After Saturday’s time trial in Utrecht during the opening stage of the 2015 Tour de France there was much disappointment in the story from Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing). He missed out on the victory in a year that had been miserable so far. He also missed out on another stint in the yellow jersey which he already carried for 28 days in the past.
On Sunday, things turned around unexpectedly for Spartacus in a stage that was characterized by stormy weather, causing echelons and crashes: the biotope of Fabian Cancellara. The 34-year-old Swiss rider survived all the scrimmages and sprinted along for the victory in the Zelande province. On the small working island Neeltje Jans that is part of the massive flood protecting Delta works, Cancellara managed to sneak just past Mark Cavendish (Etixx-QuickStep) and finish in third place. He earned four bonus seconds that lifted him him over Cavendish's teammate Tony Martin into the lead of the Tour de France.
At the post-race press conference the talkative Swiss rider replied to each question with an answer in "Fabianese" that often spanned several minutes. Below is a brief summary. He started with the obvious. “This comes as a surprise to me,” Cancellara said. “I woke up quite early and didn’t have much in my mind after the disappointment from yesterday. I looked outside and saw that the weather was nice. When heading to the start it turned out that it would be hectic, chaos, almost like a one-day race. That’s what we talked about at the team meeting. From beautiful weather we went into a situation I didn’t expect to be.”
Cancellara described how the breakaway was formed. The move put him into a situation where race leader Rohan Dennis (BMC) was no longer featuring in front, thus offering a chance to take over the yellow jersey.
“We went into a small city [Hellevoetsluis]. There were a couple of roundabouts. Suddenly the group gets split up and I don’t even know if it was because of a crash or because they didn’t go full gas through this town. I was there and thought, 'Wow, just a few guys left.' I saw Tony, I saw Dumoulin. Let’s see what would happen in the end,” Cancellara said, adding that he felt the effort from the time trial after every roundabout in the final 25 kilometres, receiving much support from the team car.
When approaching the finish line in Neeltje Jans, it was obvious that Cancellara had to come up with something to take back time on Tony Martin, who was one second ahead of him in the general classification. Cancellara hoped the large group would split at the finish. There was a gap but those four seconds were found behind eighth-placed Martin. Bonus seconds for the top three proved to be the key. Cancellara moved along with top sprinters Mark Cavendish, Peter Sagan and eventual winner André Greipel. When Cavendish realized he wouldn’t win he sat up, offering Cancellara the chance to take third place and the four bonus seconds.
“I just stayed on the wheel from one of the three sprinters. There was Greipel, Cav and Peter. I went all in. When I look back I might be more ahead but in the end I’m happy that I’ve got this jersey. I was surprised in the end when the soigneur and press officer told me I had the jersey. I wanted to see it on the screen, in real. When I saw it I was really happy.”
Cancellara has spent more days in the Tour's yellow jersey than any other other rider who hasn't won the overall. On Monday he will be riding out of Antwerp, Belgium while carrying the maillot jaune for the 29th day. Back in 2004 he moved into the yellow jersey for the first time in Liège, also in Belgium.
“Having this jersey for 29 days means a lot. After 11 years, getting back in this jersey is quite special. I said before the Tour that it would be my last but I didn’t want to look back on it one day without having reached something. ... I hope this will be a boost for the whole team. We lost a few seconds with Bauke [Mollema], but yesterday he did an amazing time trial which surprised me. One day you lose, one day you win. I hope this will be a boost for everybody, also the guys at home who prepared for this part of the season with us. Now the team is back and that’s nice.”
Cancellara was asked about the motivational message he posted in a tweet. He explained that it was because one moment he was highly motivated for Saturday’s time-trial and the next moment down-hearted because he didn’t win. Cancellara read the message while receiving a massage, finding the time to think and going through it over and over again.
“Then you lost it and the world was going down. Saying this is my last Tour is not a problem. ... This message learned me that I didn’t have to prove anything anymore. ... I sent back to Josu Larrazabal, our trainer on the team: ‘thanks a lot, it means a lot to me.’ It was one of the best text messages since months. ... This was maybe also the key that would open the door for me. I’m back in yellow and that’s really big for me.”
Defending the maillot jaune will be something different. The stage through Belgium, from Antwerp to Huy, finishes on top of the Mur de Huy, which is a steep climb for the punchers which also features in the final of the Ardennes classic Flèche Wallonne. Cancellara will have to try and keep up with men like Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who won already three times in Huy.
“The bad thing is that I never did the Mur de Huy. Tomorrow will be a première. In the end I don’t look at it as Flèche Wallonne but as Tour de France. That’s good enough. I know what I have to do. You have to ride at the front to be out of the chaos. Today was the same. In my head tomorrow was about losing not too much time and maybe take something back on the cobbles. Tomorrow will be a new chapter in my career to ride up the Mur de Huy.”