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Time waits for no man. Not even Spartacus.
Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) is keenly aware that his reign as king of the classics, a title he has shared with Tom Boonen (Etixx-Quick-step) for the better part of a decade, is reaching its zenith.
His rivals multiply year over year. Always a new face, always a new threat. Flux is the only constant on the cobbles.
But the big Swiss isn’t done. A single monument win in 2014, at the Tour of Flanders, was not enough. He speaks of hunger like a man much younger, motivated, it seems, by the the new generation nipping at his heels.
“You see, there are people who are really hungry. But I am still hungry as well,” he said during a call with journalists on Friday.
Cancellara frames the upcoming season not as one clouded by pressure, but rather buoyed by a fresh challenge. The list of rivals continues to grow, young faces maturing into credible threats. Peter Sagan was a pre-teen when Cancellara, who will turn 34 a week prior to the Tour of Flanders this year, took his first yellow jersey at the Tour de France. Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) couldn’t yet drive. Both seek to lead the next generation of classics superstars.
“I have more challenge than pressure, the challenge is all the other riders that want to win,” Cancellara said. “There are always rivals.”
Sagan, it seems, is the existential threat. It’s easy to forget he’s just 24 years old; so young, with so much potential. But a new team, Tinkoff-Saxo, brings new pressure.
“Sagan changed [teams], now we’ll see how he can handle it,” Cancellara said. “Because it’s not just changing a team. He will have big leadership in a big team. He has a big salary, so that’s quite a big thing to change. The expectations internally, the team; he will have expectations from everyone.”
Vanmarcke surprised even himself in 2013. The tears in his eyes after losing a two-up sprint to Cancellara on the banks of the Roubaix velodrome spoke to the closeness of victory. His trouble in 2015, Cancellara said, may be the men around him. “The team sounds or looks a bit weaker,” he said.
This year, the list of adversaries is as long as ever. In addition to Sagan and Vanmarcke, there’s BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet, motivated by the major win that remains just out of reach; Etixx-Quick-Step’s Tom Boonen and his powerful team, which includes defending Roubaix champion Niki Terpstra, Zdenek Stybar, and Stijn Vandebergh; John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin) and his fast finish; the Sky trio of Bradley Wiggins, Geraint Thomas, and Ian Stannard. And, of course, the fresh faces that will seek to surprise.
Youth can be an advantage. It can be a source of spontaneity and unpredictability, a spark of danger to the established classics men. Every season holds a revelation. In 2013 it was Vanmarcke, a bike length away from Paris-Roubaix victory. In 2014 Degenkolb came into his own, finishing second at Roubaix.
“The young people, they are cooler,” Cancellara said. “They think less. They trust the form.” That makes them unpredictable, emotive — characteristics Cancellara will seek to tap in to. “I get older, but I feel, somehow, I am young,” he said.
Threats don’t always come from the next generation. Bradley Wiggins (Sky) confirmed his class at Paris-Roubaix in 2014, and is focusing solely on the classics this season. He will end his road career after Roubaix in April.
Cancellara isn’t taking Wiggins’ final effort lightly. He sees the Brit as a potential menace in both Roubaix and Flanders.
“What Bradley will do, nobody knows,” he said. “We, at the moment, we know he’s going to go for Roubaix, but he can also be competitive for Flanders. And we know Bradley, when he focuses on something, he normally will somehow achieve it.
“He’s not just talk. He came pretty close, he pressed a lot of people. Of course Roubaix is a special race, but Bradley is a huge contender,” he said.
The man with whom Cancellara has dueled for a decade, Tom Boonen, finds himself in a state of fluctuation heading into this classics season.
“Tom will be in a different situation,” Cancellara said. “Because it will be soon that he [becomes a] dad, and, honestly, I’m more happy for that, that he gets that, than anything else. I’m really, really happy for his situation,” Cancellara said.
“But the team [behind] Tom will be super-strong,” he added.
Cancellara’s own hopes are bolstered by the arrival of Gert Steegmans, a former Boonen lieutenant, at Trek this season.
“[Gert’s arrival] is challenging me; it’s challenging the team, especially the classics riders. That’s good. The team needs that. I need that. That gives me the possibility to work even harder. I try to work harder. I try to improve,” Cancellara said.
Cancellara’s preparation this year has been bolstered by continuity within his team and its sponsors. There were no bike changes to be made this year, no new sponsors, no change in management. Nothing disruptive as he prepares to take on yet another classics season.
“I know what I have to do this year. I am always training hard, but I have to train and adapt many things that I can use to race smart,” he said. “I have to work harder, that’s definitely the truth. I worked hard last year but it was not enough, I think I have to work harder.”
Work hard, and race smart. All that’s left, then, is to hold off those who would be king.