Fabian Cancellara won the Tour of Flanders for a second consecutive time and for the third time in his career after coming out on top in a four-man sprint in a pulsating race.
The Trek Factory Racing rider managed to pull clear from the main favourites on the penultimate climb with Greg van Avermaet, Sep Vanmarcke and Stijn Vandenbergh, and the quartet preserved their lead through to the finish.
The Swiss rider looked jaded in the final few kilometres but used all his experience and last energy reserves to beat his three rivals and take his third Flanders title. This was Cancellara's seventh Monument victory and he joins an elite group of six riders with three wins in Belgium's biggest cycling event.
“The way this win came… it’s very special,” Cancellara said in a press conference. “This is not just a piece of cake, but a huge piece of cake.”
The leading group of four had to fend off a late chase by Alexander Kristoff – the Milan San Remo winner two weeks ago – who gambled to win. They stayed clear and after a late attack from Vandenbergh had been marked by Van Avermaet everyone waited for the sprint.
“I had one card to play,” Cancellara added. “I was mostly on defence. My plan, go with them to the finish and give everything. It was an unbelievable moment. I was the happiest person on earth, but I felt sorry to beat three Belgian riders.”
Cancellara can now look forward to next weekend's Paris – Roubaix with confidence. There he will try to wrap up a Flanders – Roubaix double for the second year in a row.
Pre-race favourites and Cancellara's biggest rivals, Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma – QuickStep) and Peter Sagan (Cannondale) were unable to match the Swiss's decisive attack and finished in seventh and 16th respectively while Britain's Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) recovered from two falls to take eight.
The Classic, containing 17 climbs and 16 cobble-sections, saw numerous crashes, the worst being when Garmin Sharp's Johan Vansummeren collided with spectator. Both were put in hospital and the spectator had to be put in artificial coma.
The race really ignited in the final 50 kilometres and the famous Koppenberg climb, with its 25 per cent maximum gradient, caused major splits in the peloton reducing the leading group to about 20 riders.
Van Avermaet then attacked 31km out and Vandenbergh (Omega Pharma – QuickStep) followed in his weel. Cancellara then accelerated on the Oude Kwaremont, 17km from home, and only Vanmarcke had the strenght to follow.
Cancellara and Vanmarcke caught the leading duo with 11km to go. Behind them, Boonen and Sagan were part of a chase group but it was soon clear that they would not reach the leading quartet.
It looked as though Cancellara would be dropped when Vandenbergh attacked but Vanmarcke dragged him back and the Swiss took his chance.
He added: "I knew I had to make the selection up the Kwaremont. It was so tough, I almost got dropped two times when they attacked. It was man against man and I just kept pushing to the end."
“I’m not the Lion of Flanders,” said Cancellara, “but the Spartacus of Flanders.”
1 Fabian Cancellara (Swi) Trek Factory Racing, 6:15:18
2 Greg van Avermaet (Bel) BMC, same time
3 Sep Vanmarcke (Bel) Belkin, st
4 Stijn Vandenbergh (Bel) Omega Pharma – Quick-Step, st
5 Alexander Kristoff (Nor) Katusha, +8secs
6 Niki Terpstra (Ned) Omega Pharma – Quick-Step, +18
7 Tom Boonen (Bel) Omega Pharma – Quick-Step, +35
8 Geraint Thomas (GB) Team Sky, +37
9 Bjorn Leukemans (Bel) Wanty-Groupe Gobert, +41
10 Sebastien Langeveld (Ned) Garmin-Sharp, +43
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