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Fabian Cancellara’s predictions for the Spring Classics

Tobias Mews
2 Mar 2018

An insight into the one-day races from the man who knows them best

Fabian Cancellara is arguably the greatest one-day racer of this generation. He has seven Monument Classics to his name, as well as a host of smaller one-day victories. That’s on top of four Time-Trial World Championship wins, two Olympic gold medals and countless stages of the Tour de France that put him in the yellow jersey for 29 days – the most any rider has worn the jersey without winning the Tour.

Cyclist caught up with him at the Laureus Sport for Good Ride, part of the Laureus World Sports Awards, of which Cancellara is an Academy member.

Over a few glasses of Patrón Tequila, the official spirits sponsor for the event’s after party, he tells us of his predictions for the upcoming Classics season.

Strade Bianche

When: Saturday 3rd March 2018
Where: Italy
Distance: 184km (of which 63km is gravel)
2017 Winner: Michal Kwiatkowski
Read more: Strade Bianche 2018: Route, riders and all you need to know

Beginning this weekend on the 3rd March, Strade Bianche is one of the earliest Spring Classics. With Cancellara having won the race three times (more than anyone else) and having a stretch of white gravel named after him, it’s fair to say that he knows a thing or two about what it takes to conquer this ‘tough’ race.

‘It’s actually a lovely race,’ he says, ‘but because of the white gravel roads, it’s made for heavy riders.’ Indeed, it is this white gravel that gives the race its name and what makes the race so challenging.

When asked who his favourite is to win, he throws up his arms in a typically Swiss fashion, before quickly rattling off a few names: ‘Greg Van Avermaet, Michal Kwiatkowski, Valverde, Peter Sagan… But if I had to pick someone to win, I’d probably choose Valverde,’ he says after a few moments of reflection, before adding, ‘He’s tried many times but never won.

'He’s a role model at his age – to still be able to ride so strong – he deserves to win.’

Milan-San Remo

When: Saturday 17th March 2018
Where: Italy
Distance: 298km
2017 winner: Michal Kwiatkowski
Read more: Milan-San Remo 2018: Route, riders and all you need to know

‘This is undoubtedly the most difficult one day Classic,’ Cancellara says without any hesitation, adding that the result of La Primavera is totally unpredictable until the finish line.

‘I hate this race, but in a good way,’ he says. ‘You don’t know if it’s going to be a bunch sprint or individually. Anything can happen.

'Even on the last two climbs – Cipressa and Poggio – people will be attacking. There will be small groups forming on the downhill, but you only have one card to play. You have opportunity to attack.’

Can he name a winner? ‘You simply can’t predict what will happen,’ he says. ‘There are 20 favourites, 20 potential riders who could win.

'Kristoff, Bouhanni, Degenkolb, Demare – you’ll see the same names coming up in many of the Classics.

‘Kwiatkowski won last year and Sagan lost [he came second] because he was too sure. It could even be Mark Cavendish or André Greipel – because sprinters have just as good a chance of winning as non-sprinters.

'It’s truly impossible to predict who will win.’

Tour of Flanders

When: Sunday 1st April 2018
Where: Belgium
Distance: 264km
2017 winner: Philippe Gilbert
Read more: Tour of Flanders 2018: Route, riders, sportive and all you need to know

‘It’s the most fascinating one day race,’ says Cancellara, his eyes sparkling with excitement. Maybe because Cancellara is one of only six people to have won the race three times in its 100 year history, and has reached the podium on five occasions between 2010 and 2016.

He also remarks that it’s only after Flanders that can you predict what will happen in the subsequent races.

‘In Flanders there’s so much variety – uphill, downhill, big cobbles, small cobbles, big roads, small roads. But there are also certain climbs that you have to attack, eg the Paterberg or Kruisberg.

'The whole country lives for this one day, which is why it’s so special.'

As for the winner, he suggests of Sep Vanmarcke and Sagan as two strong contenders, with Sagan being his favourite.

‘If everything goes well, he’ll win again simply because he’s so strong.’

Paris-Roubaix

When: Sunday 8th April 2018
Where: France
Distance: 257k
2017 winner: Greg Van Avermaet
Read more: Paris-Roubaix 2018: Route, riders and all you need to know

A three-time winner of Paris-Roubaix, Cancellara is more than familiar with the Hell of the North.

‘How would I describe it?’ he says, repeating the question. ‘Flat, cobbles, rough cobbles,’ he remarks before adding, ‘This race is so hard that people come individually into the finish line. That’s strange right?’

It is indeed strange for a pro race to get blown apart to such an extent that riders arrive on their own.

‘The thing is,’ he goes on to explain, ‘the Flemish cobbles are different from the French cobbles. They are rounded, so you have to feel the cobbles and make sure you have the right tyre inflation.

‘Because the cobbles break you down, they break everything. This race is tough – you have different equipment, different tyres and a different setup. On the one hand, it’s so easy to ride, yet because of the cobbles – so hard to ride.’

As to who he thinks will win? ‘We’ll see the same people again – Greg Van Avermaet, Jasper Stuyven or Zdenek Stybar – they all stand a very good chance,’ he says.

‘But it’s too early to predict. All you can do is continue to look at the races as they unfold.’

Amstel Gold

When: Sunday 15th April 2018
Where: Belgium Ardennes
Distance: 260km
2017 Winner: Philippe Gilbert

According to Cancellara, this Ardennes Classic ‘has never been my type of race’.

It’s 260km long and although there are thankfully no cobbles, there is the matter of the 35 climbs to contend with.

‘In many ways it’s a similar race to Flanders,’ Cancellara says, ‘it’s only up or down on small roads.

‘Races like Amstel Gold and Liège-Bastogne-Liège are different because of the type of riders. They both require a different preparation.’

This means that you won’t necessarily see the race favourites from the early races win the Ardennes Classics.

However, he’s the first to admit that the Amstel Gold is the perfect race for Philippe Gilbert.

‘He’s made for this race. It’s got the perfect amount of climbing and the right distance,’ adding, ‘he has enough energy to win it.’

Liège-Bastogne-Liège

When: Sunday 22nd April 2018
Where: Belgium Ardennes
Distance: 258km
2017 Winner: Alejandro Valverde 
Read more: Liège-Bastogne-Liège 2018: Route, riders and all you need to know 

As well as being the oldest of the Monuments (first run in 1892), Liège-Bastogne-Liège or ‘La Doyenne’ as it’s also known, is also the race that signals the end of the Spring Classics season.

This is one of the few Classics that Cancellara has never taken part in, but that’s not to say he doesn’t know what’s involved.

‘This race has everything. It’s got bigger roads with long climbs and, similar to Amstel Gold, it has no cobbles, making it perfectly matched for climbers like Valverde.

‘I think it will be him who wins again this year.’

With thanks to Patrón Tequila, official spirits sponsor for the Laureus World Sports Awards