Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) delivered yet another show of force at Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday but again came away empty-handed as Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) triumphed in the group sprint in Wevelgem.
The Swiss rider flexed his muscles on the final climb of the Monteberg, powering up to the remnants of the early break in the company of Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale). Boonen kept a watching brief, however, and after his teammates helped to bring back Cancellara's group with a little over 20km to go, he showed the greatest nous in the finale to take his second consecutive victory in the race.
"I had something in mind to see how the legs are and to see if on this really special parcours today if everything could split up a bit," Cancellara said of his sortie as he emerged from the RadioShack-Nissan team bus to talk to reporters at the finish.
Cancellara had made a similar attempt to put the cat amongst the pigeons at E3 Prijs Harelbeke on Friday, but his rally was undone by a puncture and then a crash. Gent-Wevelgem's less selective finale meant that it was always going to be a big ask for Cancellara to make his latest move stick, and his main intention seemed to be to gauge his recovery ahead of the Tour of Flanders.
"I think for sure it's ok. I had good treatments, they took really good care of me," said Cancellara, who also praised the efforts of teammates Daniel Bennati and Tony Gallopin. "The team was more ready than in Harelbeke. Besides Daniele's puncture, we had a bit more luck and I think that's the way to build up to next week, for the big Christmas day."
Indeed, E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem are the opening acts of Belgian cycling's Holy Week, and in recent years, its most enduring passion play has been the Cancellara-Boonen rivalry. The Old Firm of the cobbled classics both look set to reach De Ronde in fine fettle, but Cancellara seemed happy to play the underdog given Boonen's 2-0 record in this weekend's races.
"That's what you say. I think that in the end it's clear who has the five stars," Cancellara smiled. "Whether you're 100% or 90%, the favourites are all the same, but from the big favourites, it's for sure Tom. Tom and the team will get everything on their shoulders, that's almost clear. But that's in the end a bike race and it's not only Tom, there are also others."
Cancellara famously broke Boonen and QuickStep's air of impregnability to win the Tour of Flanders in 2010 and assumed the mantle of lone favourite twelve months ago, when he had to settle for second place after blowing the race open on the Leberg. Boonen and the revamped Omega Pharma-QuickStep's startling run of early-season form has Flemish hearts hoping that 2012 proves to be the year that the empire strikes back.
"Yeah, yeah I know. I think the whole country has been looking back on 2010 and maybe also Tom, I don't know," Cancellara said. "In the end, I want to race this race with my team and we'll do the best that we can. The focus isn't only on Tom, although people will really be looking at him and [he will have] the pressure that normally I had last year."
While it may seem fated that Cancellara and Boonen will clash swords once again as the curtain rises on De Ronde's new finale of the Kwaremont and Paterberg, Cancellara warned that in a 260km race, all sorts of variables are at play, including luck.
"A lot of things can happen. I know by myself from Harelebeke what can happen," said Cancellara, who will spend the week in Switzerland before returning north.
"I'm not going home now praying, I'm going home to rest, enjoy my time with the family and build up to coming back on Friday for the Settimana Santa."