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Fabian Cancellara: retirement beckons

James Witts
29 Jan 2016

Fabian Cancellara is one of the greatest riders of all time. Ahead of his retirement in 2016, he tells us the qualities needed to win.

It’s late November near Covent Garden, London. Commuters rush past as rain starts to fall. Cars edge along at walking pace. All the signs are that this will be an instantly forgettable morning in the capital. Or it would be if I wasn’t so nervous. 

‘It’s 9.28am,’ I mutter to photographer Alex. ‘He should have been here 28 minutes ago.’ Fabian Cancellara, one of the greatest time-triallists and one-day riders of a generation, a man who is the living embodiment of that most Swiss of traits – precision timing – is late. 

‘Apologies,’ says Cancellara in perfect English (he can speak five languages) when he arrives at Cyclefit, bike fitter for Trek Factory Racing and the location for our interview. ‘The traffic system is…’ he searches for the exact word ‘…difficult in London.’ 

The last time Cancellara was in the capital was July 2014 when he finished behind a rampant Marcel Kittel on Stage 3 of the Tour. ‘I’ve never really done London properly,’ he says. ‘My friends had a bachelor weekend [stag do] here. I would have joined them but I had to train. Never mind. I’ll have plenty of time when I’m retired…’

Closing time

Fabian Cancellara

Just two weeks before our interview Cancellara confirmed cycling’s worst-kept secret – that 2016 will be his final season of racing. After 16 years as a professional, Spartacus will brush off the cobble dust and ride into the Swiss sunset.

And who can blame him? In 2015 Cancellara broke his back twice, first at E3 Harelbeke in March and then during Stage 3 of the Tour de France while wearing yellow. Illness also forced him out of February’s Tour of Oman and September’s Vuelta a Espana. Could it be that his body can’t cope with the punishment any more?

‘Not at all,’ he says. ‘I’m 35 years old next year and physically I could still ride for four years without a problem. But 16 years as a professional cyclist is a long time and has involved a lot of sacrifice for myself, my wife and our two young girls. I don’t want to continue with a good contract and good salary – I want to win. That’s getting harder and harder. Ultimately, cycling is not my life, it’s my passion.’

I suggest to him this passion will see the multi-faceted Cancellara target numerous victories during his farewell year. His reply has the measured quality of an athlete still in recovery. He will, he says, focus on ‘not crashing’, ‘riding relaxed’ and ‘just enjoying the year’. ‘My training will become more intense but it’ll be fun, and that means better results,’ he says. We can be sure that a competitive Cancellara will be looking to add to the three Paris-Roubaix and three Tour of Flanders titles he’s won already.  To that end Cancellara will undergo bike-fitting at the team’s December training camp in Calpe, Spain, and devise a specific training plan to replicate his annus mirabilis of 2013 when he won Flanders and Roubaix within a week of each other, having bounced back from an injury-ravaged year in 2012. 

It was on Sunday 7th April 2013 when Blanco’s Sep Vanmarcke, and Zdenek Stybar and Stijn Vandenbergh of Omega-Pharma-Quick-Step, joined forces with Cancellara to form a leading quartet entering the Carrefour de l’Arbe pavé section with around 20km to go of the Paris-Roubaix one-day Classic. At high speed over the cobbles, both Quick-Step riders clipped spectators. 

Fabian Cancellara

At the finish in the Roubaix velodrome, it was Spartacus versus Vandenbergh. The result never looked in doubt. Cancellara called on his years of experience, slowing down on the wooden track to force his younger contender to lead, before unleashing a perfectly timed late attack to take his third Roubaix title. 

‘I had to play with him in the end,’ Cancellara said after getting the better of poor Vandenbergh. 

It was a very different win to the one he secured seven days earlier in Flanders. During that race, Cancellara displayed his dominance of cobbled racing when he rode away from Peter Sagan after attacking the Slovak on the Paterberg with 8km to go. Or, as commentator Carlton Kirby breathlessly described on Eurosport, ‘Cancellara just put in the single biggest effort I’ve ever seen – and he destroyed Sagan.’

That week provided a microcosm of Cancellara’s career. After winning Flanders, he raced the semi-classic Scheldeprijs in Belgium and crashed after 50km, but still finished. The next day, he crashed again while on a recce of a cobbled section of Roubaix. Where most cyclists eat, sleep and ride, Cancellara wins, crashes and recovers. 

Experience counts

The man known as Spartacus has forged a reputation for excelling when the levels of suffering are at their highest. While others are blinded by exertion, Cancellara retains a clarity of thought and speed of cadence that sees him attack at the most improbable times. Often it looks like suicide. For Cancellara, it’s science meets instinct. 

‘I always have a rough idea of when to make a move, but a lot of race-winning moves are based on intuition. In many ways that’s become more important over the years as the more successful I’ve been, the more the spotlight has shone on me. When I move, the peloton moves. 

Fabian Cancellara

‘It will be interesting to see if riders like John Degenkolb and Alexander Kristoff can still attack in four years like they do now. To be strong is great, but that’s not everything.’

As one of the perennial favourites for the Classics, and the de facto ‘patron’ of the pro peloton, Cancellara is always closely watched by his rivals. ‘How you handle it is key,’ he says. ‘I’ve always handled pressure well. Yeah, I’m nervous before races – especially the past few years, which kills my hunger – but I’ve managed it.’

There are many theories as to what makes Cancellara such a strong rider (other than those oak-like thighs). Some commentators argue it’s down to his positioning and knack of always keeping out of trouble. Others cite his high cadence as his secret to spring Classics success, and that has some grounding. Each time Cancellara has won Roubaix, the course has remained dusty dry. When he raced the wet ‘Roubaix’ stage of the 2014 Tour de France, he finished fifth, bemoaning the slippery cobbles for forcing him to reduce his rpm. 

Cyclist has a theory it’s simply economy of movement. Watch Cancellara in motion and his upper body, head and frame are frozen in time. There’s no lateral movement, meaning every ounce of energy projects the bike forward. His chamois remains glued to the saddle, too. It’s a wise tactic for an athlete over 80kg and 6ft 1in tall, as studies show that heavier riders lose energy fast if they go from weight bearing to non-weight bearing. So committed to this philosophy is Cancellara that he rarely leaves the saddle, even when sprinting in the Roubaix velodrome.

That economy hints at his time-trial pedigree. He won the Junior World Time-Trial Championships in 1998 and 1999, before winning his first senior title in Austria in 2006. He went on to claim a further three world titles over the next four years, as well as Olympic gold in 2008 and numerous prologues around the world including the Tour de France. But in 2009, something changed.

‘I remember the Vuelta that year. The prologue took place in the Netherlands. Usually, like the other riders, I’d warm up for 45 minutes but this time I did just 15 minutes. I’d lost my motivation… but still won. It’s why I can understand that Cavendish is looking to the track in Rio. If you do everything the same, you won’t get the same out.’

Cancellara has since fallen down the time-trial ranks but, according to the team at Cyclefit, he could still dominate if it weren’t for what they call the ‘UCI’s archaic 5cm rule’. It decrees that the tip of the saddle must sit 5cm or more behind the bottom bracket and that the tip of the aerobars from the bottom bracket axle is no more than 75cm, unless the rider is given a morphological exemption.

‘The rule means he’s trying to ride within the parameters of someone who’s 5ft 10in,’ says Phil Cavell of Cyclefit. ‘Fabian could probably go up to 90cm, which would give him greater freedom to generate power. The same applies to his road bike.’ Then again, Cancellara has always made the most of what genetics and the environment gave him…

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