Fabian Cancellara’s fearsome reputation is destroying his chances of winning road races.
His rivals are so concerned by his ability to blow races apart that he is now followed everywhere he goes, like a man with six shadows.
This is not unusual, of course. Dangerous riders have always been always watched closely.
There’s no way in hell you would let a man with an engine like Cancellara’s just waltz off the front of a group – the next time you see him will be looking up at the top step of the podium.
But Cancellara gets marked by the best, instead of rival domestiques. And if he does get away, he receives no help from breakaway companions. And everybody chases him furiously.
The problem for Cancellara is he doesn’t have the pure speed of some of his rivals, like Peter Sagan or Tom Boonen. He can’t sit and wait, then pounce at the finish. He needs to break his opponents before the last kilometre.
And don’t they know it.
Think back to Milan-San Remo last season, where Simon Gerrans followed Cancellara’s wheel over the Poggio, down the other side, and all the way to the sprint finish where he promptly pinched the win.
Watching Saturday’s Strade Bianche, I saw it all happening again. This time it was Peter Sagan seemingly D-locked to Cancellara’s rear triangle.
Despite launching several searing accelerations, the Swiss engine couldn’t shake the young Slovak, who eventually smashed him in the sprint to claim second place behind Cannondale teammate Moreno Moser.
Sagan played a tactically perfect hand: he was never going to attack his teammate, who was putting in the best ride of his young career to chase down the four-man breakaway and attack on the final climb in Siena.
But despite Cancellara looking strong, Sagan had him well covered.
Cancellara hasn’t won a major road race since the Tour of Flanders in 2010.
Okay, I’m being a little harsh: he did win E3 Harelbeke in 2010 and 2011, the Swiss national road title in 2011, and the 2012 Strade Bianche.
And he was unlucky to crash in the 2012 Tour of Flanders, which wrecked the rest of his classics season, just when an epic showdown with Boonen was on the cards for Roubaix.
But the fact remains that in the major classics, Cancellara has got into a bad habit of standing on the podium’s lower steps.
For most riders, a string of podiums at major classics would be a great result. But Cancellara is the pre-eminent time trialist of his generation, a man who has won Paris-Roubaix twice and the Milan-San Remo and Tour of Flanders once each.
Spartacus’ legion of fans expect him to win races, not suffer heroic defeats like his namesake.
So why is he struggling to win? Well, I think Cancellara has one glaring weakness: predictability.
Boonen and Sagan know they can outspent him. So do Boasson Hagen, Gerrans, and Hushovd. Chavanel, Ballan, Van Avermaet, Moser, Nibali, Evans, and all the others know when he’ll attack, and can work together or with their teams to close him down.
Better to fight each other than let the big man get away.
On the right roads, Cancellara can defeat any one of his rivals in a straight-up duel. Probably two or three at a time. But he very rarely gets the chance. He’s tag-teamed ten-to-one. It’s not a fair fight.
Not that he ever complains, but it’s hard to imagine he goes home after another narrow defeat and says, “Well, at least they’re scared enough of me to single me out for special treatment.”
It must be infuriating.
So can Cancellara win a major classic in 2013?
At the very least his form looks to be approaching the levels he had this time last year. And that’s more than you can say for his great rival, Boonen. But the emergence of Peter Sagan as a major threat complicates things.
Sagan seems to grow in confidence with every race. He handled the gravel of Strade Bianche with panache. Whether he can attack the pave of Belgium and Northern France with the same style remains to be seen.
In 2012 he was fourth at Milan-San Remo, second at Gent-Wevelgem, fifth in Flanders and third in the Amstel Gold Race. Barring crashes or injury, he will be better this year.
Several teams also seem to have a better classics roster than Cancellara’s Radioshack squad. OPQS, Cannondale, and BMC, for a start.
Cancellara is vulnerable if he can be isolated during races. The one-two punch was demonstrated perfectly by Cannondale on Saturday, and without support this tactic will continue to work.
So do I think Cancellara can win a classic this season? Yes, a rider of his quality can never be written off, but his reputation has seriously dented his chances.
Such is the lot of a champion.