Fabian Cancellara may not be at his very best this spring but the powerful Swiss rider believes he is again ready to be in the thick of the action at Milan-San Remo and is prepared to do everything he can to stop Peter Sagan stealing his thunder as the king of the spring classics.
Cancellara is now 30 and admitted he is starting to feel his age after a decade of intense racing. He seems to feeling the heat from a new generation of talented young riders that are breathing down his neck.
"Right now I'm not bad. I've done my job, I've done my homework, I've done what I need to do," Cancellara said while talking to the media present in Italy as the days count down to Sunday's Milan-San Remo.
"Tirreno-Adriatico has been an important week of racing. I'm on the way but maybe I'm missing a result. But hey, winning isn't everything."
Sorting out Sagan
Cancellara has failed to land a win so far this season to assure himself and his team of his form and fire a warning salvo to his rivals. Instead he has to watch Peter Sagan dominate many of the races he has ridden.
Sagan is multi-talented and able to win from an attack or in a sprint, while Cancellara has always had to count on his brute force and speed to win big. He won Milan-San Remo with a solo attack inside the final two kilometres in 2008 but was beaten by Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) last year despite forming the decisive three-rider attack with the Australian and Vincenzo Nibali.
Cancellara knows he could find Sagan on his wheel going over the top of the Poggio this year and would have little chance of victory against the super-fast Slovakian. It is evident that Cancellara doesn't like Sagan, that there is far more friction than admiration between the two after last year's Tour de France: Cancellara clearly still hasn't forgiven Sagan for sitting on in the final kilometre of stage one to Seraing and then jumping away and making one of his entertaining victory celebrations.
He makes it clear that he will not repeat the same mistake, promising to 'break it down', to attack and split any group, if he is with Sagan in the finale of Milan-San Remo.
"I respect him as a rider, he's a young talent and it's good we've got some good talent riders. But as I said after the Tour de France, he's still got a few things to learn," Cancellara said with a carefully worded put down.
"I'll ride my race and he and the Cannondale team will ride their race. I have my ideas how I'm going to race Milan-San Remo but I'm going to keep them to myself. It all depends on how the race goes. He wasn't such a gentleman with me, so I'd probably break it down, I wouldn't pull if we got away. It all depends who is in the group but I don't think I'll take riders to the finish like I did last year. No."
Cancellara writes off the chances of pure sprinters such as Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-Merida) and Andre Greipel (Lotto Belisol) but warns of several dangerous experienced rivals.
It's not only about Sagan, there are riders from Paris-Nice, people like Chavanel and Gilbert, Pozzato was riding well at Tirreno-Adriatico, as was Hushovd.
Finding a middle way
Cancellara is now perhaps past his very best. 2012 was a difficult season and left a few scars. He was strong at Milan-San Remo, finishing second but then crashed out of the Tour of Flanders and missed Paris-Roubaix. He had another successful Tour de France, with victory in the prologue and a several days in the yellow jersey but he blew his chances of winning gold in the Olympics time trial after crashing in the road race, while chasing the decisive breakaway.
"Crashing on a stupid corner last year and losing a great chance of a gold medal was pretty big for me," he revealed.
"That's why I took my time off. I took two months off. It's a lot but I don't feel bad because I needed it; it did me good. I'm not a philosopher but now I see things differently. We don't know what will happen tomorrow and that's why I work hard and why for condition is good.
"Sometimes it's hard to stay dedicated but I think I've found a middle way that works. I'm 100% dedicated to classics but in other parts of the season, I'll also switch races to spend time with my kids, otherwise I'd already have hung up my bike. Life can finish fast, that's why I need to enjoy as well as focus on my racing.
"I'm 30. It's a lot. There are some very young riders in the peloton now and some very old ones like my teammate Chris Horner. He'll be 42 this year but I won't be racing at his age. When I'm 38 or something, I'll be sitting on my couch or helping a team, rather than putting on a number. I'm not counting my years now but you need to find your motivation to get to 100%. I've been at high level since 2006 and so you need to take a break and step back, even if it's a month or two months. We're not footballers. Cycling is a damn hard sport, you have to give it 100%, otherwise you get 'run over' by other guys and you'll achieve nothing."
Andy Schleck is only human
Cancellara's final thought during his meeting with media is for troubled teammate Andy Schleck. Cancellara is focused on the classics but is aware of Schleck's problems and is understanding.
"I saw him this week first time after a long time. I think he's on the way back but he's got to take it step by step," Cancellara suggested. "He didn't have an easy year last year, with the crash, being awarded the Tour de France and then with what happened with his brother. Andy's experienced but he's still young too.
"He needs his time to come back. I still believe in him, as does the team. He apologised after being dropped on the descent during the team time trial. I said: 'No worries, man. Think where you were a few months ago, a few weeks ago, and keep working.'
"Of course when you see Froome, Contador and Rodriguez performing well he feels sad that he can't be up there but I told him not to stress about it. I think he can up there in the Ardennes Classics because I know Andy's engine.
"When you need help, you have to ask for help and that's what he's done. That's why I think he will be back. I always tell young riders to be careful during their careers. You need time to understand what you achieved as a rider. You become famous but sometimes you just want to be left alone. Success changes your life. At the end of the day, we're only human. But that's sometimes difficult for people to understand."
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Stephen is the most experienced member of the Cyclingnews team, having reported on professional cycling since 1994. He has been Head of News at Cyclingnews since 2022, before which he held the position of European editor since 2012 and previously worked for Reuters, Shift Active Media, and CyclingWeekly, among other publications.