Fabian Cancellara was isolated when he needed to be surrounded and he had company when wanted to be alone at Paris-Roubaix. Yet even though his race didn’t follow the script verbatim, it still had the expected ending, as Cancellara claimed a third victory to follow those of 2006 and 2010.
With 50 kilometres to go, Cancellara’s RadioShack Leopard teammates had all been dropped from the main peloton and he was forced to take matters in hand himself to stay in contention across the cobbles. But when he entered the famous old velodrome in Roubaix at the finish, Cancellara still had Sep Vanmarcke (Blanco Pro Cycling) to contend with in the sprint.
Cancellara’s previous in such situations was not encouraging. He twice lost the race in sprints on the track, in 2004 and 2008, and those traumas must surely have been on his mind when he slowed almost to a standstill on the banking and manoeuvred Vanmarcke to the front.
“I tried to play the game on the track, the last thing I wanted to do was lose in a moment like that,” Cancellara said. “We did it like a track stand. The only moment I was a bit scared was when it went slow on the banking, but I tried just to do it. I had the full cramps all over and then I just pedalled as hard as I could.”
It was Vanmarcke who led out of the final bend and Cancellara did not overhaul him until the last 50 metres, after summoning up a desperate lunge to nip past him beneath the grandstand. “I was probably just happy that the race was finished and that the fight was finished,” Cancellara said. “I could just sit on the grass and breathe and come back to planet Earth. This last hour was just pure fighting and I damaged myself like never before.”
Beyond the limit
As Cancellara talked reporters through the finale in the press room afterwards, he sat slumped in his chair with his chin resting on his knee, even closing his eyes while his responses were translated from English to French. “I went over my limits like never before to cross the line first today,” he said of a final hour of racing ebbed and flowed as riders searched for different ways to counter the expected Cancellara tide.
With little more than 30km to race and just six sectors of cobbles to go, Cancellara found himself 20 seconds down on a determined eight-man group and it seemed as if the tactical gridlock that denied him in 2011 was about to repeat itself.
It appears that Cancellara draws from a deeper reservoir of brute force than most, however, and he somehow managed to extricate himself from the potential check-mate and sally back up to the leaders with startling ease.
“I know that somehow I was isolated quite early but things don’t always go as plan. I don’t know if I went on the offensive too early or not, but I just had to pick moments where I could go after them,” said Cancellara.
When Cancellara whittled down the lead group on sectors six and five, he looked set to land the telling blow at the Carrefour de l’Arbe, but while Omega Pharma-QuickStep duo Zdenek Stybar and Stijn Vandenbergh literally fell by the wayside, Vanmarcke put up stout resistance.
“My problem was that I felt I was going backwards on the cobblestones. I felt stronger on the normal roads and I had in mind to make the difference there,” said Cancellara, who was wary of his young breakaway companion over the final stretches of pavé. Ahead of the penultimate sector, the two exchanged words, with Cancellara shaking his head cagily.
“We didn’t speak much and in the end I tried to play the game as anyone would do it,” Cancellara explained. “I tried to make him pull as well to show him that I wouldn’t just bring him to the finish line. He told me before the second last sector that he would pull after that, but I said no way. I didn’t want to pull because you don’t know how other riders are.”
In the end, Cancellara proved the stronger – just – and completed the second Tour of Flanders/Paris-Roubaix double of his career, matching Tom Boonen, who achieved the feat last year. However, Cancellara was reluctant to compare his achievements over the past decade with those of his absent rival. “Personally, I don’t like to say he’s stronger or I’m stronger. I just think that we’re the greatest riders of the last few years in these races."