Fabian Cancellara had a difficult winter due to illness during the Christmas holidays and a brush with a car in early January. But as the monumental Classics loom large on the horizon, with Milan-San Remo the first on Sunday, he is convinced he has the form to again be a contender.
Cancellara celebrated his 33rd birthday on the last day of Tirreno-Adriatico and Spartacus has officially become a veteran in the peloton after 14 years as a professional. He failed to win the final time trial stage at Tirreno-Adriatico and rarely put his nose out front of the peloton, preferring to use the racing and some team work to carefully polish his fitness.
However his rivals should not be fooled. He has already raced for 24 days so far this season, doing the Dubai Tour, the Tour of Qatar and the Tour of Oman as one massive block of racing to make up for the winter training he missed.
"I started the season differently but I think it was good. When I look back I'm really happy about how things went and how things are going," he explained when he sat down with journalists to talk about Milan-San Remo and the cobbled Classics.
"I'm ready to challenge now. My time just being in the peloton and helping is over. From Sunday, the next five races are the ones that count. They're the ones on my list and the ones I want to do well in. There's some doubts about my condition but I have to be good on one day, not three or four days together. I've progressed at Tirreno-Adriatico."
Studying his rivals
Cancellara has been working intensely on his own form but also spent time studying his rivals at Tirreno-Adriatico. He has sensed that the mild European winter and more intense training methods has meant that a lot of riders are on excellent form.
"I've seen a fitter peloton this week; we all had a better winter," he said.
"You see everything during a race: you see people suffering, you people just cruising. You see it from how people pedal, how they finish a stage, how they ride in the gruppetto, how they handle the climbs or help their teammates."
"I think Peter (Sagan) showed the most of everyone. He won, too. Talking about just the Classics riders, I saw that Philippe (Gilbert) was good and I saw (Jurgen) Roelandts in good shape. The Belgians will be ready. (Sep) Vanmarcke was super strong."
"There's also Paris-Nice with other strong riders like Zdenek Stybar. I'll have forgotten some names for sure there are more riders who will be competitive than in other years. I think there's going to be some nice Classics races this year."
Cancellara won Milan-San Remo in 2008 with a late solo attack after the descent of the Poggio. He finished second in both 2011 and 2012, beaten by Australians Matt Goss and Simon Gerrans after being in the attack that decided the race.
This year many people are expecting a sprint finish because organiser RCS Sport has been forced to use he flatter, more traditional race route. But Cancellara warns the sprinters against complacency and expecting an easy ride all the way to the finish on the San Remo sea front.
"We've seen a lot of good riders at Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico and so with the easier parcours, people are thinking it'll automatically be a bunch sprint. But well have to see," he said.
"The rain could be a factor for example. We have to take it as it comes. It all depends on what happens between Milan and Genoa, then from Genoa to San Remo, with things like the weather, the rain and the wind. They are all little things but they all count. It will be hard, it'll be tough but it will be a unique race again."
A new generation is here
Cancellara acknowledged that a new generation of Classics riders is starting to fight for space at he front of the peloton and on the winner's podium at Milan-San Remo, with his biggest rival Peter Sagan (Cannondale) leading the way.
Cancellara has no plans to race until his 40s like teammate Jens Voigt, hinting that he may not even complete his new three-year contract with Trek Factory Racing. He already feels old compared to riders who have only recently turned professional.
"A new generation is not coming, it's already here. But it's good and positive for the sport," Cancellara said.
"I don’t feel old but I'm an oldie. It's been 14 years, so I'm old in some ways. Sometimes I feel old when I see how young the riders are. In a race everyone is the same but if you look at them, they're really young."
Cancellara concedes that, at 33, he is officially a veteran on the peloton but he warns of the importance of experience, especially in the Classics.
"I've been in this sport for 14 years and for me it's great that there are young rider challenging but they're not mature yet, they still need some years," he warned.
"For example a lot of people thought Kwiatkowski was going to win Tirreno-Adriatico but he suffered on the long stage and paid for it. But can you imagine where he'll be in two years time? I think that's great."
"It's also inspiration for me. I don’t want to get my ass kicked by young kids."