Can Cancellara finally win the world title?

State of the nation: Switzerland

Four world titles in the time trial aren’t enough for Fabian Cancellara, he wants a rainbow jersey in the road race too. In six attempts, Cancellara has yet to put himself on the podium, but he’s more determined as ever this year.

"The time trial is an intense effort, and when you have a palmarès like mine, it’s better to skip it," said Cancellara of his decision to miss the race against the clock.

Having four rainbow jerseys in your pocket can certainly make these decisions a little easier. The recent dominance of Tony Martin, that has seen Cancellara unable to add to that tally, was probably a factor in his decisions making. Why settle for second best, when you can aim for top in another discipline?

Since Madrid 2005 - where he took bronze - Cancellara has never ridden at the World Championships without taking on the time trial. He skipped it in 2008 and 2012, when he chose to forgo the Worlds all together after riding at the Olympics. He has never finished off the podium in all that time. Despite this, Cancellara has also managed three top 10 placings in the road race.

Many refer to Peter Sagan as one of the most complete riders in the peloton, with his ability to climb and sprint, but Cancellara is arguably more so. His ability in both time trialling and one-day racing is unparalleled in the current peloton. And if he were to take gold on Sunday, he would be only the second rider to become world champion in the time trial and the road race. Abraham Olano won the road race in Duitama in 1995 and the time trial three years later in Valkenburg 1998.

A sterling record

Cancellara’s best performance in the road race thus far came in 2011, in Copenhagen. The Swiss rider finished fourth behind Mark Cavendish, Matt Goss and André Greipel. While he was arguably helped by the slightly uphill finish, it showed that he can take on the top, pure sprinters in the world – something he might need on Sunday. Usual sprinting form often do not apply at the end of such long races.

After Copenhagen, Cancellara’s next best – and possibly hardest to take - result came at his home Worlds in Mendrisio, Switzerland, in 2009 when Cadel Evans became World Champion. He finished fifth and, unlike 2011, Mendrisio was a genuine opportunity for Cancellara to do the double, just four days after he claimed his third world time trial championship. The Swiss rider launched a move off the descent off the penultimate climb, before going again at the foot of the final ascent. The result was a crucial split in the bunch, but he didn’t have the legs to follow Evans when he went over the top of the climb.

The disappointment was evident on Cancellara’s face when he crossed the line. However, he probably harmed his chances by doing so much work in the lead-up to the final climb. Perhaps the thought of winning the double at his home Worlds blinded his sense, although Cancellara’s usual modus operandi is to win races by sheer brute force rather than masterful calculation.

Not that this hasn’t stopped him from winning seven one- day Classic monuments and finishing on the podium in the last 12 that he’s finished.

Finding a middle ground

The Ponferrada course is somewhere between those in Copenhagen and Mendrisio. It has a similar amount of climbing to Switzerland, with the two ascents (although Mendrisio just edges it with 4,655 metres compared to Ponferrada’s 4,284), but we could still see a small bunch make it to the finish.

Cancellara got his first real look at the course on Thursday when the organisers opened the route for the official training. His heart probably dropped a little, as did a few national selectors’, when they realised it was slightly easier for the sprinters than many first expected.

With rain predicted for Sunday, however, it could be a race of attrition. While Cancellara won’t be praying for rain, it could swing some advantage in the fight for the rainbow jersey towards the Swiss rider. It will make the final descent into Ponferrada a very tricky one, but that could allow him to attack and get away – if he’s feeling brave. As Sven Erik Bystrom (Norway) showed in the U23 Men's road race on Friday, it’s possible to make a move on this climb and stay away to the finish.

To do this, though, Cancellara must keep his powder dry until the right moment.

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