Cancellara has been targeting the spring Classics since 2004 but it would be wrong to think he is past his best. Indeed he had his best winter in many years and is confident he will have yet another strong spring Classics campaign, starting on Sunday.
The Swiss rider has already won a tough stage of the Tour of Oman – beating many of his Classics rivals, including Peter Sagan, in a sprint. On Tuesday he won the final time trial at Tirreno-Adriatico. When he sat down with the media to talk Milan-San Remo, he seemed more relaxed, more confident and more convinced of his form than he has for awhile.
“I’m relaxed, why should I stress? I’ve done what I needed to do before the season,” he says, revealing there are several reasons.
“Of course I need to suffer and if I’m not ready for that, then I won’t go anywhere. But I think I’ve got a different freshness this year. This is the second year of the team and so things are working easier. Bauke [Mollema] came in too. Last year I crashed and was sick after Christmas, I was two weeks behind schedule and it’s not easy to recover that time. I didn’t want that and was motivated this winter. Fortunately I was ahead this year and so when I got sick after Oman, I could stay at home and relax.”
Cancellara is one of the most physically imposing riders in the peloton but he is sensitive and reflective off the bike. He needs his space to focus on his training and his time at home with his family to find his motivation. A mild winter in Berne, Switzerland, allowed him to train at home far more than usual, sparking a kind of enlightenment. It seems to have helped him fall in love with cycling again. It helped him find extra motivation and made him realise he wants to enjoy what are probably his final two season, and two spring Classics campaigns, as a professional athlete.
“After 15 years of racing and racing at this level since 2006 it’s not easy, you have to find a new challenge,” he says.
“Young riders don’t think too much in races, they just go. When you are older, you wait and look. They think less. But they don’t have the experience. I have loads of other things to deal with but I’m used to that now. All my victories and all the things around me give me my experience and that’s my plus compared to young riders.
“To get more out yourself, you don’t open a box, find something and it takes you forward. You have to work on many details. This winter I had seven weeks at home and did some good rides. We had super weather this year and I had a lot of time to think and this was probably the key that brought me to the 2015 season and stopped me complaining that I was old and always complaining. I wanted to be young again and enjoy my riding. Instead of being critical, I want to enjoy my last years of racing. That’s helping me as a person more than as a rider, and that’s more important to me.
“A lot of things came to me and came together, like the water dividing in front of me. It allowed me to make a step forward. I wasn’t racing or busy with the team and it built like a pyramid and went well. But you need the will to train, the motivation, the support from home and from the team. If you’re not ready and don’t have your base, you struggle. It’s the small details that makes the difference for me.”
Matt Goss beat Cancellara in 2011. (Tim de Walle/tdwsport.com)
Every Milan-San Remo is different
Cancellara won Milan-San Remo in 2008 with a solo attack after the decent of the Poggio. He accelerated away and used his power and time trial ability to savour winning alone. Since then he finished on the podium four times. He has tried his hand in the final sprint, confident that he can get a result against the best sprinters in the world after 300km of hard racing.
“Until 2013 I usually won my races alone and they were all special and stood out. But when you win, you win. The best thing might be to win alone in the Via Roma and in every race but now I’m just happy to win at my age. I was happy like a little kid in Oman when I won a stage,” he says.
“You never know how Milan-San Remo will play out. We’ve seen a different San Remo every time, what counts is the winner. Remo always produces more questions about the race than answers.”
This year’s Milan-San Remo follows the classic route. There is only the Turchino mid-race, then the Capi, the Cipressa and finally the Poggio climb before the finish in the Via Roma. Oscar Freire was the last to win the sprint up the city centre street in 2007 before the finish was moved to a seafront car park, where Cancellara won in 2008.
Cancellara can recall Filippo Pozzato winning in the Via Roma in 2006 but the different races have blurred together. He seems to ride Milan-San Remo on instinct and admitted that he is not obsessed about knowing the secrets of the route.
“I can remember seeing Pozzato lifting his arms but I can’t remember if I saw the photos of it or if I was there in the bunch behind. It was a long time ago…” he admitted before being told he finished 25th in the peloton that finished a few seconds behind the Italian.
“We’ve seen a different Milan-San Remo every year recently and we might have a different or new San Remo again. We all know that this year the finish is closer from the decent (of the Poggio) but we can’t only really say how it will change the race. It depends on a lot of factors. We have to see the weather forecast first and then say: 'this can be the tactic, this is how the race will happen.’ There are some changes every year, so to be honest I don’t go into all these details. I’ve never done recon for Milan-San Remo. I’ve done it for other Classics but the first time I saw the roads of (Milan-San Remo) was the first time that I raced it.”
Cancellara soloed to victory along the seafront in 2008. (Getty Images Sport)
Cancellara’s most important tactic is to conserve energy as much as possible early in the race.
“You just roll from Milan to the Turchino and then along the coast (he makes the noise of a juggernaut) to save energy and fuel. You have to save as much energy as you can. The more you spend, the less you have in the end. I just focus on the last 50km, not the first 200km,” he explained.
Cancellara is not afraid of being Trek Factory Racing’s big leader. The team includes sprinter Giacomo Nizzolo, who won Thursday’s GP Nobili race in Italy, but the team’s strategy will be based around Cancellara. Other teams such as Etixx-QuickStep have several leaders and several tactical options thanks to sprinter Mark Cavendish, attacker Michal Kwiatkowski and the on-form Zdenek Stybar.
“You can have two or three cards but maybe they’re not the right ones,” he warns.
“I know that I’m a target for other riders, that if I move an inch they follow me and that they talk about me in team meetings. My name is branded in my rival’s heads. It’s easier for an unmarked rider but I have to live with that. Winning has become harder because of the new generation coming up and the big strong fields we have in races now.
“I hope I don’t break my run on the podium in the first big classic of the season. The race can be won by a puncheur or it can be for sprinters but I think I’ve always had cards to play. I can go with the attackers, I can go on the descent and I can have a go in the sprint. The more I ride it the better my cards are. Milan-San Remo is a big win. It’s one of the five monuments, so we will go there to do our thing and to try to win.”