Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
LA BAÑEZA, Spain (VN) — If Fabian Cancellara is going to win the rainbow jersey, he knows he will have to do it alone.
On the eve of the most important world championship battle of his career, Cancellara knows the odds are stacked against him. Quite literally. Switzerland starts with just three riders, versus nine riders for nations such as Spain, Italy, and Belgium, something he says is out of tune with modern cycling.
“It’s not good. It’s a deficit for us. Regarding the rules, we have to live with it,” Cancellara said Thursday. “In my opinion … the rules are not 2014, they are not right. Some nationalities have to have the ‘right’ [to have more riders]. My ‘rule’ is to ride on Sunday.”
The 33-year-old Cancellara senses his chances are handicapped right out of the gates for Sunday’s 14-lap, 254-kilometer men’s road race.
With nearly all the major favorites — save Peter Sagan — starting with nine riders, Cancellara realizes he will be riding into a headwind before even starting the race.
Cancellara takes exception to current UCI rules that determine start positions based on national rankings with the different continental categories. Ten nations start with the maximum of nine riders — all European except Colombia and Australia — while Switzerland and Sagan’s Slovakia only have three.
Cancellara suggested the rules are out of step with the modern peloton, but he’s not wasting too much time on the topic. Instead, he’s all-in for Sunday’s battle.
Joining Cancellara will be worlds outsider Michael Albasini, a strong rider who can win out of breakaways, and Danilo Wyss, who’s never won a pro race.
“We have three riders. We have to ride smart. We have to use the others,” Cancellara continued. “We cannot have the team in the front, and they pull for you. I am not going to say we ride negative. The other big nations are with nine riders.”
Cancellara arrives at Ponferrada at perhaps the twilight of the height of his powers. He still rules the classics, with second at Milano-Sanremo, third at Paris-Roubaix, and a victory at the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) this year, but he already ceded the world time trial crown to Tony Martin years ago.
With four world time trial titles, six monuments, and countless other victories, the rainbow jersey is the only missing jewel from his crown.
When asked if this is his last chance to win the worlds, Cancellara was quick to say, “No, there is next year,” but he also knows he’s running out of asphalt.
In a move that tipped his hat to his diminishing number of chances, he skipped the world time trial championships Wednesday for the first time since 2008 — when he won the Olympic gold medal in Beijing in the time trial — to prepare and focus completely on Sunday’s road race.
“I skipped the time trial because I wanted to focus 100 percent on Sunday’s race. On this parcours, it was better that I could recover after TTT. The TT day, it’s an intense effort,” he said. “When you have a palmares like me, it’s easier to skip the TT. I am feeling good. I am ready. I want to be 100 percent for Sunday.”
Luca Guercilena, the Trek Factory Racing manager who also serves as the Swiss cycling federation coach during the worlds, said Cancellara will have to race smart.
“All the big teams will be working to race for a sprint with their captains,” he said. “With our team, we have to make a different tactic, we have to stay calm, and save the legs to respond to the other teams.”
It’s hard to read how the Ponferrada course will play out. It’s hilly, but there is not a truly selective climb. Yet there’s no room to organize a serious chase. Many expect a tightly controlled race that will come down to the final lap or two.
“It depends on how the race goes, and how the big teams are riding. They have to make the race hard,” Cancellara said. “Each lap will get harder and harder. It’s always up or down, so it’s going to be an interesting race. It’s only 250km, but there is a lot of climbing. I did my homework, and that’s important. We will see the rest out on the road.”
Cancellara says this is not his last chance to win the worlds, but it could well be. There are younger, faster riders coming up behind him. Next year’s worlds course in Richmond, Va., seems even less selective, and in 2016, it’s a flat course in windswept Qatar. Every great champion has his moment to say goodbye; Cadel Evans announced his retirement on Thursday following next year’s Santos Tour Down Under in January.
The rainbow jersey would complete Cancellara’s otherwise unblemished palmares, and he knows it. To win Sunday, he will need to be not only strong, but also very smart.
“This is the one race I have not won. There is no secret I want to win. Of course, there are a lot of others who want to win this jersey,” he said. “It’s something missing. If you have it, you’re not the king of the peloton. I’ve been four times the TT champion. If you have the jersey, maybe this gives you the chance to speak, to give opinions, to make cycling better. Of course, if you have the jersey, you always have to push the pedals.”
Cancellara promises to keep pushing the pedals, at least until he has the rainbow jersey.