Fabian Cancellara, who crashed out of the Tour of Flanders with a broken collarbone 12 months ago, has won the centenary edition of the race with a solo attack which left his rivals powerless to respond. The RadioShack-Leopard rider hit the front on the third and final climb of the Paterberg, the last ascent of the day, and dropped Peter Sagan of Cannondale and Lotto-Belisol's Jurgen Roelandts to time trial his way to what is his second victory in the race. Sagan would finish second, nearly a minute and a half behind Cancellara, with Roelandts third.
Cancellara's attack and solo ride to the line was reminiscent of his win in 2010, when he left Tom Boonen behind as he rode to a storming victory. Today, Boonen, seeking a record fourth victory in the race, saw his challenge end after crashing just 19 kilometres from the start in Bruges. He is now doubtful for next week's Paris-Roubaix, where Cancellara can emulate him in becoming the second man to do the Flanders-Roubaix double in two separate seasons.
Roelandts’ Lotto-Belisol team had fought hard for him all day including André Greipel launching an attack on the climb of the Molenberg a little after halfway into the 256.2 kilometre race and getting into a front group where he would be joined by team mate Marcel Seiberg to set the pace at the front.
That breakaway was long over by the time the Oude Kwaremont loomed into view for the third and final time with less than 20 kilometres to ride, but the Belgian team’s plan seemed to be working as Roelandts, who had himself attacked from the group containing the favourites, found himself at the head of the race on his own after dropping Vacansoleil-DCM’s Mirko Selvaggi.
All eyes were on Cancellara and Sagan, however, and when the Swiss rider went on the offensive as a small main group hit that ascent, only the young Slovak was able to stay with him, with riders of the calibre of Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Sylvain Chavanel and Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler among those unable to reply.
The pair quickly caught and dropped earlier escapee Michal Kwiatowski of Omega Pharma-Quick Step, and ahead of the Paterberg had also bridged across to Roelandts.
Coming over the top of the climb, the pair had caught and dropped earlier escapee Michal Kwiatowski of Omega Pharma-Quick Step, and it was Cancellara, who had earlier had to chase back on after a puncture, who looked the stronger rider as he and Sagan then bridged across to Roelandts ahead of the Paterberg.
The trio were together as they hit the climb, which has an average gradient of 12.9 per cent and hits 20 per cent in places.
Roelandts was the first to crack, and this time Sagan too lost contact, Cancellara crossing the summit with an advantage of around 100 metres, the four-time world time trial champion then tucking into that familiar pose to chew up the final 13 kilometres.
It was quickly apparent that barring a mechanical, Cancellara wouldn’t be caught, but Sagan and Roelandts worked together to ensure they completed the podium, coming home just ahead of a chasing bunch led across the line by Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff.
Earlier, Greipel’s attack on the Molenberg with more than 120 kilometers left to ride had allowed him and four other riders to get across to a group of seven riders at the head of the race.
Soon, the attrition of the various climbs and cobbled sections – in all, the parcours featured 17 of the former and seven of the latter – had whittled that front group down to five riders.
Besides Greipel and team mate Seiberg, also there were Kwiatowski, Maarten Tjallingii of Blanco and Laurens De Vreese of Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise.
Behind them, as the climbs started to come thick and fast inside the final 100 kilometres, the more fancied riders were trying to keep themselves out of trouble by riding towards the front of the main bunch.
The importance of maintaining position was shown on the ascent of the day’s toughest climb, the Koppenberg, as riders in the middle of the bunch struggled with the gradient and had to dismount.
The concertina effect as riders behind them also had to get off causing a big split in the peloton with more than 60 kilometres to go, with one of those left behind being Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Niki Terpstra.
The five breakaway men were never allowed to build too much of an advantage as the group behind kept them on a tight leash, and the small group split on the second ascent of the Paterberg, with around 33 kilometres remaining.
Kwiatowski and Selvaggi, who had bridged across, were briefly out in front on their own, with other riders including Roelandts, Sebastien Hinault of IAM, Europcar’s Sebastien Turgot and FDJ’s Yoann Offredo managing to join them.
The group behind, now reduced to around 35 riders including Sagan and Cancellara, kept the pace high heading into the final 25 kilometres, with the leaders around half a minute ahead on the road.
For the second time in a fortnight, however, Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas day came to a premature end when he crashed at a crucial point. Two weeks back in Italy, it had happened as the main group approached the Cipressa.
Today, his crash came as the riders headed into a feed zone between the bottom of the Oude Kwaremont and the second climb of the Paterberg, with a little over 35 kilometres left.
While he managed to get back into the main group, the effort of doing so meant that there was no chance of his being able to respond when Cancellara and Sagan made what proved to be the crucial move.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.