Paris-Roubaix analysis: Cancellara adds brains to brawn

Fabian Cancellara wins Paris-Roubaix

Fabian Cancellara wins Paris-Roubaix

Fabian Cancellara took a third victory in the Queen of Classics, narrowly outsprinting Sep Vanmarcke at the Roubaix velodrome

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Words by Edward Pickering

Sunday April 7, 2013

Fabian Cancellara won a scintillating and finely-balanced edition of Paris-Roubaix, surging to victory in a two-man sprint ahead of Sep Vanmarcke.

Cancellara’s third victory in the Queen of Classics was his hardest-fought and most complicated. The record books will show that he won by a bike length in the Roubaix velodrome. They won’t show how cleverly-engineered the victory had been, nor how exciting and tight the race.

The RadioShack rider painstakingly constructed his victory, piece by piece, from a series of tactical decisions, bluff, patience and, of course, physical strength, although he hadn’t looked as sharp as he had when he won the E3 Prijs and Tour of Flanders solo. Two midweek crashes, one at the Scheldeprijs, one in training, had cracked the carapace of invincibility which he’d build up over spring. But a blunted Cancellara still has an edge, and what he lacked in physical dominance, he made up for in clever tactics.

He toyed with his rivals, and with us. If Cancellara was aiming to confuse everybody with his tactics, he probably succeeded. At 50 kilometres to go, on Sector 11 of cobbles at Auchy-les-Orchies, he was tanking along on the front of the peloton behind a leading trio of riders, causing a 30-rider split. He followed another crucial split through the next sector, Mons-en-Pevêle, where just over a dozen riders definitively forced themselves clear. With 45 kilometres to go, it was business as usual.

But when the attacks started going in the next 10 kilometres, Cancellara looked suddenly vulnerable and indecisive. Four riders went clear. Then another four, while the Swiss rider dithered, going back to his team car, and looking like his next move would be to climb into it. With 31 kilometres to go, Cancellara was 15 seconds behind a leading octet of riders.

Every rider in the race would have based their tactics on Cancellara. Physically, he’s looked invulnerable this year, so the other teams would have looked at ways of making the race complicated, in order to negate his strength. What they hadn’t bargained for was that the rider who’d make things most complicated was Cancellara himself.

Just as the riders started looking around at each other and adjusted to the new reality, the individual whose race they’d all based their own tactics on seemingly out of it, Cancellara switched on the afterburners and closed that 15-second gap in little over a kilometre. It was a provocative move. Either his confidence was sky-high, or he was having to dose his efforts carefully.

The result, in either case, was that Cancellara had swung the balance of power back towards himself, and simplified the race hugely. Omega Pharma Quick Step had two riders at the front – Stijn Vandenbergh and Zdenek Stybar (and Niki Terpstra would soon join) – but for everybody else, it was them against Cancellara. Just the kind of straightforward scenario that favours the Swiss rider.

It was Sep Vanmarcke of Blanco who showed that Cancellara was strong, but still vulnerable. There is one way of matching Cancellara in a race like this – put yourself ahead of the Swiss before the crucial sections. Jurgen Roelandts did it last week in the Tour of Flanders, going away before the Kwaremont, and putting himself ahead of the Swiss rider’s inevitable attack. Vanmarcke attacked with Vandenbergh just before Cancellara joined the leading group.

As Cancellara took a breather, Vanmarcke and Vandenbergh quickly took a 35-second lead. The race was taking another swing away from Cancellara.

It was clear that nobody would chase Vanmarcke and Vandenbergh except the Swiss rider, and when he did, through Sector Six, Cysoing-Bourghelles, only Stybar was capable of following him, desperately holding Cancellara’s wheel. This time, the 35-second gap was reduced to nothing in four kilometres, and going into Sector five, there were four at the front. One Blanco rider, one Cancellara, two Omega Pharma riders.

Any idea that Omega Pharma could prise the race from Cancellara’s grip was quashed when Vandenbergh was tailed off, then crashed, exhausted, on the Carrefour de l’Arbre cobbles. Stybar was next to go, apparently clipping a spectator and being sent skidding diagonally across the single-track lane to a juddering halt. There were two left at the front.

