Blazin' Saddles

Boonen or bust backfires as Fabian’s strategy pays off

Blazin' Saddles

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In the face of a strong Omega Pharma-Quick Step unit an isolated Fabian Cancellara played his cards just right in Flanders, argues our resident cycling guru.


During the Second Punic War, when Italy was being ravaged by Hannibal of Carthage and his bloodthirsty mercenary army, the nascent Roman Republic granted dictatorial powers to a chap called Fabius Maximus.

Hannibal may have lost all but one of his famous 37 war elephants but crushing victories at the River Trebbia and Lake Trasimene had made a mockery of the Roman numerical advantage.

When full powers were granted to Fabius Maximus to defeat the invading army, he was mindful that the previous defeats owed a lot to the impetuosity and arrogance of the consuls in charge. Maximus’s alternative course of action was distinctly un-Roman: he shadowed and contained Hannibal’s invading army - which had now made its way to southern Italy - but refused to engage the enemy in combat.

Due to this attritional tactic, Maximus became rather scathingly known as the ‘cunctator’. This was not a Bradley Wiggins-style profanity - but something far worse: the latin word for ‘delayer’. And Fabian had the disadvantage of being shackled with such a moniker at a time when the Romans were baying for blood.

Six months later, Maximus was discharged by the impatient senate and two warmongering consuls were reinstated in his place. The resulting Battle of Cannae was the bloodiest in the history of Rome: an estimated 70,000 Roman soldiers were killed at a rate of six thousand a minute as Hannibal became architect of Rome’s darkest day.

Maximus was reinstated and served as consul for three more terms during which his suffocating strategy of attrition eventually led to a turn of fortune for Rome. Hannibal’s grip slowly dwindled in the south until he eventually sailed back to Carthage, which had come under attack from the famous Roman general Scipio Africanus.

Such a military tactic would in time become known as the ‘Fabian strategy’.

Which brings us neatly to Sunday’s 98th edition of the Ronde van Vlaanderen, at the conclusion of which Fabian Cancellara joined the greats by holding his cards close to his chest and striking only once the enemy had been worn down.

Having downed a bottle of beer (fittingly, a Belgian brand called ‘Primus’) in the winner’s enclosure, Cancellara explained to the press how it was through defence - and not attack - that he became the sixth man in history to secure three Tour of Flanders titles.

Even when it appeared that Spartacus had thrown down the hammer on the third and final ascent of the Oude-Kwaremont, Cancellara claimed that it was not entirely as it seemed.

“Maybe on television it looked like I was playing but I was just trying to make sure we came to the finish as a group of four, man against man. I was by myself and I had one card to play. I never attacked. I was mostly on defence,” he said.

While the delaying tactics of this modern day Fabian strategy were very familiar to those carried out by Maximus back in the third century BC, the scenarios were perhaps a little difficult.

Back in Hannibal’s time it was the Romans who had the numerical advantage and the invading force who were clearly isolated.

Fast forward a couple of millennia and it was Cancellara the Cunctator who found himself in a bit of a pickle. Stijn Devolder’s nasty brace of crashes and Yaroslav Popovych’s grim encounter with the gutter meant that Cancellara was completely devoid of Trek team-mates when the first big selection was made on the Taaienberg around 37km from the finish.

Omega Pharma-Quick Step, on the other hand, had four men in the 13-man leading group: Stijn Vandenbergh, Niki Terpstra, Zdenek Stybar and Cancellara’s big rival on the cobbles, Tom Boonen. The Belgian team seemed in total control of the race, having placed at times seven men on the front of the peloton during the earlier stages of the race.

That they made a complete meal of it just goes to show that with the right tactics, even the bigger armies can easily be defeated.

When the towering Vandenbergh followed BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet up the road on a sweeping downhill after the Taaienberg, it had looked like the perfect foil for one of Boonen, Terpstra or Stybar. With three stronger cards to play, it was no surprise that Vandenbergh resorted to sandbagging his compatriot Van Avermaet.

But it was the wrong tactic. Boonen - hampered by a thumb injury and recent time off the bike for personal reasons - didn’t have the legs to respond when Cancellara and Sep Vanmarcke accelerated on the Oude-Kwaremont climb 17km from the finish. Boonen and Terpstra tried their best after the Paterberg, but the chasing group could do nothing to reel in the leading quartet that formed thirty seconds up the road after the final climb.

When it came to the sprint for victory there was a sense of inevitability about it, with one Swiss ‘Can’ better than three Belgian ‘Vans’.

Not known for his kick, Vandenbergh had a couple of digs from distance before all but settling for fourth place in what OPQS described as “a sprint of dying swans”.

And it was the black swan, Cancellara, who came out the strongest. Had Van Avermaet not been obliged to drag Vandenbergh over the final 30km, we may have seen the habitual bridesmaid from BMC could seal his first Monument win. As for Vanmarcke, Cancellara had the psychological advantage of beating the Belkin youngster in the finale of last year’s Paris-Roubaix.

After soloing to victory in his two previous Flanders scalps, Cancellara secured the hat-trick in a very different way: biding his time before relying on his sprint - a weapon that has let him down in Milan-San Remo for the past four years - to place him to the top of the podium.

There was no place for OPQS on the podium - and three places in the top ten will be scant consolation for a team that defines it season by its showing in the cobbled classics. The result echoed that of E3 Harelbeke a week earlier when, despite having both Terpstra and Vandenbergh in the final four-way sprint, OPQS could only manage to place the Dutchman on the second rung of the podium, above Sky’s Geraint Thomas but well below Cannondale’s Peter Sagan.

Cancellara’s win now puts him one race away from becoming the first rider in history to secure three Flanders-Roubaix doubles.

Asked if his latest monumental performance had made him the human embodiment of the famous fire-breathing Gothic lion on the flag of Flanders, Cancellara was quick to stamp his own authority and individuality on the matter.

“No,” he said, adding with a smile: “I am the Spartacus of Flanders.” (Somewhere in Oudenaarde a budding entrepreneur is no doubt fixing up a run of t-shirts bearing those very words.)

As his rider crossed the line ahead of Van Avermaet and Vanmarcke, Trek Factory Racing manager Dirk Demol was going crazy in the team car. Inexplicably, he shouted out the words “F***ing C***” when, perhaps, a simple “cunctator” would have sufficed.

Felix Lowe (@saddleblaze)

Read more about Hannibal and his pachyderm peloton of war elephants in Felix Lowe’s forthcoming book: ‘Climbs and Punishment - Riding to Rome in the Footsteps of Hannibal’.

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