In a sport as steeped in nostalgia as cycling, Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo) should have known that he would not be able to talk simply about the here and now when he met with the press on Friday afternoon ahead of his final Tour of Flanders.
No sooner had Cancellara settled into his seat in the conference room at the Weinebrugge Hotel near Bruges, than he was asked if his approach to the Ronde had been influenced by the knowledge that it would be last participation in the race.
“I know it’s the last everything, even the last press conference,” Cancellara said with a jaded smile. “But these thoughts come after. I’ve been looking into the race. I’m fully concentrated. I have beautiful memories but I want to perform and there’s no space for that if you want to perform.”
Cancellara, winner in 2010, 2013 and 2014, is one of six men to have claimed the Tour of Flanders on three occasions and victory on Sunday would give him the outright record. Since the turn of the decade, Cancellara has often given the impression of a man racing with one eye already fixed on his place in posterity, but on Friday he downplayed the significance of becoming the first four-time Ronde winner.
“It would mean a lot, it would be history, but on the end I look on it as a bike race, one of the most beautiful bike races of the year,” he said. “For me, the first thing is to race. If it [the record] comes, it comes. What I can say now is arriving here at 100 percent is what I wanted to achieve. I will do everything in my hands – in my legs – to push and get the result.”
Cancellara’s fast start to his final season in the professional ranks, not to mention his strong showings at E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem last weekend, have marked him out – what’s new? – as the bookmakers’ and media’s favourite for the Tour of Flanders, ahead of world champion Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) and defending champion Alexander Kristoff (Katusha).
“On the end, I know I did my homework and that’s what it’s all about,” Cancellara said. “I look at the other riders and maybe I see more details in the peloton, so I can see things that no press can see. But I’m calm.”
While the powers of Cancellara, who recently turned 35, scarcely seem to have diminished since he entered his imperial phase with his startling Flanders-Roubaix double of 2010, his contemporary Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep) has appeared in gentle decline since his last Ronde win in 2012. This time around, Boonen finds himself in the unfamiliar role of outsider ahead of Belgian cycling’s day of days.
“He’s there definitely,” Cancellara insisted. “Even right now in the team, they’re under big pressure but they have a lot of good riders, and they can do certain moves that will hurt. The whole team is strong. For sure, Tom is Tom. I know Tom for many years. He will be there. This is his race, we know how he can race. He will be one of the riders to watch even if he hasn’t shown to the outside he’s strong. We’re riding with him and I see he’s good.”
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Cancellara’s impact with the Ronde will forever be encapsulated by his staggering disposal of Boonen on the Muur on the old parcours in 2010, but he has left a most indelible impression on the new finale over the Kwaremont and Paterberg. Each year, in fact, opposing team managers dutifully speak trot out the same line about the need to try to anticipate Cancellara’s seemingly obligatory move on the final ascent of the Kwaremont.
“I didn’t look at what the others have said. They’re trying to anticipate but the question is always who will anticipate,” he said. “You can pick people from the other teams who might do this, but we have two other good riders and two fast riders, so we can play tactics too.
“I always look back to Paris-Roubaix with Stuart O’Grady [his CSC teammate who won in 2007 – ed.] I want to win, but during a race a lot of things can happen. We have a tactic and we’ll stick to it. But when the second line from other teams move, we will do the same.”
Cancellara had, in his own words “a free role” at last week’s Gent-Wevelgem, where he impressed with a decisive acceleration on the Kemmelberg but then suffered the indignity of finishing fourth in the four-up sprint for the win. All told, however, he drew positives from his weekend.
“Of course I was expecting more. There was disappointment. But I prefer right now that it was like I was. I still saw I could work on a few things that would be necessary for Sunday. With the podium or without I would be targeted anyway. There are no secrets,” he said.
“Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem were very important and there are details from them that I could use now for Sunday. Today we have first of April, but these details are not things to joke about: even after 16 years, in Flanders I will need them. You are never too old to improve.”
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