Vanmarcke dutifully took his turns at the front over the final 15 kilometres of the race to Roubaix. The result would have looked like a foregone conclusion, except for two things: Vanmarcke once outsprinted Tom Boonen to win Het Nieuwsblad; and Cancellara might have won Paris-Roubaix twice, but every time he’s reached the velodrome with other riders, he’s been outsprinted for the win, by Magnus Backstedt in 2004 and Tom Boonen in 2008.

While Cancellara did try one little attack on the run-in, he looked the stronger rider in a tactical sprint on the banked track. He forced Vanmarcke to the front, sat in his wheel, then jumped around him in the finishing straight.

Cancellara looked exhausted at the finish. This hadn’t simply been a case of the strongest rider winning. Perhaps feeling physically vulnerable, Cancellara knew that brawn alone wasn’t enough for him to win. He couldn’t outride his rivals, so he out-thought them.


Bernie Eisel (Team Sky) and Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack) in action during the 2013 Paris Roubaix

Bernie Eisel (Team Sky) and Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack) in action during the 2013 Paris Roubaix

Long-range breaks haven’t been sticking during the Classics of 2013. Although early attacks came and went, it was only at half-distance that a dangerous-looking quartet of riders were allowed up the road, and even then, they didn’t gain much time. 2007 winner Stuart O’Grady (Orica), Mat Hayman (Sky), Gert Steegmans (Omega Pharma) and Clement Kortesky (Bretagne) attacked with 130 kilometres to go, and built a lead of two minutes in 20 kilometres.

But with the Trouée d’Arenberg cobbles approaching, and the peloton speeding up in anticipation, their lead was fragile. A measure of how much faster the bunch was going than the break was that when the four escapees hit the cobbles in Arenberg, their lead was 1-27. When the peloton streamed into the forest, the gap was 1-16. Hayman and his companions were 43 seconds ahead when they turned left at the end of the forest road, and by the time the peloton rounded the corner, the gap was down to 37 seconds. It looked like they’d wasted their energy.

With O’Grady and Kortesky tailing off, Hayman and Steegmans hung just 15 seconds off the front of the peloton. Matthias Schar of BMC attacked, clawing his way up to the two leaders via O’Grady, while the bunch inexplicably sat up again. Now there were three in front, and the gap went back out to a minute.

Dominique Gaudin of Europcar was next to try to bridge up, but his attack hadn’t been brilliantly timed – by the time he joined the leaders, with 50 kilometres to go, Cancellara had begun his games, and his group was only a handful of seconds ahead.

When Cancellara was done with his initial surge through Sector 11, and Juan Antonio Flecha (Vacansoleil) had continued the work through Mons-en-Pevêle, Hayman, Steegmans and Schar’s enterprise was finished and there were 14 riders away: Vandenbergh, Terpstra, Stybar (all Omega), Boom and Vanmarcke (Blanco), Cancellara (RadioShack), Langeveld (Orica), Paolini (Katusha), Turgot, Gaudin (both Europcar), Eisel (Sky), Flecha (Vacansoleil), Van Avermaet (BMC) and Breschel (Saxo Bank).

Vandenbergh, Langeveld, Vanmarcke and Gaudin attacked into Sector eight, while Cancellara seemed content to let them go. He’d surely chase. Then Flecha, Van Avermaet, Paolini and Stybar countered. Still Cancellara sat tight. When the eight riders joined forces at the front, Cancellara looked to be in trouble.

That impression lasted about three kilometres. He’d fooled us all. By the time it was clear he was still the strongest rider in the race, although not necessarily by much, Paris-Roubaix 2013 had settled into its final shape.

Cancellara and Vanmarcke forged ahead to the finishing sprint, while final survivor Stybar was swept up by Flecha, Gaudin, Langeveld, Van Avermaet and Terpstra on the run-in to Roubaix.

One lap behind Cancellara, Terpstra rescued Omega Pharma’s race by pipping Van Avermaet and Gaudin for third.

Cancellara’s built one of the most impressive palmarès in Classics history, mainly on the foundation of supreme physical strength. His powers will wane one day, but his rivals should take warning: while he’s not had to rely much on his racing brain (and indeed has been outwitted on more than one occasion), his first Paris-Roubaix, in 2006, was a masterpiece of tactics.

So was his third, taken today in the Roubaix velodrome.

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