reigning champion. He knows it, two-time winner Tom Boonen knows it, and the oddsmakers around cycling-mad Belgium certainly know it. But as to who has more pressure, Cancellara and Boonen both point to the other guy.
“Obviously there is one big favorite,” Boonen said of Cancellara, whom he has raced against since both were juniors. “There are a few of us right behind him. Perhaps there is less pressure on our team because of it.”
Cancellara, however, called returning to Flanders as defending champion “a dessert.”
“We are prepared,” Cancellara said of his Leopard-Trek squad. “We set up our tactics. Everyone has worked hard in training and in racing. Sunday it will be something like a dessert — you just have to put the right sugar on and it will be just fine.”
On Friday, Boonen said the alteration in course from last year could make things more nervous early on.
“This year we do the Kruisberg first instead of the Kwaremont,” Boonen said of the cobbled climbs at 154km and 172km, respectively. “That changes things a little bit. It will be a ittle bit more nervous before that. From that point on, everything is critical.”
The 260km contest includes 18 cobbled climbs, which all fall in the latter half of the race.
“The decisive moment can happen anytime; anything can happen and it comes really fast,” Boonen said. “The first really important part is from Kwaremont to Paterberg and Koppenberg. From that moment on, with all the changes in the parcours from last year to this year, it’s really nervous.”
Cancellara said he is very relaxed ahead of Sunday’s race.
“I have won it before and that makes me calm,” he said. “In a way, it puts pressure on me — everyone looks to you to win — but on the other hand it puts me in a comfortable spot.”
Cancellara and Boonen agreed that any rider or team just marking Cancellara could potentially lose out altogether, watching the Swiss rider as the winning move goes up the road.
“I don’t think that will happen, though,” said Cancellara. “People take the start to win the race. “
Although De Ronde comes down in the end to a battle of the stars, the stars’ teams can play a vital role, too. In addition to keeping the leaders out of trouble early on, one key lieutenant there at the sharp end of the race can make a huge difference. Boonen pointed to the situation last year where Cancellara had teammate Matti Breschel in the decisive group.
“Last year Fabian saved a lot of energy. In the last climbs it was Breschel who attacked. I didn’t have the luxury not to chase, so I had to mark those moves, too,” Boonen said.
After losing three riders to injury, Quick Step comes into Flanders with a relatively untested team, including four first timers. Leopard Trek had a mix of younger riders and veterans, including Stuart O’Grady, Joost Posthuma and Boonen’s former teammate Wouter Weylandt.
But neither Quick Step nor Leopard is fielding the best team, Boonen says.
“The strongest team is Garmin, but they haven’t won yet,” said Boonen of the late March and early April races. “They have had their share of bad luck, and without luck, you don’t win races.”
Recently Boonen and Cancellara have shown good legs and good luck, with the Belgian winning in a sprint at Ghent-Wevelgem Sunday after the Swiss rode away solo from everyone Saturday at Harelbeke.
Last year at Flanders, Cancellara attacked Boonen on the Kappelmuur (or Mur de Grammont) and rode solo to the win. Boonen says he hasn’t thought a lot about it.
“It was a fair battle,” he said. “Of course I would have been happier if I won, but there is always the next year and the next year.”
But first, there is this year’s contest, and the odds lead to Cancellara. It is a situation he’s comfortable with.
“I know how to win with pressure,” he said, “when everyone is looking at me.”