Cycling: Cancellara matches record with Tour of Flanders win

Fabian Cancellara won his third Tour of Flanders, and second in a row, in a four-up sprint to the line following 259km of racing from Bruges to Oudenaarde on Sunday.

The Swiss powerhouse from the Trek team beat Belgians Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), Sep Vanmarcke (Belkin) and Stijn Vandenburgh (Omega Pharma) in a tense sprint following some nervous jockeying in the final kilometre.

Cancellara, known as Spartacus in cycling circles, joined five other riders in winning a record three Tours of Flanders.

"I still don't know how I really managed all this. Maybe on television it looks like I was playing, but I was just trying to go with these four riders to the finish line and go man against man." the 33-year-old said.

"I knew I had one card to play: I never attacked, I was mostly on defence, that's why I said 'go with them to the finish and give everything you have'.

"To win in a sprint after the way I won last year (going solo) is really special."

After six hours 15 minutes of thrilling racing, Cancellara proved not only the strongest, but the master tactician.

First and foremost, just staying on the bike had proved a challenge in itself in a race marred by numerous crashes.

The worst of which saw a 65-year-old female spectator suffer life-threatening injuries, according to Belgian police, after being knocked over by Belgian rider Johan Vansummeran, who was also taken to hospital with suspected facial fractures.

- Numerical advantage -

Even the favourites were going down as twice-former winner Stijn Devolder's chances were scuppered by two crashes, 110km and 53km from the end.

That second crash, just before the first ascent of the Paterberg, contributed to a major split in the peloton, which was reduced to about 30 riders.

Although a few others got back in touch, an attack from Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen, Belgian Dries Devenyns and Vandenburgh eventually saw a lead group reduced to 13 riders, including four from Omega Pharma.

But they couldn't exploit that numerical advantage despite Vandenburgh spending most of the last 38km as part of one lead group or another.

Van Avermaet had made an attack 31km from home with Vandenburgh, who was working as a foil for three-time winner Tom Boonen, covering the move.

"I can be happy with my ride but not the result," said Van Avermaet.

"I believe I rode the perfect race. I really thought I could win because I attacked in the best moment."

Vandenburgh gave Van Avermaet no help but their break lasted until the final difficulty of the race, the thigh-busting second ascent of the Paterberg climb 12km from the end.

At that point Van Avermaet dropped his compatriot but by then, Cancellara and Vanmarcke were closing in.

Cancellara had made his move 5km earlier as he attacked the chase group on the third ascension of the tough Oude Kwaremont.

That chase group had been a minute behind the two leaders but Cancellara's attack, which was followed only by Vanmarcke, proved devastating and quickly ate into the two leaders' gap.

"I tried to do something on Kwaremont and see how it goes," said Cancellara.

"I moved up with Sep to the two riders on the front."

Van Avermaets held on ahead of the trio behind for a few more kilometres but he was reeled in with 7km left.

Vandenburgh still refused to help the other escapees but Cancellara bided his time and when it came down to a game of cat and mouse inside the final few hundred metres, he was the one who took the initiative and used his strength to attack at just the right moment and make it stick.

Boonen came home in seventh place, just ahead of Britain's Geraint Thomas, whose illustrious Sky teammate and compatriot Bradley Wiggins was 32nd, 1min 43sec down.

"I've got to be realistic, I came up short. I felt good but it wasn't enough. I've got one week to rediscover confidence and strength," said Boonen, who has also won Paris-Roubaix four times.