Caught up in a crash with 40 kilometres to go, just before the race’s most crucial juncture, the Paterberg, Cancellara was typically generous in his pursuit of the leaders in the finale, but ultimately had to settle for 9th place, 1:19 down on winner Peter Sagan (Cannondale).
Cancellara had every reason to feel exasperated by his afternoon’s work, and the group of journalists gathered waiting for him could hardly have blamed him had he disappeared into the swirling traffic on the Kortrijk ring road rather than face any questions.
Within minutes, however, Cancellara had returned and wheeled to a halt outside the Trek bus. After clambering aboard to clean up and change his jersey, the Swiss rider had a smile and a high five for a young fan when he re-emerged, and a measured view of his race for the assembled microphones and notepads.
"I had not my luck, that’s all I can say," Cancellara said. "In a moment where a crash happened I was in the middle, and it was a while until the back wheel was changed and I could continue. It was the most important point to be in front because when you go towards the Paterberg and Kwaremont, you know 100 percent that there will be the big explosion. I did just what I had to do: I continued the race and didn’t give up."
Cancellara started the Paterberg in the fourth group on the road but as he cruised up its slopes and went past rider after rider, it briefly appeared as though he was about to reprise his performance in winning this race three years ago, when he recovered from a bike change on the Stationberg to burn the entire field off his wheel.
By the Oude Kwaremont, Cancellara had bridged up to a group that included teammate Stijn Devolder, and by the 30km to go mark, he had worked his way back up to Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-QuickStep). 23 kilometres from home, he had pegged his deficit on the leaders back to within 20 seconds, but this time, there would be no dramatic fight back, and instead he reached Harelbeke as part of a 15-man chasing group.
"I think in the end I can still be happy with how I arrived. I got great help from the team all the day and Stijn did great work in the end," Cancellara said. "I tried a few times myself too but it’s OK like this. The world goes not under."
It seems anathema that a rider as experienced as Cancellera was as far back in the main group ahead of the Paterberg when the crash took place, but he explained that he had dropped back to the team car just beforehand in order to discuss the lie of the land tactically given that it was not one of his better days physically.
"I probably didn’t have the legs that I should have, so I went back to the car to get a few words more, not just over the radio," he said. "But from that point on, I was again on, and I felt better than before. It was a good key moment and I was not so badly placed in my opinion.
"But crashes can happen in the front and crashes can happen in the back. It was the worst moment to be kind of on the ground, change the back wheel and then try to move up again. I don’t know how many riders I had to pass."
The success or failure of Cancellara’s spring will not be decided by his showing on Friday, of course. Like many at Harelbeke, his mind is already fixed on the culmination of Belgian cycling’s 'Holy Week', and he was glad of the opportunity to test the waters ahead of the Tour of Flanders.
"It was an interesting day to see how things were going in the race with other riders and other teams, and I think this is probably more important than just how I arrived with the result today," he said. "We saw a strong Peter [Sagan] and a strong Quickstep that did not get the win, I don’t know why. I had Tom [Boonen] and [Zdenek] Stybar on the back that in my opinion was strong, but that’s how racing is."
The reigning Ronde champion was coy, however, when asked what lessons he might apply to his title defence in eight days’ time. "Things that I’m not going to tell you," Cancellara smiled. "I saw many, many things today that were for me maybe more necessary than winning.
"We did San Remo [where Cancellara finished second] but that’s a strange race and you don’t really find out who is strong and which team can do this or do that. Today we saw more things and that was important to see and to feel."
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