Once again in 2011, Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland) was a protagonist at the business end of a major race, and once again he came away empty handed, in spite of a powerful effort in the finishing sprint in the UCI World Championships road race in Copenhagen on Sunday.
Cancellara was edged into fourth in the final dash to the line, as Mark Cavendish (Great Britain) roared into the rainbow jersey with in devastating fashion. Speaking to Cyclingnews as he sat in the Swiss pits after the race, Cancellara explained that the manner in which the British team controlled the race meant that he had little option but to play his hand in the sprint.
"It was impossible to get away," Cancellara told Cyclingnews. "Today Great Britain did something like the Italian team did for Cipollini [in Zolder in 2002 - ed.]"
In spite of that, however, Cavendish had to pick his way through the bodies in the final kilometre to hit the front, and Cancellara acknowledged that the Manxman's guile was a key factor in his victory.
"I saw before the last bend that Cavendish was not on the wheel of the leading riders but he has the experience to do sprints like that, because he knew how to come quickly from behind with the wind that there was," he said. "I did the best I could, seeing as I'm not a sprinter. Even though the sprint was uphill, it didn't change things: the fastest sprinter in the world won."
Cancellara had to wait for the judges to review the finish to learn if he or André Greipel (Germany) had taken the third step on the podium, after the pair hit the line almost instantaneously. In spite of missing out on a medal, he admitted that he was pleased with his performance given the less than demanding nature of the circuit.
"I can happy from one point of view and unhappy from another. Still, in the end, when I see that the top three was Cavendish, Goss and Greipel, and then I was next, then as a non-sprinter I can still be quite happy."
While the breathless finish to the Copenhagen Worlds will live in the memory, the final laps were something of a stalemate, as the bulk of the puncheurs opted to keep their powder dry and try their luck against the pure sprinters. Cancellara entered the race with the knowledge that if things played out according to the script, it would be futile to attempt to break clear before the finale.
"My intention beforehand was to see how the race unfolded, because a lot of things could have happened, like that big fall that took out a lot of riders," he said. "But in the end it was impossible, the circuit was too easy and too fast.
"I saw I started to feel very good after 160km today. For that reason, I started to feel stronger and stronger in my mind, because I knew I had to do something big today, but unfortunately not the podium."
Approaching the end of a season in which he has picked up a frustratingly high series of not quite top placings in the biggest events, Cancellara was philosophical about the difference between this year and his dominant 2010.
"Luck plays a part, but it's never easy to win either, and maybe there were people who stronger. That's how things go," Cancellara said. "Even today, maybe I didn't have the luck that I needed to finish on the podium, when you consider I missed out by a centimetre, but at the same time, I did the best I could from a long way out in that sprint."
2012 provides a number of opportunities for redemption, of course, not least on Cavendish's home turf at the Olympic Games, and Cancellara is warming to the task after his performance on the Copenhagen circuit. "London will be different - London will be after the Tour, and it's a circuit with a climb."
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