At the start of March, after Fabian Cancellara had been outfoxed by Cannondale’s one-two punch of Moreno Moser and Peter Sagan at Strade Bianche, many observers dismissed the great Swiss champion as a one-trick pony and a spent force at the Classics. In the space of nine days – and in the same calendar month as his supposed demise – Spartacus has come roaring back in the cobbled Classics, winning E3 Harelbeke and Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders). In doing so, he debunked reports of his decline as, well, a load of old cobblers.
In this week’s column, I’m going to focus specifically on the key tactical differences between Strade Bianche and the Ronde which enabled him to turn the tables on Cannondale and Sagan.
How the race was won
The race hinged on the last 100 metres of the final ascent of the cobbled Paterberg, which exceeds 20% gradient. Cancellara turned the screws with one of his trademark sitting-down accelerations near the summit, teased out a few bike lengths on Sagan and Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto Belisol), and soloed away to win by over a minute.
It would be a massive over-simplification to say the race was won in those 100 metres. The groundwork had actually been laid gradually over the previous 100km. And the seeds of his Ronde strategy were sewn nine days previously – on many of the same roads and climbs – during his victorious ride at E3.
Digging into the detail
There were five key tactical differences between Strade Bianche and the Ronde which swung the race in Cancellara’s favour. Let’s look at each in turn.
1. The fatigue factor. At 256km, the Ronde is a marathon race, 68km longer than Strade Bianche. It’s also faster because there are fewer ‘neutral’ periods of moderate tempo. The peloton accelerates hard as they jostle for position on virtually every climb and cobbled section, not just the key late ones – as you can see from the race profile below, after the first 100km it’s full-on virtually the whole way. Moser won Strade this year at an average of 37.4kph, whereas Cancellara achieved an even 42kph at the Ronde. If he had ridden Strade at that pace, Cancellara would have beaten Moser by 33 minutes! Higher speed over longer distance equals greater fatigue.
In addition, it was bitterly cold on Sunday. Lower temperature forces the body to burn more calories to keep warm, which depletes the reserves for when they are needed later in the race.
That’s not necessarily to say that Sagan was at an automatic disadvantage relative to Cancellara. But, with his greater experience of riding in long, hard races, the Swiss was probably better equipped than the Slovak to minimise and deal with the resultant fatigue.
2. Team support. In our post-Strade podcast, I commented that the one thing Cancellara needed to change more than anything else was to surround himself with a stronger support team. At Strade, Cannondale had controlled affairs and outflanked him by leaving Sagan on his wheel while Moser escaped up the road.
On Sunday, Cancellara got exactly what he needed. It was RadioShack-Leopard who set a fierce tempo – in particular Hayden Roulston and former Flanders double-winner Stijn Devolder – negating Sagan’s team. Advantage Cancellara.
3. A war on only one front. At Strade, the gap between the peloton of main contenders and the breakaway became a critical issue for Cancellara. It needed to be bridged but he was unwilling to do so when Sagan was happy to cover every move and sit on his wheel, secure in the knowledge he had a teammate up the road. Tactically Spartacus was snookered, and when he did finally put in a big late effort he succeeded only in providing Sagan with the perfect tow to deprive him of second place.
In Flanders, however, the hard work of his teammates ensured the gap never became an overriding influence as it hovered around 30 seconds. It meant Cancellara could focus solely on his immediate rivals. As any military expert will tell you, it’s easier to win a war if you can focus all your resources on one front rather than multiple ones.
4. Cobbles. Some riders never get the hang of riding the cobbles. Most find a way to cope with their unique, bone-jarring challenges. A rare few truly master them, seemingly gliding over the uneven surface while others judder. Of the current generation, Cancellara and Tom Boonen stand head and shoulders above the rest, with a combined 11 victories in the two cobbled Monuments (Flanders and Paris-Roubaix). It’s not just about a rider’s ability to translate power into speed and acceleration on the stones – it’s also about minimising the effort required to do so, which in a race as long and arduous as Flanders provide a meaningful accumulation of what Dave Brailsford would call ‘marginal gains’.
At E3, Cancellara’s winning move came on the cobbles of the Kwaremont climb, where Sagan (and others) had been unable to respond. It had been increasingly obvious for some time that Sagan was having to work harder than Cancellara to keep pace with him on the cobbles, with the Slovak unable to convert power into forward motion anywhere near as efficiently.
At Flanders, with both the Kwaremont and the shorter but steeper Paterberg to surmount three times, the presence of cobbles on both these climbs provided Cancellara with a critical edge that wasn’t present at Strade. Once he had broken clear, he effectively turned the race into a 13km time trial to the finish. Home ground, as far as he was concerned.
5. A favourable hand, well played. It wasn’t just the physical aspects of the race that played into Cancellara’s hands. His reading of the unfolding tactics of the race was spot on. His team’s earlier work added to the fatigue factor, thinning the field out and leaving many of those who remained teetering on the edge of the red-zone. By the final circuit, it was down to the trio of Cancellara, Sagan and Roelandts as the likes of Sylvain Chavanel tried to tap into the reserve tank only to find it already empty.
Up the Kwaremont you could see Cancellara frequently checking the status of his rivals. An exploratory kick saw Sagan respond sluggishly, but it was too close to the summit to develop a meaningful gap. The Cancellara of old might have continued to press on here, wasting energy and giving Sagan and Roelandts the chance to work together to reel him in on the flattish section leading to the Paterberg. But here he did the wise thing, throttling back and saving his effort for one knockout blow.
On the Paterberg a combination of high tempo, gradient and fatigue accounted for Roelandts, but again Cancellara was patient, waiting until he had fallen away far enough to isolate Sagan before he made his decisive move. By the time Sagan and Roelandts were able to link up and join forces, Cancellara was long gone and the pair were left to race for second.
Now compare this to the situation Cancellara found himself in towards the end of Strade Bianche, where Moser was linking up with the leaders ahead and he was outnumbered by a group including Sagan alongside him, none of whom were willing to share the workload in chasing. To wait would have cost him (and his entire group) any chance of victory. But to pursue the front group effectively alone would have required a huge expenditure of energy, at the cost of giving Sagan and others a free ride, with fresher legs for the final.
At Strade, Cancellara found himself in a no-win situation. In Flanders, a combination of the parcours, great teamwork and excellent tactical judgment on his own behalf produced a glorious solo victory. It’s still arguable that Fabian Cancellara is a one-trick pony, but that would be to miss the point. It’s one hell of a trick, and employed tactically and with just the right amount of patience it’s one which is likely to bring him Classics victories for some years to come.