Speaking to reporters on the Via Roma after Milan-San Remo last weekend, Fabian Cancellara declared that the cobbled classics would be more open than they have been in years past, yet while the world around him seemingly changes, the Swiss rider’s approach remains unaltered.
While most – though not all – of Cancellara’s rivals have already sampled competitive action on the cobbles this season, Friday’s E3 Harelbeke marks his first Belgian race of the year, though his Trek Factory Racing directeur sportif Dirk Demol does not anticipate any ring rustiness. After all, Cancellara has not lined up at Dwars door Vlaanderen since 2011 or at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad since 2008, yet has won E3 Harelbeke two more times in the intervening period.
“It’s a way he’s already followed for many years. He never wants to come to the opening weekend or Kuurne, he says ‘I know all of this parcours, I know all of these roads,’” Demol told Cyclingnews in Harelbeke on Thursday. “But I have to be honest: yesterday he did a 120km recon of the roads of the Tour of Flanders with Gregory [Rast] and Popo [Yaroslav Popovych], so he was on the cobbles.
“Together with the races this weekend, that’s enough for him to prepare for Flanders and Roubaix. He’s never wanted to ride De Panne, for example, so he’ll just do Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem, and then we have Flanders, Scheldeprijs and Roubaix. It’s already many years that he’s followed the same programme, so he doesn’t have to change.”
While the past two seasons yielded three Monument victories for Cancellara, his win rate elsewhere dropped notably, something he vowed to remedy on the eve of the 2015 season. He lived up to that pledge by landing stage wins at the Tour of Oman and Tirreno-Adriatico, and although his remarkable sequence of 12 successive podium finishes in the Monuments ended with his 7th place at Milan-San Remo, Demol believes Cancellara is coming to the boil as he arrives in Belgium.
“I think he’s good at the right moment. He was sick at the end of Oman and he was five days off the bike after that because he had bronchitis and he had to take antibiotics,” Demol said. “He was suffering a bit still at Strade Bianche because of the loss of condition, but I saw him growing in Tirreno.
“Then in San Remo he was 7th in the sprint: he just waited one moment too long and was blocked, but I could see that there are signs that the condition is there.”
Even before Tom Boonen’s crash at Paris-Nice ruled him out of the spring classics, there were suggestions that this year could mark a changing of the guard after a decade of the Boonen-Cancellara duopoly dictating terms and conditions on the pavé. Cancellara’s last two classic wins have been sprints rather than processions, for instance, and challengers of a younger vintage – Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), in particular – have shown further signs of progress already this spring.
“There are more contenders and we’ve seen some strong teams,” Demol said. “BMC and Sky are very strong. Lotto has been good this year, you can’t forget Peter Sagan, of course, and I have to mention Sep Vanmarcke: in Gent-Gent [Omloop] he was dominating.”
The absence of Boonen, of course, alters the landscape of the next two weeks of racing. It removes a redoubtable rival from the equation, but also means that his Etixx-QuickStep team will be less formulaic in its approach.
“For me I’d prefer if Tom was here, because their tactics would be easier to understand: now it’s like trying to find it in the dark,” Demol admitted. “But either way, they have a super strong team – Zdenek Stybar, Niki Terpstra, Stijn Vandenbergh – all eight at the start can win the race.”
Cancellara’s own classics unit has been bolstered by the arrival of Geert Steegmans this winter, while another former QuickStep man, Stijn Devolder, proved integral to his victory at the Tour of Flanders in 2013. Devolder crashed heavily in the finale of Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday, but did not suffer any broken bones and will line up at E3 Harelbeke.
“It was a nasty crash. I was most scared about his right scaphoid and there was also a big, big bump on his elbow, but he went to the hospital last night and the x-ray didn’t show any fractures,” Demol said. “He did two hours on the bike this morning and afterwards he confirmed that he wanted to ride, so he’s on the start tomorrow.”
Devolder also suffered a blow to his head in the crash, yet despite symptoms that sounded alarmingly like a concussion, he remounted his bike and rode to the finish in Waregem on Wednesday. Riders’ and teams’ associations have been in talks with the UCI over the introduction of an extreme weather protocol, though it is perhaps equally pressing that they discuss the implementation of a robust protocol on concussion.
“Just for a moment, he didn’t really know what had happened. He was asking: ‘Where is everybody? Where is everyone?’ But it was just for maybe half a minute. After that he continued on his bike and he was immediately ok,” Demol said. “For sure he hit his head and for a minute he didn’t know what had happened. But he didn’t have a headache afterwards and also this morning, I checked him more than once, and this afternoon I left him to make the choice.
“He will not be 100 percent tomorrow for sure, but if you miss races now it’s bad for Flanders. I’m really happy he’s ok and let’s hope he stays out of trouble tomorrow. I advised Stijn that after such a nasty crash, we skip Harelbeke, but he’s a tough guy.”
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