There are many great cyclists in history, but few classy ones. Class takes a career to construct, a consensus to maintain and a moment to erode. It can be gone in a ragged pedal revolution, the announcement of a positive doping test or even the pinch of a podium girl’s bottom. Aesthetics, comportment and quality on the bike matter, but the measure of the man is the foundation.
In professional cycling, Fabian Cancellara epitomises class. He is an object of beauty, flowing round corners like a brook following the natural contours of the land. There is precious little battle between his body and bicycle, even at times of great stress. He goes with it, tames it, his torso all stillness, his whirring legs generating the speed. With this mix of grace and power, Cancellara floats like a butterfly through the bunch and delivers the fatal bee sting near the end.
Even on a rainy late autumn’s day in London, here for interviews and an appearance at the Rouleur Classic, he is similarly urbane. A monogrammed ‘FC’ bag sits to the side and his mix of black jumper and white shirt echoes his Trek Factory Racing kit: stylish, yet on message. An expensive Swiss watch peeks out from his wrist: Cancellara has occasionally been spotted wearing the chunky timepieces in races.
But this master against the clock is running out of time. He is retiring at the end of 2016 and soon cycling will need a new talisman to provide dreams and drama. Cancellara is the closest thing the sport has to a classical hero: when he wins big races, it’s often through Herculean strength; when he falls, you expect a crater to be left in the road.
He is a refreshing antidote to the mundane modern Tour-or-bust specialisation, contending at races from February to September, from time-trials to Classics and even the occasional group sprint and WorldTour stage race.
Bowing out has been on his mind since the start of 2015, a rotten season where the prevailing image was of a champion on his knees, felled by backbreaking crashes at E3 Harelbeke and the Tour de France, and a stomach bug at the Vuelta. It was a bad year, but even Cancellara’s dry seasons are ones that most contenders would readily accept. He still won stages at the Tour of Oman and Tirreno-Adriatico and wore the yellow jersey.
Historically, he’s never down for long. After a quadruple collarbone fracture at the 2012 Tour of Flanders and a dramatic Olympic Games crash, Cancellara returned to take the Ronde-Roubaix double. That’s why smart money is on him going out with a bang.
Making the decision to retire has banished the ever-present pressure on Cancellara’s shoulders. “It went away. Because of having a bad year, I have even less to lose. Even if I crashed out or had so many negatives, I could still always be competitive as a rider… And this is what shows I could reach my level. This is actually where I have the motivation for this season. I know I can still manage that. But to win or not, to crash out or not, this is not in my hands.”
Cancellara acknowledges a shift over time in his approach. “When you’re a younger rider, you think less. About everything. Because you are less responsible. Maybe you don’t have a family yet, all different things. I think this is also what I see, the change. Because a 25-year-old boy doesn’t think the same as a 35-year-old man. That’s ten years’ range where you change. You don’t change your attitude as a person, but you change in your mind, how you deal with things, and you see things differently. At 25, you’re more naïve than 35.”
It is difficult to imagine Cancellara as a young man, such is the length of his time at the top of cycling’s tree. Surely he came out of the womb in an aerodynamic tuck as a bronzed, five o’clock shadow-possessing rock of a man? But at the turn of the millennium, he was a talent whose name elicited no wonder when it first appeared on the Mapei team sheet in 2001. At the squad’s first training camp in Tuscany, some mistook this teenager with puppy fat for the new mechanic. It didn’t take long for him to become the talk of the team.
Trek-Segafredo general manager Luca Guercilena, who was a fledgling Mapei development team coach back then, remembers the young Swiss well. “Fabian was really happy to be with these big names; I’m talking Freire, Garzelli, Bartoli, Museeuw and so on. Climbing a hill on one training ride in Tuscany, he was obviously suffering, but he was whistling, just out of happiness. That made all the great champions quite angry.
“And he didn’t realise why, because you can’t imagine that when you are 19 years old, you don’t have that kind of stress. I remember that afternoon he came to me asking: ‘What happened? I see the guys at the table pissed with me.’ And so we spent a while explaining what the word – sometimes it’s abused – ‘respect’ means, then he realised he should not have whistled in the wheels.”
As Mapei exited cycling, Cancellara moved to Fassa Bortolo, where he linked up with legendary directeur sportif Giancarlo Ferretti and started his Classics apprenticeship in earnest.
“I learned about how tough cycling is there,” he recalls. “Ferretti was a hard one. He was like, ‘ride your bike and don’t cry.’”
His breakthrough came at the 2004 Paris-Roubaix, an experience which stays with him. “The crowds, the atmosphere, the hardness of the race. All the big heroes were standing there at the start line. The year Backstedt won, I came with them into the velodrome… I was a nobody, actually,” he says.
