A week before the Tour of Flanders, Fabian Cancellara has stepped up and taken the role of favorite for the 'Ronde' by winning the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen – Harelbeke, traditionally the key warm-up race on the cobbled climbs of Flanders.
And after his emphatic victory, it's a role the Swiss champion happily accepts. He hasn't made a secret of his desire to win the Tour of Flanders. "I'm very proud that I can win my first proper race in Belgium, since my other victory here came in a time trial. Now I'm even more determined to do well next Sunday. I'm in good form and hopefully that will still be the case in a week time. The team did a great job and adding this to our win on Wednesday [Matti Breschel won Dwars door Vlaanderen] we can be proud," Cancellara stated after E3 Prijs Vlaanderen - Harelbeke
Sixty kilometres from the finish in Harelbeke things weren't looking that great for Cancellara as he suddenly ended up lying on the ground. "I crashed at the foot of the Taaienberg. I made a jump and landed on Nick Nuyens (Rabobank) who caused the crash. It was a bad situation at a bad moment because the Taaienberg is usually the climb where Tom Boonen unleashes his devils. I remained calm and with help from the team I managed to return to the front," Cancellara said.
From that moment on the 29 year-old Saxo Bank rider managed to stay near Tom Boonen who was showed his own excellent form on the cobbled climbs. On the 20% slopes of the cobbled Paterberg climb, with forty kilometres to go, Boonen, Cancellara and Juan Antonio Flecha (Team Sky) blasted away from the peloton and after the long cobbled Oude Kwaremont climb that came just after, it was clear that the three would fight for the win in Harelbeke. Especially after a late counter-attack from Italian champion Filippo Pozzato was repelled with some surges by all three riders on the front.
"We wanted to make him suffer," Cancellara said of Pozzato. "We didn't talk a lot but everybody is in contact with their teams via the race radio so I assume everybody knew what the situation was. During the race we're rivals but after the race we're friends."
Perfectly timed late attack
With Boonen by far the fastest of the three, Cancellara realised that if he wanted to win he had to avoid a sprint finish. The Olympic time trial champion unleashed his power and aggression just before the last kilometre. The small gap he carved out did not look enough at first but then grew bigger as both Boonen and Flecha didn't have the speed and strength in their legs to pull back the strong Swiss rider.
"Tom is strong in the sprint and Flecha can attack too. Waiting for the sprint was the easy option. I choose to risk something. That way, if I lost I would at least be able to know that I tried everything. I saw that Flecha showed signs of fatigue so I attacked when he was on my wheel," Cancellara said.
The Swiss champion had a late scare when he misjudged a left-hand corner but so did Boonen and Flecha. "I was surprised by the corner. The last kilometre had changed here but I don't think the outcome would have been different on the old course."
The win in Harelbeke was well a special moment for Cancellara and makes him a big favourite for the Tour of Flanders. However he will now head home to Switzerland to train and prepare for the biggest week of his season on home roads.
"We're in Flanders' holy week and every race here is important. I've got a nice win in the pocket and that's important. At the end of the week one looks back and checks what has been scored, so this victory is a good one to start with. After this weekend I'm returning home to relax and train."
And no doubt get 100% ready to ride another aggressive race at the Tour of Flanders.