Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack Leopard) confirmed himself as favourite for next week's Tour of Flanders with his third victory in E3 Harelbeke on Friday. Slaying the demons from a crash on the same roads and spurred on by his family and a hospitalised Eddy Merckx, the 31-year-old claimed his team's first WorldTour win of the season while warning that this was only the beginning.
"I've been waiting for a victory," Cancellara said following his solo win in Harelbeke over Peter Sagan and Daniel Oss. "I've been waiting for something a little extra. It's not over. It's the start of coming to the special Christmas week next week. Now I don't say I go home and just be on the couch and doing nothing, it's going even harder now, especially mentally. The pressure will be even more.
"I saw in San Remo that I'm ready. I saw today that I'm more than ready. Whether I've scared the people or not at the end, I've done my job and what I had to do and that's bringing home a victory."
At E3 Harelbeke last year, Cancellara crashed twice and then a week later, fractured his collarbone in three places at the Tour of Flanders while riding through the feed zone. Today's race, he said, was "important" as it was his first race back on the Belgian cobbles, although it left him feeling mixed emotions. In some regards he explained, it was "like home" but his reconnaissance in the lead up brought back memories that he would rather forget.
"The goal was to win and how I was going to win was not important," Cancellara said. "It's just that I won."
Though he may protest, Cancellara's method of disposing of his rivals was so emphatic that it will set the tone for the coming weeks. With close to 150km of racing complete, Cancellara passed the first test on the Taaienberg, matching Tom Boonen’s pace-setting as he pulled a group away that featured Zdenek Stybar (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), Daniel Oss (BMC), Sep Vanmarcke (Blanco), Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto Belisol), Mathew Hayman and Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky). They were later joined by Stijn Vandenbergh (Omega Pharma - QuickStep), Sebastian Langeveld (Orica Greenedge), Vincent Jerome (Europcar), and Lars Boom (Blanco).
By the time they reached the Paterberg, Peter Sagan (Cannondale) had joined them having chased back on with relative ease - and three teammates - after a wheel change. Cancellara explained that it was important to test his rivals early.
"The Taaienberg is a special one," he said. "There were 11 riders in the front and Sagan was missing. I knew that his team was pulling on the back and we just had to keep going on the front because that's how it goes. On the Paterberg he was with us. Everyone is good. It's just the circumstances of the position or after San Remo maybe not everyone is 100 per cent fit again," he continued, refusing to critique his rivals' performance with an eye to De Ronde. "This is one day and you can have a good or bad day. I had my good day."
With 35km to go, Cancellara earned his checkmate on the Oude Kwaremont, quickly opening a gap of 15 seconds, and then rapidly stretching that out to around a minute where it stayed while Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick-Step), Sagan, Oss, Geraint Thomas (Sky) and Langeveld were left to fight it out for the minor placings. His victory in Harelbeke may not earn him the plaudits that his win at the Tour of Flanders did in 2010, but his escape was perhaps as impressive as that day on the Kapelmuur.
"I had a few situations today where you can call me lucky because there was a few moments where I saw the ground really close to me and that's why I had the luck on my side. I played the right game," he said.
"I knew it was going to be hard. When you finish a race like this today with this kind of victory, you can look back and be really satisfied."