Suffering with cramps, Cancellara led out the four-man sprint and went from first to fourth place in the final 75 metres. It was an error. “But Franco Ballerini said to me afterwards: ‘Listen, you will see. Everything will turn back and you will not just win Roubaix once.’ That was correct.
“I was disappointed, but I had to accept it. I said ‘Hey, I still have many years to go, don’t rush, don’t panic.’ I wasn’t an expert at all, these were the first new experiences I went through. Sometimes it’s better you lose than you win, so you learn from your faults and the mistakes you’ve made. Because if you win, you say ‘ah, what do I need to change for next year? Nothing, I just go on.’
“An example from that time is Damiano Cunego. Look how early he won a Giro and how he couldn’t really proceed from that anymore. Okay, he won Lombardia and so on, but he didn’t really return to this… as a too young rider who wins too big things, it’s too hard to come back on this.”
When he claimed his first Classic, the 2006 Paris-Roubaix, Cancellara was only 26 years old but had been a professional for five years. However, he experienced a similar complacency later in his career against the clock. “I was hungry, hungry, hungry and then suddenly, with the years, the time-trial hunger went away. Because I won everything. Somehow, you reached the highest level on everything.
“In time-trials, I started to do a perfect rollers warm-up training for 35 minutes. Then less and less; suddenly, I only did 20 minutes warm-up, 15 minutes. You don’t have the same focus as before. But you still win. And then suddenly, I turned a bit more to the one-day races.”
He says this shift occurred around 2009 and 2010; perversely, those were still years of time-trial dominance. Victory can cover all manner of sins.
In some aspects of his racing, Cancellara can appear to be a throwback to old-school racing, the supreme physical specimen battering away with brute force to bury his rivals. However, in his mindset, the Swiss has always been forward-looking and meticulous. Cancellara is a perfectionist who doesn’t take short cuts: one time when he wanted to go to Gran Canaria on a winter training camp, he flew over his family and his personal soigneur, Sabine, to join him. Before his triumphant 2013 Tour of Flanders, he spent a week in the region with Luca Guercilena, training, visualising and strategising.
“The best quality he has as a rider is that even if he’s a super champion and a pro for 15 years, he always tries to understand new methodologies, new equipment and so on, that can make him better and faster,” says Guercilena. “I think that being so open-minded has really been an extra value in respect to many others, who don’t want to change anything. For me, the capacity to update and upgrade himself has been what has made him go on winning, season by season.”
Guercilena suggests the only thing that particularly annoys Cancellara is people not being “clear and straight” with him. Give him the unvarnished truth, not yes-man spin. Besides, that’s what he does with his own team-mates.
“Often, he’d tell me to be a bit more aggressive,” says Jesse Sergent, who raced alongside Cancellara for four years at Radioshack and Trek Factory Racing. “The gist was you can be a nice guy off the bike, but on it, you’ve got a job to do. Be friends after the race, but during the race, it’s a whole different story.”
Ever since his youth, Cancellara has been similarly uncompromising in his approach. “I learned with Mapei: vincere insieme – win together. That’s the thing: I race for winning, not for second place. But a lot of situations that I came into after 2006 were instinctive. You kind of have a plan, but you couldn’t follow it, so like now, winning is much harder. Even if I was maybe sometimes strong, it’s not the strongest who wins.”
When one thinks of Cancellara, it is likely as an individual, either smoothly churning to an emphatic time-trial triumph or powering away over cobbles. At his best, he seemed unmatchable, a cycling Salvador Dalí bending time, races and rivals to his will.
His victory at the 2008 Milan-Sanremo was akin to a criminal mastermind telling the police weeks before a robbery how, when and where he would carry it off. He was the overwhelming pre-race favourite and every rival knew that if they gave Cancellara an inch, he’d take a mile. But he still pulled off this Italian job, following an attack by unfancied Iñigo Landaluze two kilometres from the finish and blasting away, out of his slipstream.
Then there was the 2011 E3 Prijs Vlaanderen where he punctured twice, changed his bike and scythed through group after group in pursuit of the leaders, like a man possessed. It was Cancellara versus the world, and Cancellara won. Once he caught them, he attacked again and rode 18 kilometres solo to victory.
In his prime, he had made the ridiculous look easy: Compiègne in the 2007 Tour, the Mendrisio time-trial master class at the 2009 World Championships, the jaw dropping, race-winning acceleration that seemed to flatten the Muur cobbles and Tom Boonen at the 2010 Tour of Flanders, leading to wild allegations of motorised doping: all these outlandish, great hits helped to lend Cancellara a special aura and cement his favourite nickname, Spartacus.
