KORTRIJK, Belgium (VN) — For a rider who has won the Tour of Flanders just once, Fabian Cancellara carries a heavy burden of expectation heading into Sunday’s race.
The odds seem to be stacked against Cancellara: Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) has won the race twice and had victories at E3 Harelbeke and Ghent-Wevelgem last weekend.
Despite nursing an injury following a hard crash last Sunday, Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) will take the start in Bruges as one of two major pre-race favorites at the Ronde van Vlaanderen, the most important race in Belgium.
In 2011 Cancellara followed up an amazing display on the cobblestones in 2010 (when he swept Harelbeke, Flanders and Paris-Roubaix), with podium finishes at all three races, including a solo win at Harelbeke.
His win across the white dirt roads of Strade Bianche earlier this month — followed by a powerful but ultimately disappointing performance at Milan-San Remo — has cemented his five-star rating at a new-look Ronde that features three trips over the Oude Kwaremont, the Swiss star’s favorite cobbled climb.
At a press conference at RadioShack’s hotel near Bruges Friday afternoon, Cancellara answered questions about Boonen, his condition, and the weight of expectations.
Boonen’s team comes into Flanders riding a high after four consecutive wins in Belgium in the past 10 days, and also with potential winners in Sylvain Chavanel and Niki Terpstra. It’s a team that has won Flanders four times in the last seven years (twice with Boonen and twice with Stijn Devolder), and would consider another victory the cornerstone of a successful 2012 season.
In the back-and-forth media discussion over whether Cancellara or Boonen carries more pressure, the rider known as “Spartacus” lobbed a volley into Boonen’s court, saying, “the pressure is based more on Tom Boonen and his [Belgian] team, to realize a major goal of the entire season.”
Asked how he expects to manage the triple threat of Boonen, Chavanel and Terpstra, Cancellara said Omega Pharma’s numerical advantage could also be its undoing.
“What threat?” he said. “Every strong team has a threat, it’s more of a threat for them, there are two of them that want to win, they might just spend the race looking at each other, while the third will laugh and wait for them to work out it out.”
Cancellara also responded to Boonen’s comments, made after the Belgian won Ghent-Wevelgem, that the Swiss powerhouse is “probably one or two percent stronger” than him.
“Boonen said that I am a bit stronger than him for now. Frankly, I don’t know. I simply know that Tom just won two big races,” Cancellara said.
The RadioShack leader said he is recovering well from a freak crash at Harelbeke; Rabobank’s Carlos Barredo piled into the Swiss rider, who had pulled over on the paved road that follows the Kwaremont to replace a flat tire. Barredo broke his arm in the crash, while Trek team liaison Jordan Roessingh, who was on bended-knee changing Cancellara’s wheel when Barredo hit them both, suffered a broken nose and facial lacerations. Cancellara was momentarily stunned, but was helped back on his bike and powered back up to the main bunch. In the week that passed, he’s dealt with a swollen knee and bruised back that has required daily chiropractic adjustments.
“I’m ok, not too bad,” Cancellara said. “I actually feel lucky, it could have been a lot worse. It was a lot worse for a lot of other people.”
Asked what his ideal scenario is to win on Sunday, Cancellara said “to ride into Oudenaarde alone.”
“The worst-case scenario would be that I am flanked by two riders, sitting on my wheel without pulling through,” Cancellara said, referring to the final 8km of Milan-San Remo. He added, however, that there is no guarantee the finale will come down to a two-man battle with Boonen as it did in 2010.
“I cannot focus solely on Boonen,” he said. “If Tom and I are watching only each other, it will be another who will win. And there a few contenders,” he said, naming Chavanel, Sep Vanmarcke (Garmin-Barracuda), Filippo Pozzato (Varnese Vini-Selle Italia) and Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale).
Finally, asked what he thinks of the course change, which replaces the two final climbs of the Muur van Geraardsbergen and Bosberg with the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg, Cancellara said that the new route is “harder than the era of the Muur and the Bosberg.
“But I am prepared,” he added. “I am prepared for battle.”