Cancellara wins Tour of Flanders

Saxo Bank team rider Fabian Cancellara raced to a solo victory in the 2010 Tour of Flanders on Sunday.

The big Swiss and two-time Flanders champ Tom Boonen (Quick Step) had escaped an elite lead group on the Molenberg, and after working together to build an insurmountable lead, their partnership came to an abrupt end on the steeps of the Muur — Cancellara attacked his Belgian rival on the cobbled climb and then used his world-championship-winning time-trialing skills to power away alone to the finish.

It was Cancellara’s third victory in one of cycling’s monuments — he won Milan-San Remo in 2006 and Paris-Roubaix in 2008. And he became only the second Swiss to win here, following Henry Suter in 1923.

The expected filthy weather did not materialize, and the 198-man field enjoyed a cool and relatively pleasant day in the saddle.

Among them was Lance Armstrong (RadioShack), who was looking forward to the 261km cobbled classic.

Lance on the Patesberg cobbles

“It’s always an exciting start,” he said. “Look at this square in Bruges — it couldn’t be more beautiful. It’s fun to be here, it’s great. It’s important to race the cobbles, and to see the sections we’ll race at the Tour de France this year. It’s also important to see how the equipment reacts on the pavé.

Armstrong was not a favorite to win. His boss, RadioShack director Johan Bruyneel, was picking Juan Antonio Flecha (Team Sky) for the victory. Broadcaster Paul Sherwen, meanwhile, was betting on Boonen.

“He has the form, and he has the experience. Obviously you have to consider Stijn Devolder, but his teammate is his biggest rival. And of course there’s Cancellara. One of them should win,” he said.

Boonen, for his part, said he was happy to be there and ready to race.

“Ah, I’m really just trying to concentrate on the race. I’m always happy to be here, but I’m also always happy to leave and start racing. It’s the nicest moment of the day. The second nicest moment of the day is when you get to the first climb in peace. Then the race can really start.”

A break of eight slipped away early on in Brugge and with 125km to race had an advantage of 7:40 over the main field: Nicolas Rousseau (Ag2r), Vicente Garcia Acosta (Caisse d’Epargne), Michele Merlo (Footon-Servetto), Oliver Bonnaire (Française des Jeux), Michael Ignatiev (Katusha), Floris Goesinen (Skil-Shimano), David Boucher (Landbouwkrediet) and Joost van Leijen (Vacansoleil).

Team Sky and Saxo Bank were patrolling the front of the peloton, and with a little over 100km to race the gap had begun coming down, to under six minutes.

Saxo really put the hammer down then, with Cancellara tucked in neatly out of the wind, and 10km later the leaders had just two minutes on the bunch. Rousseau had slipped out of the break and was caught on the Kwaremont as the climbs began to string the bunch out.

Boonen and Cancellara pushed the pace on the Paterberg, with its grades of up to 20 percent, and with 78km to go, the break had dwindled to Ignatiev, Goesinin and van Leijen, just barely ahead of a fresh selection containing Boonen, Cancellara, Flecha, George Hincapie (BMC), Lief Hoste (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Thor Hushovd (Cervélo TestTeam),  Matti Breschel (Saxo Bank) and Lars Boom (Rabobank).

But the peloton dragged that elite group back, and on the Taaienberg Flecha, Cancellara and Boonen were at the front of a substantial bunch and once again pushing the pace. Sky took over the pace-making on the Eikenberg, and Matthew Hayman tried a dig, joined by Daniel Oss (Liquigas), Bernard Eisel (HTC) and Maarten Wynants (Quick Step).

Then Boonen and Cancellara punched it on the Molenberg, quickly taking a lead of a dozen seconds on the bunch with less than 40km to race. They had doubled it on the steeps of the Leberg with 36km to go.

David Millar (Garmin-Transitions) shot out of the chase group, trying to reach the leaders on his own as they began the climb of the Berendries. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) followed, with Bjorn Leukemans (Vacansoleil).

With 28km to go, the leaders had nearly a minute on that three-man chase and 1:08 on the dwindling bunch containing Hincapie, Flecha, Devolder, Hoste, Wynants, Maxim Iglinsky (Astana), Johnny Hoogerland (Skil-Shimano), Steve Chainel (BBox) and Sebastian Langeveld (Rabobank). Six kilometers later it seemed that the steam had gone out of that second group, which was nearly 90 seconds behind, while the Millar trio was holding steady at 52 seconds.

As the leaders hit the slopes of the Muur, the penultimate ascent of the day, the first chase was making some progress, closing to within 45 seconds. Cancellara was the stronger of the two, pulling away on the cobbled steeps, and the big Swiss was on his own with 15km to race.

Fabian celebrating with the Swiss flag
Fabian celebrating with the Swiss flag

Hincapie led the second chase onto the cobbles, but the real race was up front, where Cancellara led Boonen by the slimmest of margins — just 17 seconds.

The Saxo man quickly doubled that margin — Boonen had slipped to 35 seconds back with 12km to race. Still, the effort was taking its toll, and Cancellara grimaced as he rose from the saddle on the Bosberg’s cobbles.

But then he was back in the drops and motoring along, with nearly a minute in hand over his Belgian pursuer, who was in danger of being overhauled by Gilbert and Bjorn Leukemans (Vacansoleil), who had escaped the second chase.

With 3km to go Cancellara held a minute’s advantage over Boonen and nearly twice that on Gilbert and Leukemans as he powered along, forearms draped over the bar tops.

Boonen drove along in the drops with jaw clenched, but he was losing ground, not gaining it. And with 1km to go on the flat streets of Meerbeke Cancellara was already planning his victory celebration, grinning for the cameras.

He snatched a Swiss flag and waved it overhead, then punched his left fist skyward as he crossed the line victorious.

Boonen coasted across the line for second at 1:14 back. Gilbert outsprinted Leukemans for third at 2:10.

And a pair of Americans — Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions) and Hincapie — went fifth and sixth in the bunch sprint.

Courtesy Agence France Presse and