Cancellara’s massive Flanders win has put him back in a familiar situation: Too good for his own good.
After his 2010 performance at Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, Cancellara became the most marked Classics rider in the past two years. Milan-San Remo, Strade Bianche and Flanders in 2011 and 2012 were notable for the most part for the intensity with which other riders, even whole teams, clung to the Swiss powerhouse’s wheel. The 2011 Paris-Roubaix in particular was quite literally Cancellara against every other favorite, including a Garmin-Sharp team that lumped four riders onto Cancellara’s wheel, with eventual winner Johan Van Summeran up the road.
BMC and Garmin both adopted a very simple strategy, quickly adopted by the entire professional peloton; put as many riders up the road as possible, and park your favorites on Spartacus’ wheel. The tactic drew the famous remark from Cancellara, “If I would have stopped for a coffee, the other riders would have stopped, too”. Thor Hushovd led the way in not leading, refusing to pull through at all once Cancellara had pulled the favorites out of the peloton.
Last year, the tactic continued into Milan-San Remo, with Nibali and Gerrans doing nothing to help Cancellara as the trio went down the Poggio. After Cancellara crashed out in Flanders and missed P-R, it became the Year of the Boonen. Riders recalled the tactic against Cancellara, however, once he returned at the Tour, with Sagan sitting on Cancellara’s wheel on an early hilltop finish, eventually scuttling around for the win.
In 2013, Cancellara has showed a bit more tactical nous, playing his cards a little closer to the chest at Strade Bianche, Milan-San Remo and E3. His moves have been decisive, splitting and devastating; when he’s gone, only one or two riders can tag along, rather than five or even a dozen in 2011. Cancellara’s attacks have come later in the race, which may be why they have been so much more effective. Tired legs don’t accelerate well, and those that do can’t hold pace with Cancellara in time trial mode.
For the Paris-Roubaix, however, there are a number of teams that have the numbers to put Cancellara under pressure early and force his team to the front from a distance. BMC’s Daniel Oss will almost certainly be up the road from the gun, giving Greg Vanavermaet, Thor Hushovd and Taylor Phinney an armchair ride. SKY has yet to get it all right on the cobbles this year, despite their full, focused attention. This Sunday’s race suits them better than the previos races, and with the likes of Matthew Hayman, Ian Stannard, Geraint Thomas and Edvald Boasson-Hagen in the line-up, they have the multiple cards to play that should prove a big task for Cancellara.
Even with Tom Boonen banged up and questionable to start, OmegaPharma-QuickStep should be the most dangerous team. With Vandenbergh, Chavanel, Terpstra, Steegmans, Kwiatkowski, Devenyns and De Wert all expected to start, they have a lot of firepower and riders capable of driving along a breakaway from distance. Chavanel will have to recover from his drubbing at Flanders, though Paris-Roubaix suits him better and levels the playing field with the likes of punchier riders like Thomas Voeckler, Luca Paolini, Philipe Gilbert and Oscar Gatto.
A rider not on the tongues of race predictors is Fillipo Pozzato. The Italian for Lampre didn’t figure in the finale of Flanders, and was ridiculed for playing no part in the race. He has been very quietly on the fringes this season, suffering only near the end of Milan-San Remo, where the cold took him out of contention. He suffered a mechanical in the final 20km at Flanders, and would have been in the big chase group looking for a top ten. If his stretch of bad luck is over, he could be the sort of rider to stick with Cancellara, and perhaps even surprise with a move of his own.
With no Boonen and no Peter Sagan, Cancellara doesn’t seem to have a co-favorite, and that will cost him. He’ll receive the full attention of five or six teams, and get zero contribution whenever he decides to attack. That said, he’s still the pick of the weekend, and take his second Flanders-Roubaix double in just three years.