According to Cancellara, the inventor is his former Fassa Bortolo team-mate Roberto Petito, a man who presumably knows something about gladiators, hailing from the Rome outskirts. “It’s a combination. One is personality, one is the way you ride, one is your attitude as a person,” Cancellara explains. “As we see a bit in the [Spartacus] movie, he takes care not only of himself, it was the others and then him. I also did this for so many, many years. And that he was strong, robust, an athlete, muscular, like an emperor.”
Between 2005 and 2013, the cobbled Classics were largely a fight for the throne between Cancellara and Tom Boonen. Gradually, Cancellara’s style of racing evolved from strong-arm lone breaks – the manner in which he won his first five Monuments – as rivals grew wise to his tricks and rode concertedly against him.
“It’s like you have a huge spotlight on you 24 hours,” he says, making a pee-ow noise like one being switched on. “Before you attacked and you won? Wow. And then the more it happened, the less it was possible to still do it because you’d been targeted with the spotlight.”
Cancellara learned to race smarter the hard way, as rivals demoted him to lower rungs of the podium with superior economy and craft, such as Nick Nuyens at the 2011 Tour of Flanders and Simon Gerrans at the 2012 Milan-Sanremo. Perhaps the passage of time – or even hubris – had a hand in blunting the sparkling form of his heyday. On the other hand, part of the Swiss’s popularity comes from that generosity of power: Cancellara never appeared to shirk a turn.
Nevertheless, his most recent Monument wins, the 2013 Paris-Roubaix and the 2014 Tour of Flanders, showed that he could take rivals with him to the finish and outfox them. This is another hallmark of classy champions: they find different ways to win over time.
Cancellara has seven Classic victories – three Flanders titles, three Roubaix cobbles and a Milan-Sanremo – not to mention a quartet of time-trial rainbow jerseys and an Olympic gold medal. Which is the win where he feels he was closest to perfection?
“I think the ’13 Flanders stands out a lot. I came back from my crash [at the 2012 Olympics] and I was focused, trained, mentally strong, the team, equipment, everything. Every single thing was just perfection. Because before at Roubaix ’06, it was a different perfection. There’s a freshness, a young rider [going] ‘ah, I don’t think, I just ride.’ 2014 Flanders was not perfection either, it was just experience. I hadn’t planned in the morning like that.
“All the others, especially the ’13 one, were like a book,” he says, cupping his hands to mimic an open tome. “I believe in perfection. It starts in the morning and it finishes with the win.
“But 2013, that was like you open a door, go somewhere in a cinema room and you watch your own movie. The whole day, I was standing out of my own body so many times. I didn’t even remember the fatigue I had in the last ten kilometres because I was just in another world. I was there riding, but it was like I was standing behind, watching what I was doing. Mentally, it was perfection.”
Has he ever cried after a win? “Nah, but emotional crying, inside, like for happiness,” he says. As Cancellara describes the aftermath of a prestigious victory, a fascinating study of delayed gratification following the clinical execution emerges. “With all the wins, I had to relax. I could not celebrate. I could celebrate the day after, two days after, the week after, but not the night I won. I remember when we went back from the 2013 Flanders victory to the hotel, there was already a huge party in the bus, everyone was pumped. I was just sitting there. I enjoyed my win but I enjoyed it even more when I saw my team members: they were even happier than me.
“I wouldn’t say I had, like, a depression. But you sit there and they are dancing in the bus and drinking beers. And I was just there. I was just… cool.” He exhales with a big phew. “It’s also more the case about my professionalism, that the emotion… there will always be a side that doesn’t go straight away.
“If all the official stuff is done, I just need some air. That air is after you drive back to your hotel by bus… You see your warriors, your helpers, all the team members, you give everyone a hug and say ‘thank you’. Then in your room, you are alone. You go to have a shower and there it’s really like…” He exhales deeply again. “You can breathe. You have your space, your freedom, those are the two different worlds.”
These spheres are so disparate: in the blink of an eye, Cancellara goes from Spartacus, the stoic gladiator persona going down well with the galleries, to the spouse doing the school run on the outskirts of Berne. Yet this grounding is a pivotal part of Cancellara’s success. Before he was even a professional cyclist, he had met the woman who would become his wife.
In 1999, he went to a party in a little Swiss town and got talking to blonde-haired Stefanie. He didn’t think so much of it. Two weeks later, Cancellara went to the local hairdressers, still wearing dirty overalls from his job working on town lighting. He opened the door and there stood Stefanie again. Suddenly, there was a different kind of electricity in the air. It was fate.
