It was supposed to be the dream send-off. If you asked anybody before the race, almost all of them would have picked Fabian Cancellara to win his final Tour of Flanders. The Swiss rider was the odds-on favourite to take out the title after a determined start to the season and two strong performances last weekend.
Had he won, it would have been a record-breaking fourth victory, but it wasn’t to be. Despite his best efforts, he was unable to close the gap to a lone Peter Sagan and had to settle for second place. Having saluted the crowd as he came across the line, he struggled to fight back the disappointment of not claiming victory in his last ever appearance at De Ronde.
“Second is not first and first is not history. I didn’t win,” he told Sporza before stepping onto the podium. “Second is still a big thing. I was quite emotional this morning and still am now. After so many tries to be second is not bad but I was aiming for history. Peter showed that he managed everything well and he was the deserved winner. I collaborated well with Sep [Vanmarcke] and we tried to come as close as possible but I’m not superman.
“I missed this one second, which maybe I can be disappointed about, but it is how it is, and thank you Flanders.”
That one second was the moment that Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) broke clear on the flat road between the Taaienberg and the Kruisberg. Only Sagan was able to follow the former world champion initially as Stijn Devolder chased furiously to try and bring them back. Vanmarcke would join the duo and they disappeared up the road, linking up with a group of escapees. Devolder managed the gap but, in the end, it was down to Cancellara if he wanted to bring them back.
"That was the moment: you either go immediately or you choose to wait," said Trek-Segafredo directeur sportif Dirk Demol, "and Fabian chose to wait. Stijn gave the best of himself [in the chase], but it was not possible to close."
Cancellara made his move near the top of the Kwaremont and had the leaders in his sights on the Paterberg. He brought back all others but Sagan kicked again to distance Cancellara, as the latter had done to Sagan in 2013. With just 16 kilometres of his final Flanders remaining, Cancellara dug deep, hoping that Sagan might crack before the finish line in Oudenaarde.
“To chase is not always nice but I managed to come to Sep and we did the maximum that we could to be there because Peter was just too strong,” he explained.
“I was not giving up because Peter showed in the past that in the final kilometres he didn’t always have the capacity to get to the finish. In the end, I knew that if Sep didn’t pull then I would give up but I said to him ‘we need to work the maximum that we have because we might even lose the podium’. We managed well and we all did the maximum after such a tough race.”
With that, Cancellara closed the book on his Tour of Flanders career, a race that he has missed just once since 2003. After breaking into the top 10 in 2006, he won it for the first time in 2010 and has gone on to take victory twice since then, in addition to a third place in 2011. It’s a race that is dear to him and the emotion of riding it for the last time, and the pressure of expectation, weighed heavily on him.
“I knew that everything was the last time. Even this morning in Bruges was special but as soon as the race started I was focused on what I wanted to achieve what we had for a plan,” said Cancellara. “I went to sleep at 1:30, I woke up at 6 o’clock. It was already hard this morning when you come onto the bus and think ‘damn it wasn’t a good night’.
“Today, I didn’t have the same feeling at the start compared to other races. I was a devil in Harelbeke, and I was an amateur in Gent-Wevelgem. Today I managed everything I could but now Flanders is done.”
The cycling circus stops for nobody and the next races will be upon the riders before too soon. Cancellara will still have a chance to win one last monument at next weekend’s Paris-Roubaix, but with the emotion still raw for the Trek-Segafredo rider he is not quite ready to think about it.
“Flanders is in my heart. I did everything for today, and what is next week? We will see first. Tomorrow I come back to the centre of De Ronde, the fan club is there from Belgium and then Scheldeprijs and then slowly moving up to Paris-Roubaix. Right now, I don’t think about Roubaix."