Cancellara: Saxo Bank has two cards to play

Cancellara is relaxed and confident heading into the Tour of Flanders.

If Fabian Cancellara is letting the pressure that comes with being named the favorite for the Tour of Flanders — one of the few one-day races the Swiss star has set out to win but not yet accomplished — he’s keeping the stress to himself.

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Cancellara won last week's GP E3 Harelbeke. | AFP Photo, Yorick Jansens

The three-time world time trial champion, nicknamed “Spartacus” for his bold, gladiator style of racing, has wowed cycling fans over the past five seasons not just with his supernatural feats against the clock but also by attacking from select groups in the final kilometers of major races, repeatedly staving off his rivals to cross the finish line first, and alone.

It’s how the Saxo Bank rider won the 2008 Milan-San Remo, stage 3 of the 2007 Tour de France (in Compiegne, while wearing the maillot jaune), a pair of stages at the 2008 Tour de Susisse, and most recently the March 27 E3 Prijs Vlaanderen-Harelbeke. Cancellara also won Paris-Roubaix in 2006 on a late-race solo attack, launching out at 17km from the line.

His performance at the E3 Prijs, where he powered away from Tom Boonen and Juan Antonio Flecha in the final kilometer, has earned the current Swiss national champion the rare distinction of being anointed a heavy race favorite — ranked ahead of three men racing Sunday who have won Flanders.

Cancellara strolled into a press conference Friday evening at Saxo Bank’s hotel in Kortijk looking calm, cool and relaxed, pragmatic about his chances and confident in his team’s strength, while never once denying that he is a big favorite Sunday.

“For sure we will take responsibility of the race,” Cancellara said. “We won the two races here before the Ronde (the E3 Prijs and Matti Breschel’s win at the March 24 Dwars door Vlaanderen-Waregem) and I think it’s almost impossible to say ‘No, we’re not going to ride.’ But the when and how, that all depends on the wind, and the weather, and the situation of the race.”

Given Breschel’s win at Dwars door Vlaanderen-Waregem, and his stellar performance at Ghent-Wevelgem before puncturing out of the lead group in the final 10km, it’s natural that Cancellara is relaxed heading into Flanders. Boonen and his Quick Step teammate, defending champion Stijn Devolder, will carry the weight of the nation on their shoulders along with Omega Pharma-Lotto’s Philippe Gilbert and Leif Hoste. Cancellara has the option to send Breschel on the offensive, knowing full well the Belgian teams will have to react.

Cancellara said that if his rivals plan on marking him, assuming he’ll simply try another late-race solo attack, they should think again.

“If they think I will drop them all off the wheels, I think that’s wrong,” Cancellara said. “If you want to race this race, and win this race, you have to race it as a normal race, and not only looking at me or at Tom. Tom is strong right now, and he’s a favorite as many other riders, it’s always a long list that can win this race. Our advantage for sure is that we have two cards to play. Many other teams have one, one and a half real cards. But what we’re going to play, we’re going to see.”

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Cancellara was relaxed and confident at Thursday's press conference. | AFP Photo, Peter Deconinck

Breschel, the team’s second card, confirmed that he is enjoying some of the best form of his young career, but that Cancellara is the team’s leader until told otherwise.

“I had a good week last week, so hopefully I can be there in the final,” Breschel said. “Then we’ll just have to talk, me and Fabian. And if I’m not having a good day, of course I’ll be there for Fabian. That’s for sure.”

Reacting to a quote from Boonen that Cancellara laid down the most powerful attacks at Harelbeke — but that Boonen put down stronger attacks on the climbs — Cancellara said that sort of knowledge can be used to his advantage.

“For sure Tom was attacking really strong on the climbs,” Cancellara said. “In Harelbeke I was thinking what am I going to do? Tom is stronger in the sprint than me. But there are a few things to remember — I am feeling better than in other years, and what I did in Harelbeke was for me something special. Its not many races were you can drop riders like that. But if he is better than me on the climbs, than it’s good for me, because I knew it, and I knew what I have to do, to follow, and attack on the flat. There are millions of scenarios, but in the end, what counts is that I need to be really careful, and get the best out of that.”

Asked if he was nervous about one of the most important races of his season, Cancellara answered, “A little bit, yeah, but I think that’s normal. Especially when you get on the bus in the morning, and you go to (the medieval Market Square) in Bruges, and it’s like an arena. The presentation of the race, up to the (sign-in) on the stage, then down, then you wait. Then they let out the animals… I’m always a bit nervous, that’s normal, but I think that’s good.”

When another journalist chimed in — “Wasn’t Spartacus fighting animals in the arena?” — Cancellara just laughed.

Whether or not he’ll be laughing again at a press conference on Sunday remains to be seen.