Fabian Cancellara goes into this week's Flanders as a favorite, a status he's earned over the past two years by nearly winning every Spring Classic--a step down from where he had been in 2010, winning nearly every Spring Classic. He was on the podium in all three of last year's monuments, and this year he slotted nicely into his also-ran position at San Remo. He's clearly been the strongest rider in all of these races, each defeat further (and further) proof that the strongest riders don't win bike races.
This does not mean, as many are arguing, that Fabian isn't a savvy bike rider. Here's a guy with 74 career wins. He doesn't get those wins (excluding his time trial wins) without a bit of smarts. It might be helpful to keep in mind that Fabian is the only TT specialist among the top road races. Tony Martin? Bert Grabsch? Michael Rogers? Gustav Larsen? Not a single classic or semi-classic between them.
That's because being awesome at TTs has very little to do with winning road races.
Milan San Remo 2008
Let's start with Fabian before he was Fabian, when he was merely a world TT champ, Roubaix winner, and wearer of the yellow jersey. A great and feared cyclist, but not Fabian.
In 2008, Cancellara had won plenty of time trials, but his wins at Paris-Roubaix (2006), Stage 3 of the 2007 Tour de France established him as a clever rider, able to use his power to win stages.
In the leadup to the 2008 Milan San Remo, Cancellara had won the overall at Tirreno Adriatico. Clearly, he was a marked man.
World Champion Paolo Bettini attacked on the climb (as Cancellara did this year) and created just enough pressure to eliminate or hurt pure sprinters. When the pack finally catches Bettini's group (2:18), a Euskatel rider puts in an attack. Fabian follows and Pozzoto is, belatedly, the only rider to attempt to catch his wheel. The "goodby, Fabu" moment is at 3:06.
This would never happen today. Fabian is exactly what Joe Dombrowski is when he races locally--the wheel that must be marked at all times.
Fabian myth #1: His lack of wins since 2010 is the result of increasingly poor tactical choices.
Fabian realty: He hasn't won a classic since 2010 because he's become the most marked man in the peleton.
Let's take a look at Fabian in his prime, in the year he won Flanders and Roubaix, 2010, to dispell another myth about him: that he can only win when he's not in a group with Boonen or another sprinter.
Cancellara, Juan Flecha, and Tom Boonen gain separation from the field with 20k to go. The three trade pulls until 2k to go. You can watch the rotation if you like; Cancellara does most of the work, but Flecha and Boonen manage to pull through. Advantage Boonen, right? It comes to a sprint, and Boonen wins, right?
About 6:42 in the video, instead of rotating through on Boonen's wheel, notice how Flecha pulls to the left, behind Cancellara. Skipping a pull--either a sign Flehca's hurting or a tactical maneuver to claim the last wheel in the break. The trio have 30 seconds on the Rabo-led chase, and at 2k to go, are in no danger of being caught unless they touch the brakes.
Cancellara doesn't take the bait, and Boonen looks back, as if to say, "we'll wait for you." Flecha obliges by coming to the front, in between Cancellara and Boonen.
At that moment, Cancellara attacks.
It's a good time to attack, not only because Flecha--the weaker of his two chasers--is on the front, but because there's a confusing corner shortly ahead. Flecha and Boonen nearly collide trying to navigate the turn, and at that point, Fabian has a 10-meter gap.
Surprisingly, that gap proves too large for Boonen, one of the world's fastest men over a short distance, to close down.
In fact, Boonen nearly closes it down, but when he asks for Flecha to come around and close the remaining distance, Flecha is useless. Goodby, Fabu.
Fabian myth #2: Cancellara can't win from a group.
Fabian realty: Boonen almost always wins from a small group sprint; but Cancellara can also win from a small group.
2012 Milan San Remo
Cancellara has been particularly criticized for his tactics in this race. The claim: he should have forced his break-companions to share the work.
Notice that Cancellara waited to make his attack until two heavy hitters--Nibali and Gerrans--attacked (1:15). Only then did he launch. The Poggio is a very slight climb, so grabbing a wheel is a significant boost--Simon Gerrans power file indicates that just staying on Fabian's wheel over the poggio required 1,188 watts.
Over the top the trio had 12 seconds on the chasers. For 6.3 kilometers, mostly downhill, Cancellara received only 10 seconds of help from Gerrans. Nibala offered no help. Just to stay on Cancellara's wheel, Gerrans averaged 400w (after over 200 miles of racing!) for the last 2k. And to take the sprint by a wheel from Cancellara, Gerrans had to top 1,300w (at 150 lbs.).
What could Cancellara had done differently?
(1) Demand help from Gerrans and Nibali. If he had done this, he would almost certainly been caught.
(2) Attack earlier and harder with the aim of going solo over the Poggio. This would have meant Greenedge (whose sprinter, Matt Goss, was still in the groupetto) and Liquigas (their man, Sagan, was also in the groupetto) would have contributed to the chase.
Fabian myth #2: The strongest rider can always win.
Fabian realty: I can't think of any choices Cancellara could have made that would have led to his winning. Sometimes, a win simply isn't an option, even if you are the strongest rider. That's bike racing.
The better you get at bike racing, the harder winning becomes. The peleton recognizes threats and works to nullify them. Cancellara's success has made it that much harder for him to win. Criticism of his tactical choices ignores the limited tactical choices he has.
Having said all this, I think Fabian's the best bet for Flanders. The new course layout with its added climbs should favor the strongest rider. On the other hand, Quickstep has at least two riders in Chavanel and Boonen capable of winning.
Other possibilities: Sagan, Westra, and Matti Breschel.
Two more questions:
(1) Whatever happened to Thor Hushovd?
(2) Will Hincapie be BMC's best-placed rider?