By the time Fabian Cancellara had showered and changed aboard the Trek-Segafredo team bus after Gent-Wevelgem, 15 minutes of heavy post-race rain had abated and the leaden skies above West Flanders were briefly brightened by a rainbow.
Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) had already answered that particular bat signal ahead of time, winning his first race in the rainbow jersey of world champion following a tense four-man sprint on Menenstraat. Cancellara, fourth across the line in a blanket finish, was not quite ready to take solace from a silver lining when he spoke to reporters.
“I’m definitely not happy with my fourth place. On the end, I didn’t have the legs or the power left to do the sprint that normally I’m used to doing,” said Cancellara, now wrapped in a red puffa jacket. “On the end, it is how it is. For sure, to arrive with four [riders] and then to take fourth is not funny and not nice, but that’s bike racing. I mean, you can do nothing.
“I think on the end, I want to close the day, go home. Maybe I’ll see things a bit differently tomorrow. But the first impression is not the happiest. I mean, for sure it’s happy Easter day but it’s not happy Gent-Wevelgem day.”
Trek-Segafredo directeur sportif Dirk Demol later intimated that Cancellara had been suffering from cramps in the closing kilometres as he powered the winning move towards the finish in Wevelgem. The Swiss rider found himself manoeuvred onto the front in the final kilometre, and found no takers when he feigned opening his sprint from distance. He would have to settle for fourth behind Sagan, Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) and the surprising Viacheslav Kuznetsov (Katusha).
“But I’m happy in the end that I was always there at the front at the most important moments and the team was there,” Cancellara said. “I’m coming away without crashing here. With Gent-Wevelgem, I maybe have not the best love, because I’ve done it already many times but I never really came to the race with the determination of ‘I want to win.’”
A decade has passed since Cancellara was last this competitive in Gent-Wevelgem, a race that in recent seasons has served him primarily as a final tune-up for the Tour of Flanders. He placed sixth in the bunch sprint in 2006, while the previous year, he was fourth on a day remembered for the controversial part the race motorbikes played in his Fassa Bortolo teammate Juan Antonio Flecha’s defeat to Nico Mattan.
In this, his last season in the professional peloton, Cancellara seemed keen to sign off with a flourish, and, as has so often been the case, his sense of theatre was impeccable. On the final ascent of the Kemmelberg, the race’s emotional heart, Cancellara launched a fierce, seated acceleration that only Sagan could immediately follow.
Others, including eternal rival Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep) were left irremediably floundering on that sea of cobbles, though Vanmarcke managed to haul himself back on just over the top. They would reel in Kuznetsov, an earlier attacker, soon afterwards.
“For me it was important because I knew it was going to be tailwind so I had in mind to make a selection on the Kemmelberg and then to see how it goes,” Cancellara said. “I think the only mistake I made was just maybe that I was pulling too much, just a few seconds more [than the others].”
Over the top of the Kemmelberg, there were still some 34 kilometres to Wevelgem, but although Etixx-QuickStep had four riders in the chasing group behind, they could make precious little inroads into an advantage that at one point yawned out to 45 seconds. Crosswinds had dominated the pre-race discussions and forced an early split before the midway point, but in the final reckoning, the selection was formed by the strongest men rather than by the elements.
“Regarding Etixx, I don’t give any comment. I think they have enough critics, I guess, the way they’re racing,” Cancellara said. “When the first split came quite early, I looked on the SRM system, and I thought ‘whoah, there’s still a long way to go.’
“There I wasn’t feeling well because I still didn’t have the legs I wanted to have, but I had more support from the team towards the important points, and I was getting some motivation and better confidence.”
Reading the runes from E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem – not to mention the four victories already to his name this season – Cancellara will, despite his protestations, surely line up at next Sunday’s Tour of Flanders as the principal favourite. He has after all, won three of the past four editions that he has finished.
A mechanical problem hindered Cancellara at Harelbeke on Friday, but he impressed by making up two minutes on the leaders as he chased back on. The run-in to Wevelgem on Sunday, meanwhile, is flatter than the finale of the Ronde. In keeping with Jacques Brel’s conception of the Plat Pays along the Franco-Belgian border, the only hills here were the spires and towers of Ypres.
“There are a lot of favourites. Gent-Wevelgem is not Flanders and Harelbeke is not Flanders. They are completely different races. It’s 35k or even more from the last difficulties here until the finish. In Flanders it’s totally different,” Cancellara said. “But for me it was important. The shape was already good but I needed intense one-day races but I’m happy with that.”
On Sunday evening, Cancellara was due to travel home to Switzerland, where he will spend the week before returning to Belgium on Thursday ahead of the Tour of Flanders. “I’m coming back up for one of the most important days of the year,” he said, and then added: “In cycling.”
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