It’s easy to forget now, as he revels in his status as an adopted Flandrian, but when Fabian Cancellara entered the professional ranks in 2001, few would have envisaged that the Tour of Flanders would be where he would leave his most lasting legacy on the sport.
All the way up until his startling disposal of Tom Boonen on the Muur in 2010, in fact, Cancellara had never even come particularly close to winning the Tour of Flanders. 6th place in 2006 had been his best performance in the Ronde, and the consensus was that Cancellara was a skilled time triallist whose attributes transferred far better to the pavé of Paris-Roubaix than the Flemish Ardennes.
"It took many years," Cancellara conceded on Friday. "Maybe it was just too hard or maybe I didn't think too much to this race. Then suddenly after so many years, in 2010, I was just always up there. It was a late love, but a lasting one."
Winner of the junior time trial title at the World Championships in Valkenburg in 1998 and Verona in 1999, Cancellara picked up a bronze medal in the discipline at under-23 level in 2000, and when he signed on with Mapei at the end of that year, he was billed by some as the next Miguel Indurain, a Tour de France winner in waiting.
Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen riding side-by-side in 2010.
The rocky road from Roubaix
In winning Paris-Roubaix, Cancellara continued the longstanding tradition of strong time triallists shining at the Queen of the Classics, following in the line of men like Fausto Coppi, Francesco Moser and Bernard Hinault, but even then, there was no certainty that he would make the leap to competing for the win across the border at the Tour of Flanders.
Fabian Cancellara makes the race winning move in 2013.
The long farewell
Cancellara lines out for his final Tour of Flanders, though throughout the build-up to the Ronde, he has been eager to downplay the valedictory feel to his last season in the professional peloton. As Boonen so incisively put it during Etixx-QuickStep's pre-race press conference on Friday afternoon, "I think there's a time for everything but the time for saying goodbye is not at the Classics."
Fabian Cancellara's Tour of Flanders record:
2003: 73rd, 10:06 behind Peter Van Petegem
2004: 41st, 2:10 behind Steffen Wesemann
2005: 62nd, 10:21 behind Tom Boonen
2006: 6th, 1:17 behind Tom Boonen
2007: 53rd, 1:32 behind Alessandro Ballan
2008: 23rd, 21 seconds behind Stijn Devolder
2010: Winner, 1:15 ahead of Tom Boonen
2011: 3rd, same time as Nick Nuyens
2013: Winner, 1:27 ahead of Peter Sagan
2014: Winner, same time as Greg Van Avermaet