It may have been Easter all over the world, but for Belgium, the Tour of Flanders was the holiday more worthy of celebration. This classic bike race, the 97th running since 1913, celebrates bike racing like a national holiday. Part of the celebration is going out and spectating somewhere along the super-hard 256km (160mi) course that takes the riders over seventeen climbs, most of them paved in cobblestones, and several flat cobblestone sectors. That's in addition to the wind and countless kilometers on narrow roads where position is paramount.
Cannondale Pro Cycling's Peter Sagan came into the race as one of two heavy favorites thanks to his dominating solo victory at Ghent-Wevelgem, a race run over many of the same roads a week ago, and his sprint victory on the first stage of the Three Days of De Panne several days ago. The other heavy favorite was RadioShack's Swiss star Fabian Cancellara, who also won a major race, E3 Harelbeke, a little over a week ago. And the two finished two-three at the epic Milan-San Remo, where Sagan got the better of the Swiss in the sprint to the line.
With the favorites so clear, both the Cannondale and RadioShack teams rode out of Brugge, the start town, as if they had the race winner. Patrolling the front, the teams controlled the race early on, making sure nobody important got away early and no move rode to too big a gap.
Sagan had a momentary scare as he was eating with 140km (87.5mi) to go and a rider stopped in front of him, and as he had one hand on his bars, Sagan rode into that rider and tumbled. On the ground, back up in a flash, and with his Cannondale team around him, it was easy to ride back to the front.
The narrow and steep cobblestone climbs often spring the winner of the race. Just as often, they end races for people who are out of position. This scenario played out on the Koppenberg with 64km (40mi) remaining. The hill is only 600 meters long, but averages 11.6% and tilts up to 22% in the middle. The front of the pack made it through, but about 40 riders back, just behind Sagan, someone's tires slipped on the stones and he put a foot down. It forced nearly 80 riders off their bikes, and the front group rolled on. Those stuck behind faced a hard chase to get back. Many didn't.
With the kilometers ticking off and the lead group dwindling, Sagan had Fabio Sabatini with him going into the last ascent of the Oude Kwaremont with only 18km (11mi) to go. Sabatini helped drive the pace high into the stone climb and Sagan was near the front when Cancellara put in a hard dig. Only one rider, Lotto-Belisol's Jurgen Roelandts remained off the front, and Cancellara was trying to drop the rest of the leaders in order to get away solo.
Only Sagan could stay with the Swiss over the top of the Kwaremont. And he forced Cancellara to do most of the work catching Roelandts. One more climb, the Paterberg, to go.
As the cobblestone rise started to bite into the legs, Cancellara poured on the gas once again. Roelandts was immediately detached and Sagan lost ground. Over the top of the Paterberg, only 14km (8.75mi) remaining, and a five-second gap on Sagan, the Swiss shifted onto the big chain ring, and roared away.
Cancellara is a time trial specialist, Sagan a sprinter first, and if the two came to the finish together, Sagan would almost certainly win. Cancellara didn't want that to happen, so he drove as hard as he could.
Sagan saw he couldn't close the gap on his own, so he smartly waited for Roelandts to catch him and the two rode together. But Cancellara had plenty of energy and extended his lead, while Sagan and Roelandts ground out the final kilometers just in front of the chasing pack.
Cancellara crossed the finish line in Oudenaarde for his second Tour of Flanders victory with a 1:27 gap to Sagan, who easily dispatched Roelandts in the sprint. A pack of nineteen sprinted for fourth, 1:39 in arrears.
It's hard to be happy with second, but in a big race like this, every place is earned. A reality Cannondale's young Slovak understands. "I didn't go with Fabian because I was tired. The possibility was only for second. I was happy with second, for Fabian was very strong today. I did my maximum." With two second places in the first two "monuments" of the 2013 season suggests a big victory is close. And for a race like Flanders, where experience might be as important as strength, the result also bodes well. "This is a very nice race, and I think my victory here is waiting for me."
Waiting or not, the classics season continues. The next stop for Cannondale Pro Cycling, and the best bike racers in the world is Paris-Roubaix. Roubaix, The Hell of the North, is Sunday, April 7.
2013 Tour of Flanders Brugge-Oudenaarde, Belgium-256km March 31, 2013
1. Fabian Cancellara (Swi) RadioShack-Leopard - 6:06:01
2. Peter Sagan (Svk) Cannondale Pro Cycling - 0:01:27
3. Jurgen Roelandts (Bel) Lotto-Belisol - 0:01:29
4. Alexander Kristoff (Nor) Katusha - 0:01:39
5. Matthieu Ladagnous (Fra) FDJ - same time