Can Fabian Cancellara still win classics?

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    Fabian Cancellara celebrates a win for Radioshack

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    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.

    Fair enough.

    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.

    Tim Renowden
    Tim Renowden

    Tim Renowden has been following professional cycling closely since Indurain won his first Tour. An ex-runner, now a club grade bike racer, Tim tweets about sport at @megabicicleta.

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    The Crowd Says (9)

    • March 5th 2013 @ 6:36am
      Theo Schmid said | March 5th 2013 @ 6:36am | ! Report

      Couldn’t agree more with your view. Since his major demonstrations in 2010 RVV/PR he has been marked like no other classic rider in recent history. And sadly, although this has been so obvious in 2011 and 2012, nothing has been done with regard to race intelligence or bolstering the team’s classics strength. I like Fabian’s racing style a lot, but, it’s almost impossible to win against such strong competitors (BMC, OPQ, Cannondale, …) that have each at least two potential classic winners in the team and a number of very strong domestiques.

      Fabian is wasting his best year in a team that is not capable of providing the support needed. Ok, in Strade Bianche, RSLT had bad luck with crashes and technicals, but still, Fabian was the first major contender to be completely isolated. I sincerely hope, MSR, RVV and PR will show a different picture and more intelligent tactics by RSLT, but I fear my dreams and wishes might not come true…

      • Columnist

        March 5th 2013 @ 9:50am
        Tim Renowden said | March 5th 2013 @ 9:50am | ! Report

        I’m glad you agree with me, Theo!

      • Roar Guru

        March 5th 2013 @ 10:40am
        delbeato said | March 5th 2013 @ 10:40am | ! Report

        Maybe he just need to call other riders’ bluff a bit more? Towing competitors to the finish line, only to be gazumped in the sprint, is not clever. I used to admire Ayrton Senna when he was lapping slower drivers in F1 races. If they didn’t move out of his way quickly enough, he’d overtake anyway, in many cases ruining his own race by crashing into them. You’d imagine they got the message though.. it was smarter than it looked.

        Cancellara seems to ride for the moment, reasoning that sitting up may spoil his chances of winning a race. But it’s made him predictable and easy to counter.

        • Columnist

          March 5th 2013 @ 10:47am
          Tim Renowden said | March 5th 2013 @ 10:47am | ! Report

          Yeah, like I said above: “So why is he struggling to win? Well, I think Cancellara has one glaring weakness: predictability.”

          It’s too obvious what he’s going to do.

          • March 5th 2013 @ 12:48pm
            elGusto said | March 5th 2013 @ 12:48pm | ! Report

            Silly Fabian. He put on the crown, but didn’t realise everyone knows where the king sits. Maybe time to finally drop some muscle and make a run at some week long stage-races where it doesn’t really matter if you finish the stage in 1, 2 or 3.

    • Roar Rookie

      March 5th 2013 @ 11:55am
      Justin Curran said | March 5th 2013 @ 11:55am | ! Report

      I agree with Theo. Fabian too often appears to be a 1 man show with Radioshack. He needs a team who can compete with the big guns and isolate his rivals. It is not so hard to mark the moves of just one man. He is getting ganged up on in the playground, and needs more allies.

    • Columnist

      March 5th 2013 @ 1:40pm
      Lee Rodgers said | March 5th 2013 @ 1:40pm | ! Report

      He rides to his strengths, I don’t know if that can be called a weakness. What he could do maybe is lose 6 kilo and ‘do a Wiggo’, but I doubt he could make that transformation, his bulk is in his legs.

      Undoubtedly one of the best riders of his generation, certainly in one day events and TTs, he’s on one of the flimsiest of the ‘serious’ teams right now. Liquigas and Sky make Radioshack look like an afterthought. But nothing has changed – they were watching him just the same two and three years ago when he rode them off his wheel in the Belgian Classics, but his form is not quite that good now, and others are getting better.

      Will he win again? Not so sure, if he doesn’t, that it’ll be because he is predictable – more likely because keeping that kind of form is near on impossible. But I think, as Tim concluded, that it’s too early to write him off – he’s 31, smart as a whip on 2 wheels, and he can look to others like Tom Boonen and Thor Hushovd who transformed their skill set when their singular, natural abilities began to wane.

      Also, cycling needs Cancellara, as we need Boonen. Just as Sagan is becoming important not just for the excitement but for the future that he represents, we need these guys clean and racing and, if possible, winning. As it stands, Cancellara and Boonen now kind of represent the elder statesmen of the bunch…

    • March 5th 2013 @ 5:44pm
      Ridley said | March 5th 2013 @ 5:44pm | ! Report

      Probably Paris-Roubaix his best bet as it’s less of a teamwork race and more a survival of the fittest/strongest.
      But even so may need Boonen at less then 100% to have a chance.
      Great rider though, just being marked because he is so dangerous.
      This is the time of year for my favourite riders to shine, Fab, Tom, Phil, Thor, EBH, and Sagan fast joining that club.

    • March 10th 2013 @ 1:50pm
      Aaron said | March 10th 2013 @ 1:50pm | ! Report

      blueprint for sparticus’ win at milan san remo, flanders or roubaix: 1. select a good time trialist on the team e.g. jens voigt 2. escape 60 km from the finish, tom boonen (and niki terpstra) style. 3. bring jens with you 4. two man TTT time! 5. take off alone when jens starts shouting “shut up legs!”, preferably 2-3 mins ahead with 20km to go. 6. win by miles. the only way you can

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