TOURNAI, Belgium (VN) — On April 1, Fabian Cancellara hit an errant water bottle in a feed zone during the Tour of Flanders and went down. Hard. He broke a collarbone and the crack, it could be said, was heard ’round the world. His Flanders was certainly over. In fact, the part of the season he most looks forward to — the part of the season when, if he’s on form, he singlehandedly changes the tactics and spirit of every competitor around him — was finished.
As quickly as his season turned, though, Cancellara said he would be back, with new goals. The pressure never subsides for “Spartacus.” Yet it’s a long and arduous return from the depths of a triple fracture, and when June 30 finally rolled around, there was a collective sigh of relief when he was able to take the yellow jersey at the prologue in Liége. It was as if he was entitled to it.
Then, on stage 1 into Seraing, Cancellara commandeered the peloton, recreating Milan-San Remo by allowing a rival to ride his wake, only to let that rival, Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale), glide by to take his first victory in the Tour de France. Sagan, of course, is another story — a rare breed of rider who knows no limits at the moment.
Cancellara, of course, is not known for his sprint at all, and so this second performance may have been more telling than the first. He climbed his way off the front of the most fine-tuned, on-form peloton we’ll see this season. It was he and the year’s — no, the sport’s — most dominating and still-rising star off the front and surging for the line. Yes, Fabian was back, riding the wave himself.
“The yellow jersey gives me wings,” he said.
In some ways, you could say Cancellara is right back where he wants to be, where he used to be, before that crash. You might even say his Tour has already been a success. But, if you let yourself believe that, you’d reveal your ignorance about the determination of the Swiss to do more than the minimum required. Is he laying low, trying to save his form and peak for the London Olympic Games? Cancellara isn’t saving anything.
“Tomorrow’s a hard final,” he said Monday. “When I have the legs and I have a good feeling, then for sure I have another chance to defend… as long as I have it, I will defend it.”
So, just like clockwork, we have our Cancellara back. He, too, is that rare breed that seems to have no limits, seems to find strength through adversity, seems to be strong in situations when you think he’s just not that type of rider. He’s full of surprises.
But, honestly, there’s nothing surprising about the Swiss strongman’s return to form, it’s just that we take it all for granted. How many miles he’s cranked through his legs between April 1 and July 1 we don’t know; the expectations we place on him returning to outclass the entire world at the biggest races is something we will never experience. But this is how we know he’s so strong. And, of course, he makes sure we know it, too.
“I know I’m strong,” he said in his characteristically frank manner. “I’m just enjoying it now; I have the yellow jersey.”
The only remaining question is this: has Cancellara found in Sagan the man who will steal the torch of the tactic-changing, head-scratching man within the peloton? Is Sagan the second coming of Spartacus?
We may have to wait until next spring to really find out, but until then we have a whole bunch of surprises in front of us, including today in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France.