The seven-time Monument winner fell in the early stages of Friday’s race and later abandoned. A trip to the local hospital later revealed that the rider had suffered two minor fractures in the transverse processes of his lower vertebrae and a recovery period of weeks rather than days would force him out of the Classics.
Twenty-four hours later, Cancellara sat down with a small press corp to discuss his fall and his immediate plans. The 34-year-old was still in obvious pain and would not talk about possible comeback dates, instead choosing to draw on the glimmer of positives resulting from an ultimately and disappointing situation.
“It could be worse and I could be still in hospital or having an operation. Or worse case scenario it could have ended my career and I have to take the positives out of this. I have to see the positives,” he said.
Cancellara saw his 2012 Classics campaign go up in smoke after he crashed out of the Tour of Flanders with a broken collarbone. He crashed out of the London Olympic road race later that year but came back from both setbacks to have a stellar 2013 season, winning the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. He went on to win the Tour of Flanders last year and came into this campaign as a front-runner for a title defence and Paris-Roubaix.
“In 2012 the world really came down around me. Yesterday wasn’t easy but today is strange. It’s a strange feeling because I go home now. There’s no fix and I just have to wait a few weeks to heal. There’s not much I can do.
“You can lose in one second everything you’ve prepared. When I look back I’ve had back luck in E3 in the past but it’s always given me that bit of extra to Flanders but now there’s no Flanders for me. I had big plans with the team but it is what it is,” he added.
At the start of the season, Cancellara had given his long and successful career a further two-year shelf life with firm plans to retire at the end of the 2016 season when his current deal with Trek expires. There is little chance of those blueprints being torn up and extended, meaning that Cancellara will aim to return next year and roll the dice one more time over the unforgiving cobbles of Flanders and Roubaix. For a rider who has dominated the scene for the better part of a decade, it provides a long and almost uncomfortable wait before he can close out his Classics career.
“It’s too early to talk about next year or next races. In situations like this you learn a lot, like I did in the Classics in 2012 and my crash in the Olympics that year. I came strong out of that but first you have to get over it. Winning Flanders would have meant a lot for me, the team, for history.
“I’m getting older, that we know, but in the end, I know how to do deal with a few things. Maybe I’ll recover in a better way than I did with my collarbone break in 2012. This is different but mentally maybe I’m more ready. I won't give up because of a crash. We live with crashes and we can’t avoid that.”
However, the fallout and long term repercussions from yesterday’s race has started to truly settle, and while Geraint Thomas was a worthy winner of E3 Harelbeke there is little doubt that Flanders and Roubaix have lost some of their flair with both Cancellara and Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep) on the side lines.
Stijn Devolder is the only Tour of Flanders winner left in the field, while Johan Vansummeren and Niki Terpstra are the only Paris-Roubaix victors remaining. In all likelihood, a new rider will raise his arms in victory in Oudenaarde at the end of the Tour of Flanders, and while a new chapter will be turned, the longstanding rivalry and subplots that Cancellara and Boonen have always provided will return next year.
“Next year is next year. I saw on this weekend that Devolder is the only rider who has won Flanders. It makes it a new race and for cycling it’s something different. First with Tom Boonen not there and now me. It’s a new generation because a new winner will be found,” Cancellara said.
“Of course I’d be the happiest if Stijn wins but when we see how the race goes it’s going to be hard for him. On the other hand, I’m curious to see a new winner. Before it was a race about Boonen and Cancellara, and then it was Cancellara versus the rest and now it’s the rest against the rest. Of course we have new talents but today I saw the newspapers with a little square of the winner’s photos and then three pages for me. When I see this I think what an impact.”
At Flanders and Roubaix new riders will make new impacts and in 12 months time the two riders who have carved up Flanders and Roubaix between them will return, providing one last battle and one final chance to remind today’s new generation of what being a Classics icon is all about.