Cycling - All hail Spartacus!

Aaron S. Lee doffs his cap to the great Fabian Cancellara after Spartacus' Tour of Flanders victory at the weekend.

Cycling - All hail Spartacus!

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Trek Factory Racing team rider Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland celebrates winning the 98th Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) Classic (Reuters)

The great Jens Voigt (Trek Factory Racing) best summed up team-mate Fabian Cancellara’s second straight Tour of Flanders victory – third overall –after posting the word “Legend” atop the finishing pic of the now seven-times ‘Monuments’ champion on Jensie’s own personal Facebook wall just minutes after the man known worldwide as ‘Spartacus’ outsprinted a trio of Belgians, including emerging nemesis Sep Vanmarcke (Team Belkin) on Sunday.

Being labelled a legend by a legend is the biggest of all compliments and Southern Spin could actually stop there, but why not delve deeper into its significance. For as great as Voigt is, even his vaunted palmarès falls short of Cancellara’s four world time trial championships (2006-07, 2009-10), 10 national road (2009, 2011) and time trial titles (2002, 2004-08, 2012-13), and of course his 2008 Olympic time trial gold and road race silver medals.

Cancellara has won eight individual stages at the Tour de France and three at the Vuelta a España. His one-day stage race wins include Danmark Rundt (2006), Tirreno-Adriatico (2008), Tour de Suisse (2009) and Tour of Oman (2010), but his latest victory over the cobbles was magnificent and made for arguably the most exciting bike race of 2014 thus far – and perhaps one of his finest efforts to date.

His heroic win is enough to make iconic Hollywood toughman Kirk Douglas smile – a man known for his lead role in Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 sword-and-sandal epic of the Thracian gladiator known as ‘Spartacus’ – a name bestowed upon Cancellara for his rugged prowess and fearless courage on the bike.

The 98th edition of the 'Vlaanderens mooiste' (Dutch for Flanders’ finest) was a perfect setting for a clash of titans with its bone-breaking cobbles and leg-smashing climbs that seemed as insurmountable as the legions of Rome as the movie's slave rebellion faced in 71 BC. Like Douglas’ fictional character, Cancellara never wavered.

Flanders is a heavyweight fight across a Flemish battlefield, and the pro peloton wasted little time showing aggression from the opening bell. In one corner was the reigning champion; in the other was fellow three-times winner – and local hero – Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), as well as the ever-dangerous Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and emerging threat Vanmarcke in what would serve as a rematch of last year’s Paris-Roubaix in which Cancellara outsprinted the lanky, 190cm-tall Belgian in the closing lap inside the velodrome.

Now the two combatants were squaring off again, marking each other en route to chasing longtime race leaders Taylor Phinney (BMC), Stig Broeckx (Lotto-Belisol) and Daryl Impey (Orica-GreenEdge) with just 40 kilometres remaining in the staggering 259-kilometre race.

Crashes and mechanicals were rampant over the gruelling course. To survive unscathed was simply a lottery. Fresh blood and skin were strewn over the cobbles in front of hordes of rabid fans lining the narrow lanes across the Belgian landscape. The bloodlust of Flanders deserves a TV-14 rating from Eurosport with every rider squeezing every last drop of energy and resolve to battle wheel-to-wheel, elbow-to-elbow over carbon-snapping divots toward soul-destroying gradients of 20 to 22 per cent that appear from nowhere as walls of granite that reach to the sky but lead straight to hell.

The course tests both mettle and skill. It separates the haves and the have-nots with riders enduring massive amounts of punishment and searing lactic pain to remain firmly planted in the saddle to grind crank after miserable crank over each and every excruciating climb. Many riders succeed, while some succumbed to the tortuous Paterberg (12.9% average gradient) and it’s equally evil twin, the Koppenberg (11.6%), and dismount to unashamedly walk the bike up portions of the 360m and 600m climbs respectively – no shame at all as lesser men would balk at even the thought of such hardship.

In the end it was Cancellara who stood tall amongst the fallen to further etch his name in the history of cycling folklore with 10 straight Monuments podiums.

A cunning Cancellara bided his time, allowing Vanmarcke – who would finish third overall just behind Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and narrowly ahead of Stijn Vandenbergh (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) – to attack futilely before he quickly absorbed the assault with seemingly effortless response. The quartet found themselves at a near standstill as survivors of a six-hour tug of war, and with just 300 metres remaining Cancellara delivered the final blow and thus stamped his authority over his challengers.

Boonen finished seventh in a failed bid for a fourth Flanders title, while Sagan rode valiantly, but his Cannondale cavalry could not bridge the gap to support falling hero, so the young 24-year-old Slovakian finished 16th but lives to fight another day.

With the win, Cancellara joins Italian Fiorenzo Magni, along with Belgians Paul Deman, Achiel Buysse, Eric Leman, Johan Museeuw and Boonen with three race wins each – the most all time. Combined with a close second-place at Milan-San Remo just two weeks ago, Cancellara clearly enters the 112th Paris-Roubaix in top form and as an odds-on choice to repeat and complete a Flanders-Roubaix double for the second year in succession. Or can Vanmarcke find a solution to his problem that is Cancellara?

Round three starts in Compiègne on April 13 and with 28 cobblestone sections scattered throughout 257 kilometres, it is expected to be, … wait for it, … wait for it, … – legend(-ary)!

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