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Three-time Paris-Roubaix champion Fabian Cancellara watched Peter Sagan’s victorious ride on Sunday from Park City, Utah, where he was attending the launch of a new Gore Wear jacket as brand ambassador.
The Swiss star called Sagan’s long-range attack from 55km out “beautiful,” saying, “Sagan saw the opportunity and did it himself.”
“It was all hard work to make that move, but he needed to do it for himself,” Cancellara said. “His talk last week showed me he had the fire to win, and he showed today he can work himself without teammates.”
Cancellara took two of his three Roubaix titles with solo attacks. The first came in 2006, his first Monument victory, 1:49 ahead of Tom Boonen, although in that race Boonen was moved up from fifth to second after three riders — Leif Hoste, Peter Van Petegem, and Vladimir Gusev — were disqualified for running a closed train crossing. In that edition, Cancellara attacked on the five-star cobblestone sector of Carrefour de l’Arbre, 17km from the line. Only Gusev could follow, though Cancellara had dropped the Russian and gone clear before the train crossing. Cancellara’s original winning margin was 1:23 ahead of the disqualified trio.
“I knew I had to finish on my own to have a chance of winning,” Cancellara said at the time. “I knew I needed to use my head and attack at the right time.”
Cancellara’s second Roubaix title came in 2010, one week after soloing to victory at the Tour of Flanders, 1:15 ahead of Boonen. In the Roubaix velodrome in 2010 Cancellara won by two minutes ahead of Thor Hushovd after attacking alone from more than 40km out and opening a gap of three minutes.
Cancellara’s final Roubaix victory, in 2013, came out of a two-up sprint against Sep Vanmarcke, 31 seconds ahead of Niki Terpstra — much like Sagan’s victory Sunday.
At that edition, Cancellara attacked the main bunch with about 35km remaining, caught a lead group that contained Quick-Step’s Stijn Vandenbergh and Zdenek Stybar, and then rode away with Vanmarcke after Vandenbergh crashed and Stybar clipped a spectator.
Sagan’s victory on Sunday didn’t carry the same drama at the end, though the world champion also won a two-up sprint against Sylvain Dillier (Ag2r La Mondiale), with Terpstra again taking the third podium position.
Cancellara and Sagan also battled it out a few times on the cobblestones, with Cancellara winning the 2013 Tour of Flanders alone, 1:27 ahead of Sagan, one week before his 2013 Roubaix victory. In that race, Cancellara dispatched Sagan with a blistering attack on the Paterberg with 14km remaining.
Now a spectator — a very informed spectator — Cancellara shared some thoughts on how we won Roubaix — and how Sagan won it on Sunday, one week after he’d finished a disappointing sixth at the Tour of Flanders and took criticism for not racing more aggressively.
“The [Roubaix] win in 2006 was beautiful, because it was only me that knew it was possible,” Cancellara said. “In 2010 everyone was against me, like they are now against Sagan. It wasn’t enough to be strong then, I was known, so I took patience instead.”
Analyzing Sagan’s victory Sunday, Cancellara said Sagan’s timing, as well as the size of the chase group, both played key factors against the Quick-Step juggernaut of Terpstra, Stybar, Philippe Gilbert, and Yves Lampaert.
“Quick-Step played it well, but they counted too much on numbers early,” Cancellara said. “They counted on Sagan using others to gain his time, but like my  move, it has to be alone at the right time. When you have that time [gap], it cannot be closed. Even a group of four cannot ride faster at the end because the race is so long. The move was beautiful because it was efficient and smooth.
“For me in 2010 the [chase] group was big. People looked around and said no to doing the work. For Sagan, it was the same. When there are questions, all you need is 10 seconds to drive and that gap will stay. You can’t attack late in the cobbles when Sagan rides the corners like that. He will still be faster.”