There was an intriguing moment five kilometres from the end of the 98th Tour of Flanders, when Fabian Cancellara ostentatiously held an energy gel between his teeth in front of his three fellow escapees before sucking down its sickly sweet contents.
With the pick-me-up qualities of the sticky goo unlikely to kick in for another half an hour, just what was Cancellara thinking?
Could it have been bluff, forcing his Belgian rivals to second-guess his condition? To cause confusion among the leading group, one of whom was guaranteed to take the victory in Oudenaarde?
Given Cancellara’s supreme pedigree, perhaps the Swiss powerhouse was simply so confident he was beginning to think about his dwindling energy levels ahead of the winner’s press conference.
Regardless of this little red herring, you sensed that Cancellara had victory in the bag well before the four leaders came to a near standstill inside the final kilometre of the 259 they raced that day.
Stijn Vandenbergh had made a necessary attempt to go from distance around 3.5km from the finish, the last (and first) roll of the dice for a man staring defeat in the face.
Having ridden the coattails of BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet since the pair pulled clear on a sweeping descent ahead of the Kruisberg climb 31 kilometres from the finish, the rangy Omega Pharma-Quick Step rider knew that his metre-long legs would struggle in a four-way dash to the line.
Once Vandenbergh was neutralised, the podium positions became almost inevitable. In possession of a strong kick, Van Avermaet would put up the biggest challenge to Cancellara, but he was always going to struggle after carrying Vandenbergh over the Kwaremont and Paterberg climbs.
Vanmarcke, second to Cancellara in last year’s Paris-Roubaix, would be forced to settle for the third rung.
With one Swiss ‘Can’ verses three Belgian ‘Vans’, the odds – at least on paper – seemed stacked in favour of the host nation. But when the minority presence is called Spartacus, those odds go out the window.
And it wasn’t the first time Cancellara was seemingly outnumbered over the narrow cobbled lanes of the Flemish countryside. The Omega Pharma-Quick Step team of another pre-race favourite, Tom Boonen, frequently had as many as seven riders on the front of the peloton – even when the race entered the final 50 kilometres.
With Boonen, Niki Terpstra and Zdenek Stybar all in the thick of things approaching the third and final ascent of the Kwaremont, Patrick Lefevere’s team orders for Vandenbergh to force Van Avermaet to do all the leg work came as no surprise.
Had Van Avermaet had a more compromising partner, he might well have preserved enough energy to have soared to his first ever Monument success.
By contrast to OPQS’s bubbling riches, Cancellara’s Trek Factory Racing team was in disarray. In-form Belgian national champion Stijn Devolder – twice a winner of the Ronde – crashed heavily on two occasions, while veteran Ukrainian Yaroslav Popovych was catapulted into a road-side gutter after his handlebars caught on the flailing jacket of a spectator.
Cannondale’s Peter Sagan was also isolated – and when it came to the crunch, the Slovak couldn’t produce the same kind of power as his big rival Cancellara when the chasing group hit the Kwaremont at the business end of the race.
It was left to Vanmarcke – a rider well versed in going shoulder-to-shoulder with Cancellara on the cobbles – to provide the biggest challenge. And the 25-year-old’s acceleration on the Paterberg 13 kilometres from the finish was enough to distance Cancellara – but not enough to ruffle the feathers of a man who now joins five riders (including Boonen) as a three-time winner of the Ronde.
Since finishing 17th place in the 2010 Milan-San Remo, Cancellara’s sequence of podium finishes in Monuments (forgetting his 2012 withdrawal) is quite astonishing: 1-1-2-3-2-2-3-1-1-2-1. No rider has ever finished on the podium of the first three monuments of the year for two years in a row – a sequence that will surely be broken next Sunday at Roubaix.
The victory was certainly worth raising a glass to – although Cancellara didn’t quite do that: he simply picked up a cold beer in the winner’s enclosure, used the edge of a table to flick off the top, and then downed it in one.
The name of the beer? Primus. Well, of course.
Forget that it probably curdled something rotten with that energy gel in his stomach: on this form, Cancellara is unbeatable on the cobbles.
Next Sunday he will be the prime favourite to cross the line of the Roubaix velodrome with his arms aloft. Should he do so it will be another record, for no one has ever won both the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in the same year on three occasions.
It would take a brave man to bet against Cancellara now.