As fans of Roger Federer will no doubt attest, when Swiss sportsmen get good, they get very good. Athletes of Federer’s calibre are rare, but cyclist Fabian Cancellara is one pro who can certainly claim to match his compatriot’s individual efforts in his respective sport.
Nicknamed ‘Spartacus’ for his gladiatorial physique and unwillingness to shy away from seemingly uphill struggle, Cancellara, like his ancient namesake, knew all about the triumph of victory. The Wohlen bei Bern-born biker’s 15-year career began as a time-triallist and led to him clinching the World Championships a staggering four times, as well as ten National Championships, and two Olympic gold medals.
“Winning bike races is the one thing, but I don’t think it is the only way to become a champion,” the 37-year-old muses. “You need to deal with everything around that, and everything afterwards, and when major changes are made, the champion needs to handle that - what is a champion? Only winning once title, or handling everything, or keeping a certain level? I don’t say I’m a champion, this is other people to say, this is a story told about me. I am humble; I have my feet on the ground. I just followed my dreams and my goals and what I wanted to achieve.”
Even so, Cancellara’s achievements speak for themselves, and remain even more impressive given his rocky start in the professional sport. At just nineteen years old, he rode as a stagiare for Maipei Quick-Step – one of the strongest teams in the world at the time. But within two seasons, Maipei had folded.
“Of course, it was hard but on the other hand the journey continues,” Cancellara says of the premature end of his career with Maipei. “We looked for the best sporting possibility to continue, myself and my manager, and my results during the two years in Maipei had been not so bad, I had been making progression, and had got some nice results with a young team.
“The next step was there to make, and I chose the route with Fassa Bortolo, and we had a great three years and I had discovered a new way of riding and I had definitely become a better bike rider.”
Those years at the ‘Silver Team’ also gave Cancellara a chance to ride alongside specialist sprinter Alessandro Petacchi, at a time when the Italian was very much at the top of his game.
“In Maipei I learned about winning together,” nods Cancellara. “But at Fassa Bortolo, Petacchi was the hard man, he was like the general. For him it was more ‘we ride, we go, we don’t need to talk a lot, we don’t think, we don’t need to be spoiled, let’s just go.’ He was a guy who wanted to race. He was not the person to take care of equipment, he wasn’t particularly interested in team spirit, everything went through him: he was the commander.”
His tenure with Petacchi was, to Cancellara, one of the three key steps to his becoming the champion cyclist the sport knows today. In “the balance from Maipei where we won together, to the way Petacchi commanded, and then a different stage again with Team CSC,” under Bjarne Riis, Cancellara become “a better person as much as a better bike rider.”
With CSC, Cancellara also moved seamlessly from trials to Classic Races. It was a career shift that would see him claim the first of numerous Classic victories at Paris-Roubaix in 2006, the first Swiss rider since Heri Suter to do so. Incredibly, however, the move from trial trials to Classics was born as much out of a lack of incentive on Cancellara’s part as it was his boundless natural talent.
“I have won almost everything on time trials, but it’s such an intense sport, and mentally when you train and suffer,” he admits. “The more I won the less I had the feeling of motivation to continue doing it! Instead of training twice per week, I trained once and then maybe not even once a week, and I became a bit lazier – but still I won. But then I thought ‘this is not how it’s supposed to be.’ So, later on, I switched, and I didn’t focus any more on time trialling and I got my motivation back.”
Such candidness is typical of Cancellara, who admits a move into the Grand Tours, though “talked about” in his formative Maipei years, never materialised because physically and mentally he “was not in the right place.” His races, he declared, were always the Classics.
From Paris-Roubaix, to Milan- San Remo, E3 Harelbeke, and, of course, the Strade Bianche, Cancellara’s domination of the Classics took him across Europe during his four years with CSC. Now entering the third year of his retirement, and it certainly appears that he will avoid the scandalous headlines that have claimed many of his fellow former-pros, from Lance Armstrong to Jan Ullrich, even if he admits that he is not yet fully comfortable with his post-racing life.
“It took me years to become a good bike rider, this will take years as well,” he says. “The transformation is an individual one. I don’t say I am suffering, that’s not right, but I’m still working on that transformation. I think with what I am now dealing with over the last two years it is a whole new life experience.
“I definitely like it, I don’t miss racing, I don’t cry about how I am not racing any more, there is nothing that I am sad about. I am a really happy person, I stopped in 2016 after a gold medal - what more do I want? I haven’t won some things, but I stopped at my peak, and that was part of my dream, to stop at my peak and leave when the choice was in my hands and not a contract issue, or a results issue.”