Fabian Cancellara took his first Classic win for two years, with a solo victory at the E3 Prijs

Words by Edward Pickering

Friday March 22, 2013

Fabian Cancellara didn’t change his tactics to win E3 Prijs, he just did them much better.

The Swiss rider’s been stuck in a rut of near misses in the Classics and major one-day races that stretches back to this event two years ago. His rivals seemed to have worked out how to counter his primary weapon, his ability to hold a lead. Riders followed his initial attacks, sat in, and jumped past him at the finish: it happened as recently as Milan-San Remo, last weekend.

Not today. Cancellara’s confidence in his own ability to hold off a pursuit is obviously as strong as ever, but he just needed a better launch pad to force the initial gap.

He chose his spot carefully. The Broektestraat, which forms the main part of the Oude Kwaremont, starts steady, but leading into the village of Kwaremont, there’s a 200-metre stretch of one-in-ten, with rough cobbles, followed by a much flatter section through the houses, with much more uniform stones. It was on the steep section that he put in a sudden acceleration, carrying his momentum through on to the less steep part of the climb.

It was enough to force a gap. He went up the steep part faster, therefore he started the false flat at a greater speed than his rivals, from where he could accelerate further. The attack’s success was one part acceleration, one part superb timing. While the groups behind him disintegrated under the pressure of the climb, Cancellara had a 10-second lead going into the final stretch through the fields above the village.

By the 90-degree turn on to the main road at the top of the climb, Cancellara’s lead was 15 seconds. By the time a chasing group of five had got themselves organised, the gap had risen to a minute.

For the final 30 kilometres, Cancellara was imperious. Steady on his bike, confidence restored.

It was too late for Cancellara’s rivals to use his strength against him; today the only beneficiary of the Swiss rider’s extraordinary cruising speed would be Cancellara himself.

***

For much of the race, however, Cancellara looked outnumbered. Omega Pharma and Sky both committed men and effort to dictating the pace going into the final third of the race. After an early and unconvincing break containing six riders came drifting back to the peloton in dribs and drabs with 90 minutes of the race still to go, it was Boonen who detonated the peloton with an attack on the Taaienberg.

The Omega Pharma rider accelerated up the concrete semi-circle of guttering on the right hand side of the climb, stretching a thinning peloton out into a single line. Seven men followed: Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto), Cancellara, Daniel Oss (BMC), Sep Vanmarcke (Blanco), Edvald Boasson Hagen and Mat Hayman (Sky) plus Boonen’s team-mate Zdenek Stybar.

The eight riders committed, and a huge hole gaped between them and the peloton, rising almost immediately to 30 seconds. Johan Vansummeren of Garmin cut a lonely figure at the front, speaking into his radio, before turning around and seeing two Omega riders glued to his wheel.

With Quick Step and Sky represented, along with Cancellara, it looked like the move of the race, but one man was missing: Peter Sagan. The Slovakian put four Cannondale riders on the front, and their pace was enough to split the bunch again.

The dismantling of the peloton, going into the two crucial climbs of the Paterberg and Oude Kwaremont thus happened in two stages. First, the Cancellara-Boonen group rode off the front, then Cannondale definitively broke up the race behind them.

The race had barely come together at the front before Boonen again forced the pace on the Paterberg, with 40 kilometres to go. The size of the groups which rode through in his wake were: eight riders, two riders, one, four, five, two, six, then a long string of struggling individuals in a single file.

Who would have betted against Boonen at this point? The defending champion still had team-mates at his disposal, and he’d had the confidence to attack twice at crucial points. But he’d overestimated both his own strength, and that of his team. As the race hit the Kwaremont, the Omega Pharma riders melted like roadside slush as Cancellara made his move. Boonen was suddenly nowhere to be seen.

The zoom-lens shot down the N36 road at the top of the Kwaremont, famous from the Tour of Flanders, is one of cycling’s most telling moments. As Cancellara hove into view at the top, there was empty space behind him. Sagan, Geraint Thomas (Sky), Oss and Sylvain Chavanel, once again Omega’s best rider, coalesced into a smoothly-rotating threat a minute behind Cancellara, but with superior sprinter Sagan in the group, the effort was half-hearted. The Slovakian still awaits his first Classic win – his tactical acumen and timing have yet to catch up with the prodigious strength in his legs.

A minute behind Cancellara as he crossed the finish line, Oss tried to break away for second with a kilometre to go, while Thomas gambled on trying to get him back for a place on the podium, with the risk that he’d dragged Sagan with him in the pursuit. Thomas’s gamble failed – Sagan predictably overtook him, and Oss, for second, but the Italian held on for third.

Two Classics down, and Cancellara’s broken his losing streak. Now attention focuses on Omega Pharma, Team Sky and Peter Sagan. Cancellara will warn them, don’t let losing become too much of a habit.

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