Tour of Flanders analysis: Cancellara versus the rest

Fabian Cancellara attacks, Tour of Flanders 2013

Fabian Cancellara attacks, Tour of Flanders 2013

Fabian Cancellara dominated the Tour of Flanders, riding to a solo win ahead of his arch-rival Peter Sagan

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Words by Edward Pickering

Sunday March 31, 2013

Question: What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immoveable object? Answer: Fabian Cancellara wins.

The 2013 Tour of Flanders was a clash of generations and of riding styles. Experience versus youth. The rouleur versus the sprinter. The aristocrat versus the woodman. The bunch engine versus the wheelsucker. Cancellara versus Sagan. Nobody else was in the race.

For 238 kilometres, Cancellara’s RadioShack team contained the peloton, with the tactics made even simpler after defending champion Tom Boonen crashed out in the opening kilometres. Small groups made sorties off the front, but there was an unusual pattern to this Tour of Flanders. There was no significant early break, and those riders who did succeed in getting off the front gained no more than a few minutes at most.

RadioShack kept their boot on the peloton’s throat all the way to the final ascent of the Oude Kwaremont, where Cancellara reprised his successful attacking effort from the E3 Prijs. As in that race, the Swiss rider attacked on the steep section of the climb into the village of Kwaremont, but unlike last weekend, this time Sagan was able to go with him.

Pre-race speculation had centred almost exclusively on the battle between these two individuals: the former best Classics rider in the world against the future best Classics rider in the world. Sagan has spent the last 12 months and more slowly inching his tanks on to Cancellara’s lawn, and this season has seen neither give any quarter to the other. There was stalemate in Milan-San Remo before Cancellara struck in E3. Then Sagan took Ghent-Wevelgem.

The problem facing both riders as they hammered away from the disintegrating peloton was simple. Cancellara needed to drop Sagan, the superior sprinter. Sagan had to stay with Cancellara. The result would depend on who would succeed.

Up and over the Kwaremont, Sagan gave no more than a bike length and a half to Cancellara. The Swiss rider was stronger, but not by enough. Sagan’s resistance was bending, but not breaking.

But on the Paterberg, the balance of power between the two riders, which has been shifting imperceptibly towards the Slovak for so many months, suddenly swung violently back to Cancellara. As Cancellara progressed relentlessly up the 20 per cent slope, Sagan’s body language changed, and he got out of the saddle. Riding out of the saddle on a cobbled climb is poor technique, and it showed that he was at his limit. Students of cycling history will remember the battle between Cancellara and Boonen over the Muur van Geraardsbergen in the 2010 Tour of Flanders: Cancellara hammering relentlessly to the summit, Boonen climbing out of the saddle and visibly losing ground, along with the race.

A small gap appeared between Cancellara’s wheel and that of Sagan as they rounded the shallow left-hand bend halfway up the Paterberg. Then it grew. On one side of the gap: the winner of the Tour of Flanders. On the other: the also-rans. The immoveable object on Cancellara’s wheel had finally been shifted.

At the top of the Paterberg, as he turned left onto the concrete slabs of the Stooktestraat, Cancellara looked back, saw that gap, and clicked through his gears, visibly accelerating away. When Sagan got to the top, instead of focusing his attention on his greatest rival, he also looked back. His race was now based on defending second, not winning first.

Cancellara’s lead ballooned. Sagan was picked up by Jurgen Roelandts, the crafty last survivor of a late break, but the pair could make little impression on the Swiss rider. Off the descent, with 12 kilometres to go, Cancellara had 15 seconds’ lead. Two kilometres later it was 30 seconds. Into the final five kilometres, he’d moved over a minute clear.

Behind Cancellara, Sagan outsprinted Roelandts for second place, just ahead of a group of 20. But really, there had only been two riders in the race. And finally, one.


It was a curiously unexciting edition of Flanders. Just as with last year, when Tom Boonen won, a mediocre race was rescued by a great winner. The new route has bludgeoned the subtlety and tactical finesse out of the race, and the organisers may be concerned that the race essentially consisted of a dwindling peloton riding to the Kwaremont/Paterberg combination on the final finishing lap, before the strongest riders simply went away from the rest, just as they did last year. That’s two out of two for the new route. Any more might start to look like a pattern.

Even the early breaks hadn’t been convincing. After a fast start, seven riders went clear, before Europcar, then RadioShack started chasing them down with 120 kilometres to go. With 95 kilometres to go, and seven riders still ahead, another group of six chipped off, trying to link up with the first group. Over the first climb of the Kwaremont, the group at the front split, leaving Michal Kwiatkowski of Omega Pharma, Maarten Tjallingii of Blanco, Laurens De Vreese of Topsport Vlaanderen and André Greipel and Marcel Sieberg of Lotto clear at the front.

This quintet built a clear lead by the top of the Koppenberg, but if there was a single race-defining moment, it was the crash on that climb which split the peloton into two pieces. With half the bunch marooned behind a Vacansoleil rider lying diagonally across the narrow lane, the peloton’s composition and firepower were altered considerably.

A smooth rotation of RadioShack riders, with occasional token assistance from Cannondale, kept the pressure on at the front of the 50-strong bunch, always keeping the break at or around 30 seconds.

Then we waited. And waited.

Fabian Cancellara wins, Tour of Flanders 2013

Fabian Cancellara wins, Tour of Flanders 2013

Up the Kwaremont the second time, the group stayed the same size, although Vacansoleil’s Mirko Selvaggi and Ag2r’s Sébastien Minard had swapped in for Sieberg and De Vreese. Behind, the peloton kept its powder dry.

With 33 kilometres to go, Yoann Offredo (FDJ), Sébastien Hinault (IAM), Sébastien Turgot (Europcar) and Roelandts attacked, with RadioShack now down to their final domestiques. Stijn Devolder, a two-time winner, led the bunch towards the final ascent of the Kwaremont, which would be decisive.

When Cancellara and Sagan attacked, Boasson Hagen of Sky and Omega Pharma’s Chavanel tried, and failed, to go with them. They picked up Kwiatkowski, who managed to hold their wheels for a few hundred metres before he, too, faded. The last survivor, Roelandts, was the only man left in front, and he deserved his eventual third place: Lotto had been the only team to put numbers up the road early in the race, and keep a man there over the final two climbs.

Now the peloton looks forward to Paris-Roubaix, and the question is, who can beat Cancellara?

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