Riding with Spartacus: Fabian Cancellara on retirement, Rio de Janiero and Richmond Park - Road Cycling UK

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Riding with Spartacus: Fabian Cancellara on retirement, Rio de Janiero and Richmond Park

"The bike has given me so much during my career and it will still give me so much after my career"

The tight-knit group shows the first signs of fracturing as the road begins to rise. It’s only a short climb – a speed bump just a couple of hundred metres long – but the gradient nudges over ten per cent and that’s enough for small gaps to grow between wheels. “I didn’t know there was a climb in Richmond Park,” says one rider with a chuckle, moving up from behind my right shoulder. It’s Fabian Cancellara.

The group returns to formation at the crest of the hill and I find myself on the front of the bunch with one of cycling’s undoubted all-time greats. A two-time Olympic champion, four-time world champion, three-time Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix winner, and eight-time Tour de France stage winner. I’ve ridden this road countless times before, but never in such illustrious company.

Cancellara, who retired from cycling after the 2016 Olympic Games, where he won a second time trial gold medal after previously triumphing in Beijing, is in London as an ambassador for Gore, but this isn’t the 36-year-old’s first visit to Richmond Park. As our group swoops down the short descent of Dark Hill, we join the London 2012 road race route.

Around half of the park’s seven-mile loop, a haven for the city’s cyclists, was used in 2012. Just ten miles from the finish line, Cancellara crashed on a fast right-hand turn at Kingston Gate, locking his wheels and hitting the barriers while leading the 32-rider breakaway group that had earlier picked the pockets of Mark Cavendish and the Great Britain team.

Fabian Cancellara retired after capping an illustrious career with time trial gold at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Pic: SWPix.com)

Cancellara climbed back on his bike but the lead group was out of sight, along with any hope of a medal. Alexandre Vinokourov outsprinted Rigoberto Uran to claim gold and Cancellara limped home in 106th with heavy bruising, his hopes of defending the time trial title won in China four years earlier also severely dented. Four days later, the injured rider finished seventh against the clock in Hampton Court.

“I was ready to rumble,” recalls Cancellara during a Q&A held at the Sigma Sport store on the conclusion of our ride. “I came fast because I was leading but it was a tricky corner. The braking issue I had at that time, that was my mistake – a huge mistake – and it cost me a medal or two. I don’t know if I’d have won but the way we were racing with the Swiss national team was perfect up until that moment.”

Returning from London empty-handed was one of the low points of an illustrious career, Cancellara says, and while he hadn’t broken any bones, the mental scars inflicted by the crash took longer to heal than any physical injury.

“This is sport, you win and you lose, but the way I lost, it took me quite a few months to recover – mentally to recover,” says Cancellara. “It was my mistake so I asked a lot of questions about myself. I had no motivation, zero. I said, ‘damn, I don’t want to see this bike, just leave me’. I needed time not just to recover from the crash but everything.”

Cancellara crashed on the corner of Richmond Gate (pictured here during out ride this month) during the London 2012 road race, a “huge mistake” which cost him a shot at a medal (Pic: Russell Burton)

Cancellara took the rest of the 2012 season off, requiring surgery on a four-part collarbone fracture sustained earlier that year in the Tour of Flanders, but returned with renewed vigour and in 2013 enjoyed one of his finest campaigns. Having finished third at Milan-San Remo, the opening Monument of the season, Cancellara won E3-Harelbeke and, for the second time, the cobbled Classics double: the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.

“When you have no motivation, don’t push it,” says Cancellara of his journey back to form. “Of course, I had my responsibilities for the team and sponsors, but when it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. I took my time off and it was important because I came back stronger. I was working hard again and I won Harelbeke, I won Flanders and I won Roubaix. That’s not bad, right?”

Fabian Cancellara, 2010 Paris-Roubaix, velodrome, finish line (Pic: Sirotti)
Fabian Cancellara, 2014 Tour of Flanders, cobbles, attack (Pic: Sirotti)
Fabian Cancellara, 2014 Tour of Flanders, victory, finish line (Pic: Sirotti)

Now he has retired, Cancellara is philosophical of the challenges which shaped his career. The low points of 16 years as a professional cyclist help to provide the firepower which resulted in the regular highs most pros only dream of.

