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Fabian Cancellara: retirement beckons

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.

James Witts
29 Jan 2016

Italy meets Switzerland

He was born in Wohlen bei Bern on 18 March 1981 to Donato and Rosa Cancellara. Donato came to Switzerland from Italy when he was 18. He met Swiss girl Rosa, they married and had their only child, Fabian, raising the future star in a small town called Hinterkappelen, near Bern.

‘My dad arrived with little money and just one bag. He did all sorts of work to survive. He was also a cycle tourist rider and raced some events around the city. One day, when I was 13, I asked if I could have a go on his bike.’

It was the start of a successful sporting career, but things could have been so different. If Donato had banned brakepads in favour of shinpads, young Fabian could well have been lost to football. 

Fabian Cancellara

‘I played a lot. At 13 my life was football and cycling. It was Monday football, Tuesday cycling, Wednesday football, Thursday cycling, Friday cycling, Saturday football, Sunday cycling. I was either racing or playing football. I was an attacker and I couldn’t have been as good as Messi, Ronaldo and Rooney, but in football there are more opportunities for “less-good” sportsmen to make it. In cycling, everyone has to be really good.’ 

Cycling eclipsed football for young Fabian, and after finishing second at the 2000 Under-23 World Time-Trial Championships he turned professional with a team deemed by many as the greatest ever – Italian-based Mapei. Mapei existed for 10 seasons from 1993 to 2002 and in that time won an incredible 653 times. 

Owner Giorgio Squinzi recruited the greatest Classics riders of the day, including Johan Museeuw and Michele Bartoli, giving a young Cancellara an insight into what it takes to win a Monument. Mapei were also vocal opponents of doping (despite Museeuw later confessing to doping), with Squinzi referred to as ‘a man of science and rationality’ by Charly Wegelius in his book Domestique.

‘In 2000 we undertook technical bike-fitting at the Mapei Centre and were the original marginal gainers,’ says Cancellara. ‘That wasn’t as big a focus at Fassa Bortolo [2003-2005] and even less so under Bjarne [Riis at CSC between 2006-2010]. It’s gone full circle as there’s now a much greater scientific focus with Trek.’

Cancellara won his first pro race in 2001 at the Tour of Rhodes prologue – ‘I beat Bradley Wiggins into second’ – before riding into a different league three years later by winning the Tour de France prologue. It was the first time Cancellara wore yellow. Eleven years later, in 2015, he wore the maillot jaune for the 29th day in his career, the most by any rider not to have won the race. He sits 12th in the all-time rankings of days in yellow, one behind Chris Froome.

Cancellara counts 2006 as perhaps the year that had the biggest effect on his career, when he won Paris-Roubaix for the first time. ‘It altered things in many ways. It’s the biggest one-day race, and Switzerland hadn’t won Roubaix since 1923. It also brought more media attention. That and winning the World Time-Trial Champs, getting married and having a baby made it a huge year.’

Professional reflections

‘The sport has changed a lot,’ says Cancellara. ‘Now you race less but it’s more intense. Earlier in my career I was riding with a different generation [the Armstrong era]. Now, a young rider has a greater chance to perform well.

‘The teams also have more structure and there’s more specificity with training.’ He smiles. ‘It’s more Sky style. They brought in things like reverse periodisation [keeping intensity high in winter and increasing volume as the season nears] but no one knows the exact details. Riders must have to sign a non-disclosure agreement. 

Fabian Cancellara

‘Nutrition’s changed a lot, too. We now have a cook and things are more precise. But I think there’s much more potential with food and science. You can manipulate the type of carbohydrates and protein, and the timing of ingestion, for different results. Are you allergic or do you need gluten-free? Lactose-free? Eggs or no eggs? Lots of different combinations for better results. Though, of course, what Sky do with their support staff and what we do with quality food costs money. You can’t cut corners.’

It sounds like Cancellara is already considering a wider role in the sport. ‘I want to continue with Trek but not in a PR or ambassadorial way. It’s something both of us want.’

Cancellara’s inquisitive nature and devil-in-the-detail approach means bike design could be one option, and he’s already had significant input into the Trek Domane. It’s also clear that Cancellara enjoys the quieter lifestyle of living in Switzerland, and doesn’t feel the need to retain a high public profile. It begs the question, if Cancellara does head down the bike-design route, would the result possess the Italian flair or Swiss precision from his genetic lineage?

‘I’m definitely more Swiss the older I get. The Swiss are more precise. Italians are always late. Today, yes I was late but I blame that on the traffic. Italians are open and very much about the family. Swiss are more closed. Mind you, that probably means I’m still a combination of the two!’ 

Perhaps it’s this marriage of nature and nurture, science and intuition, that has made Fabian Cancellara one of the most successful riders of a generation.

Page 2 of 2Cancellara: the early years

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Page 2 of 2Cancellara: the early years