He smiles boyishly talking about those first encounters and moves so that his long, jean-clad legs are up on the chair. As Cancellara continues to talk, any remaining aura melts away.
It can be easy for both Cancellara and interviewers to fall back on his fleeting, populist Spartacus façade. Really, he’s just Fabian, the son of Donato, who travelled from Basilicata, one of Italy’s poorest regions, to Switzerland with just a rucksack on his back as a teenager. And so, Swiss reserve and Italian extraversion are mixed up inside Cancellara: he can be the life and soul of a party, but he is also someone who appreciates tranquility and sits in restaurants with his back to the door in the hope he won’t be recognised by too many people. For him, it helped that Stefanie knew nothing about the sport when they met.
“I had won a few races, but I wasn’t on the TV yet so she’s not there for money or glory. That’s also good… I didn’t want to have somebody too much related to cycling. I don’t want to have a fan as a wife.
“She’s mature, she’s older [than me],” he says. “My family also went through ups and downs; we won, we lost,” he says. “2008, with all the scandal they tried to give me, was hard for my family,” he says, alluding to doping allegations. “2012 with the crashes [at the Tour of Flanders and Olympic Games] was quite tough. She had a hard pregnancy and I was away a lot, and she was still supporting me, even in this hard time. Then I sacrificed so much in the winter trying to be top again.”
Given his success, perhaps it’s greedy to speculate what more Cancellara could have achieved. For me, there are two glaring career ‘what if?’ questions. Number one: Tour de France contention. Buoyed by his prologue ability, the Swiss has won eight stages and spent 29 days in the yellow jersey – the most of any rider in history without winning the Tour. If he had set out to win cycling’s be-all-and-end-all early in his career, his palmares would be completely different.
“I think I did right. Because of course, when I was a young boy, I said ‘I want to win the Tour de France.’ But the Tour is a dream, the dream is not a reality. My dream is also to have a private island,” he says, cracking a big smile. “Dreaming is good in life, you need to dream. But there is the reality and then there are also ambitions and goals, that’s actually what cycling gave me a lot of in my life. You want to reach the top, you have to work hard.”
Number two: the Hour Record. This would surely have been the perfect marriage of methodical, powerful man and space age machine. Cancellara considered tackling it: there is even a Merckx-era Hour record bike prototype sitting unused in his Berne basement. However, he dismisses the idea of attempting it in his final season. The idea came and went somewhere along the way.
“Maybe it was a mistake to start. Maybe I started something for other people, but it is how it is. I’m not disappointed. I lost my way, my motivation, because of different circumstances: rules and things from media, communication.”
Aptly for a man who never lacked conviction on the bike, there seem few regrets. Cancellara’s job is done and a mediocre 2016 won’t change a legacy assured by the last dozen years.
“I have big motivation. Okay, this is my last chance. That can also be a pressure. But in the end, I just have to look in all the papers, memories and experiences. I see all I’ve won and done and it’s unique in a way.
“I know I haven’t won the Worlds [road race],” he adds later, mentioning his decision to not participate in the 2015 event, won by Peter Sagan. “But honestly, does the world title or participation change my life, my personal life? No, I don’t think so. Cycling is not my life. Cycling is a different thing.
“Now it’s a kind of job. It’s passion, I love what I do. But this is a few years. I could still ride two, three seasons, probably still get good contracts, maybe still win some things. But my instinct said that now is the right time. This is what I’m looking for: to close the big chapter and start a new one.”
Has the retirement decision changed his mentality? “Recently, yes. I try to enjoy cycling more. This is actually what I should have tried to do before, but because I didn’t really know when this time would come, the rope was always…” He grapples for the word and mimes a taut cord. “It’s a bit looser now.”
Soon he will be able to spend more time with Stefanie and their two children, holiday without thinking of the bike, and play the tourist in the numerous cities he’s passed through, whistlestop, as a man on a sporting mission.
“I always come to London for work. I was at the Tour de France here [twice] and the Olympics, but not really for just enjoyment… I’ve never had a nice dinner in a restaurant or walked through the park. I’ve never been in Harrods. Maybe today I should go because the weather is bad. But it will come.”
The sport will miss Cancellara, but he expects days post-career when he will miss it as well. “You see a World Championships and go damn, why didn’t you train a bit more? Or train a bit this or that? I think it’s normal that this comes. What other people think when they retire and see bike races, I don’t know.”
Often poetic in his reflections, Cancellara returns to one of his favourite similes to sum up his 15 years as a professional. “Every chapter gave me something,” he says. “Every year, I took something out that was bringing me forward. My life as a cyclist, that’s actually an excellent, nice book.”
This article was originally published in issue 60 of Rouleur in January 2016