Cancellara attacked fiercely on the Oude Kwaremont with 32km to go, catching and passing two breakaway groups, before soloing to a resounding victory. However, a bike change on the Stationsberg and the subsequent frantic chase to get back on meant that at one point he was worried that he had expended too much energy to reel in the breakaway groups.
“I lost a bit of confidence when I came back, because chasing takes up a lot of energy, but I just went on instinct on the Kwaremont,” Cancellara said in his post-race press conference. “I was surprised at the end here in Harelbeke by how I won, it impressed me more than last year actually.”
When he suffered mechanical trouble on the back of his earlier punctures, Cancellara feared that his hopes of victory had been dashed, but he summoned up a Herculean effort to bridge back to the head of the peloton on the Taaienberg.
“When you have no communication and everything happens so quickly it’s tough,” he said. “I was more stressed this time than last year, that’s for sure. I had two punctures in the beginning, and then I had to change the bike. That cracks you a bit. I had a little moment where I thought it was over, but then I saw the peloton up ahead, so I closed my eyes and just went up the Taaienberg as fast as I could.”
While Cancellara’s victory was notable both for its execution and the winning margin, a pair of his major rivals for glory next weekend were not present in Harelbeke, as Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) and Tom Boonen (Quick Step) will tweak their form at Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday instead. However, Cancellara was unconcerned about the absentees, and declared himself pleased with his own condition ahead of his major rendezvous.
“I just learned today that I’m ready,” he said. “I know there were a few riders who didn’t participate today, but at the end of the day it’s a bike race. We did everything we could without looking at who was here and who wasn’t. We just rode our race, with our tactics and our plans.”
While Cancellara will have been quietly content at the ease with which he put the Garmin-Cervélo duo of Thor Hushovd and Heinrich Haussler to the sword in the finale, he was also pleased simply to have won his first road race of the season, something he said is crucial to his morale ahead of the Tour of Flanders.
“It was very important,” he said. “I need victories, I’m hungry for them. Getting a win like that is the last part of your confidence.
“I will have a bit more pressure even than last year. With an extra victory in your pocket it gives you a bit more confidence. I needed this victory ahead of the Ronde, although big races are different to this kind of race.”
Learning from Milan-San Remo
Cancellara came agonisingly close to taking out one such big race last weekend, when he finished second to Matt Goss at Milan-San Remo. After being aggressive but unsuccessful in the finale in Italy, Cancellara explained that he had processed the lessons of La Classicissima when he jumped clear of the Haussler group 16km from Harelbeke.
“When I was with the group in front on the last sector of cobblestones I wanted to do something to try and split it up again,” he said. “This time I really looked behind me to see who was on my wheel when I attacked, because in San Remo I learned that sometimes it’s good to look back. It’s not always the right moment to attack, sometimes you have to wait.”
Victory in Harelbeke helped to put his San Remo disappointment to bed but Cancellara admitted that, in hindsight, beating Goss in the sprint was always liable to be a tall order. “Actually I was happy afterwards, I’ve never done a sprint like that in my life,” he said.
Looking to the Ronde
Cancellara was already the strong favourite for the Tour of Flanders before his emphatic win in Harelbeke, but the Swiss rider refused to be drawn on the psychological impact his win may have had on some of his rivals.
“You should ask them. I just did my race,” he said. “Next week is another race, a new scenario, with teams that weren’t racing today. Every rider needs to do what he thinks is the best preparation for the Ronde.
“Today is a different race to tomorrow [Gent-Wevelgem], but I needed this kind of race still. It’s only my second race in Belgium. I needed these kinds of roads today and I think I’m on the right path for next week.”
As was the case last year, Cancellara will not take part in the Three Days of De Panne, and will instead return home to Switzerland for a low-key build-up to next Sunday’s main event.
“I go back to Switzerland tomorrow and I’ll enjoy my Sunday,” he smiled. “Then I’ll have a bit of a rest on Monday, then train during the week and come back [to Belgium] on Friday, have a press conference and then get ready for Sunday.”