I can’t remember a race with a clearer favorite than this weekend’s Tour of Flanders for a long, long time. It sounds like all Cancellara has to do is show up, avoid the snipers and pick up the award. So let me make this prediction: Cancellara will not win on Sunday.
Before I get into this, I’d like to remind everybody of Tim Krabbé’s truism in The Rider: “Joop Zoetemelk will never win the Tour de France, and the quality of the prediction is independent of the outcome. It is therefore still a great prediction, despite the fact that Zoetemelk won the Tour in 1980.”
Normally speaking, Cancellara cannot win Flanders this year. With 192 riders against 1+7, the one has no chance. Not even Cancellara. And when you ride as he has, there is no reason for the 192 riders not to race against the one. So when the first group of 40 riders breaks away, there are two options:
- Cancellara is part of it, and nobody will want to ride, and so the break is caught and the next one goes.
- Cancellara is not part of it, in which case everybody will want to ride and behind nobody will, except a few Leopards. I’d like to see one team race a breakaway of 40 for 260k and come out on top.
This of course presumes one critical element: 24 teams making the right decisions. This has nothing to do with collusion, race radios or the like, every team independently can come to the conclusion that the only chance for them to win is to not help Leopard at any stage of the race. There’s also nothing unfair about beating up on Cancellara, the goal is to win the race, and you have to deploy the strategy that leads to success. Anything less would be unfair. If the purpose was to give away the win to the strongest rider, then we didn’t need the race or at the very least, we could just do power measurements on ergometers.
Whether or not every team WILL make such a decision is another story.
Then there are of course also other factors that can derail even a rider as strong as Cancellara:
- Mechanicals (he had two flats and a bike change last weekend, that’s a bit much)
- Pressure (he was a big favorite at Paris-Roubaix in 2007 and finished 18th, though the Cancellara of 2011 is a different beast altogether)
Before the other teams start popping champagne bottles, there is however a second part to the riddle they have to solve: How do they prevent a Leopard like Stuart O’Grady from winning? When the break of 40 goes away, he’ll be in it. He won’t have to work (waiting for Cancellara) and although all eyes are on his master, Stuart has the legs and the head to survive anybody in that breakaway and go for glory. That’s of course what happened at Paris-Roubaix in 2007. I remember that race quite well as I was there and of course he was riding a Cervelo, and it was one of the most exciting and surprising races I have ever seen (watch it here).
We’ll see what happens on Sunday but remember, it’s still a great prediction regardless!