Fabian Cancellara confirmed himself as one of the greatest Classics riders of all time.
If there was any doubt, it should be erased. One of only a handful of riders to win all of the spring Monuments, and he’s done them in spectacular fashion. Today’s result was no less emphatic than his 2010 stomping of Tom Boonen, and in fact, it may have been even more impressive.
It was Boonen that started off the day’s events, but not in a fashion he’d have liked. After tremendous cheers at the start line, Boonen crashed just 19km into the race. He suffered hip and knee bruises and cut, and was hardly able to stand immediately after the collision. For Boonen, it was the final straw for a 2013 campaign that could not have been more different from last season. Just a year removed from winning Flanders, he was laying on the ground. He might well have swapped luck with Cancellara, who was perpendicular last year and out of the spring races. For Boonen, it could be over until either the Ardennes or even the Tour preparation races.
On Sunday, Cancellara’s team rode well for the first time in recent memory in the spring races. Usually known for letting Cancellara fend for himself, they controlled early proceedings along with Europcar, who had Voeckler’s face-pulling perched on their wheel from a long way out. A handful of breakaways were off the front for much of the day, though none ever achieved the familiar five to ten minute gap we’re used to seeing. Every move was given a tight leash, while the favorites were tucked in hiding and waiting.
Of the favorites, it was Cancellara most consistently well placed, never so well exemplified by the number of crashes throughout the day. Even riders near the front were dropping over the cobbles, but for the most part, the race was tightly in hand all afternoon. The only big name with consistent camera time was Andre Greipel, who featured in the breakaway all afternoon as a helping hand up the road for the Lotto-Bellisol team.
As the kilometers ticked off, the pressure fell on to the big names to break up the field. Cancellara, Geraint Thomas, Sylvain Chavanel, and the rest were all playing poker face well under 40km to go. A few riders put the moves in, but none stuck, and the big teams began to start throwing riders up the road in a bid to draw out more attacks. Finally, on the Oude Kwaremont, Cancellara single-handedly destroyed a group of 35 riders. No team set up, not double-moves. Just an unearthly acceleration that only Peter Sagan was truly capable of matching. Jurgen Roelandts was swept up but latched on, a very smart move that allowed him to avoid that attack.
The three fought along to the Paterberg, the last climb of the day. Sagan’s first pull nearly ended it there, with the Slovakian losing a few bike lengths before catching back on-but just barely. Cancellara rode on the front almost the whole way, with a few obligatory pulls from Roelandts and Sagan as they approached the climb. Sagan, if he had anything left, would have had a slight advantage if he made the Paterberg with Cancellara, with Sagan having the better spring if he could survive the ascent. He didn’t. Sagan lost just a few inches and Cancellara, feeling the gap open, put the hammer down.
At the top of the Paterberg, it was six seconds. Another kilometer, eight. Another, fourteen. Another, twenty four, and the race was over. Sagan and Roelandts were queued up behind, with Sagan spending all of his legs to trying not to catch Cancellara, but to stave off the chasers with 8km to go. Behind, Sky had lost Geraint Thomas to the world’s worst timed crash of the race, and had only Edvald Boasson-Hagen in the group and unwilling to commit to the chase.
Whilst Cancellara waltzed in for his second Flanders win, Sagan outsprinted Roelandts while Luca Paolini lead out the sprint from 800 meters. His teammate, Alexander Kristoff, led the chase group home, which was chalk-full of former favorites left shaking their heads. BMC lumped Greg Van Avermaet, Daniel Oss and Marcus Burghardt in the first chase group, while OmegaPharma-QuickStep could point to Sylvain Chavanel and Stijn Vandenbergh as their only succeses on the day. Especially for OPQS, the pressure to win is now at an all-time high with Paris-Roubaix and the Ardennes on the horizon.