“Not everything is possible,” he says. “Of course, I’d love to have won everything, but it’s just not possible. I lost something [in London] but I also won something back. Those down moments made me stronger.”

“I lost something [in London] but I also won something back. Those down moments made me stronger”

Having turned professional with the Mapei team in 2001, Cancellara established himself as the finest time trial riders of his generation, winning his first Tour de France prologue as a 23-year-old in 2004. That victory also saw Cancellara pull on the yellow jersey for the first time and, having also worn the maillot jaune in five subsequent Tours (2007, 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2015), ended his career as the rider to have led the race longest without winning the overall title.

Cancellara is now unequivocal in his description of the Tour – “a circus, it’s too big” – and it was in the Spring Classics where he won most fans. Cancellara’s nickname, Spartacus, was first touted by a Fassa Bortolo team-mate, the Italian Roberto Petito, in 2004 as a result of his imposing physique and style on the bike, but Cancellara’s gladitorial rides on the cobbles ensured it stuck throughout his career. Cancellara’s first Roubaix win came in 2006, before he did the double for the first time in 2010. Two more triumphs followed in 2013, of course, before a third Flanders win in 2014.

The following season would bring little luck. Cancellara crashed out of the Spring Classics and Tour de France, the latter coming in one of the most dramatic crashes in recent Tour history, the maillot jaune’s yellow bike seen bouncing down the side of the road. Cancellara then abandoned the Vuelta a Espana and missed the World Championships, and in November 2015 announced his plans to retire at the end of the following campaign. An injury-plagued season had taken its toll, if not physically then mentally.

“In the end, what makes the difference is mental strength. When I retired I could have gone on for another two years, my body wasn’t tired or weak,” says Cancellara. As one of the all-time stars of the sport, Cancellara wanted to burn bright until the end. “I wanted to leave cycling on a high,” he adds.

Cancellara’s performances in the Spring Classics, where he twice did the Flanders-Roubaix double, earned him an army of fans (Pic: SWPix.com)

Cancellara built his 2016 form around the Spring Classics once again, winning the Strade Bianche for the third time and finishing second at the Tour of Flanders behind Peter Sagan, before returning to the Giro d’Italia for the first time since 2009. “Everyone said the Tour was too hard,” says Cancellara, choosing instead to use the Giro as his main Grand Tour to build fitness for the Olympics, though he did start an 11th and final Tour de France, eventually withdrawing after two homecoming stages in the Swiss city of Bern.

“I did Athens, Beijing and London so going to the Olympics for a fourth time was special,” he says. “There aren’t many athletes who have done that in cycling.”

Fabian Cancellara, Rio 2016, Olympic Games, time trial (Pic: SWPix.com)
Rio 2016 Olympic time trial, Fabian Cancellara, Chris Froome, Tom Dumoulin (Pic: Sirotti)

Cancellara was initially unsure of his form and set an early target of top five in the Rio time trial. “I felt if everything was good then that would have been an amazing result,” he says. “But as the days passed before I left Switzerland to go to Rio, the more ready I felt. I said if I can get a medal then it’d be fantastic, but of course, on the inside – deep, deep, deep inside – I was aiming for the big one.”

Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin started the hilly 54.5km time trial as favourites, but Cancellara defied pre-race predictions to beat the Dutchman by 47 seconds, with Froome, the bronze medallist in London four years earlier, another 15 seconds back.

“I was in my own world, my own tunnel, and at the end of the tunnel was a gold medal”

“I was in my own world, my own tunnel, and at the end of the tunnel was a gold medal,” says Cancellara, whose life as a professional cyclist was over. “On August 1st, when I left my family in Switzerland, I said if I win a gold medal, it’s over. At the finish line after we saw that I won, the first thing I said to the coach was, ‘let’s call [Trek president] John Burke, it’s over, the president has to know, I don’t do any more bicycle races’.”

Does he miss it? “No,” Cancellara answers emphatically. Straight to the point, one word is enough. He was ready to retire and has no regrets, not from London, not from the World Championships (Cancellara finished in the top ten of the road race three times, including fourth in 2011). However, the cobbled Classics, and Flanders in particular, will always be special to him.

Retirement hasn’t brought the quiet life, though. Cancellara continues to work as an ambassador for Trek, the company which designed the Domane for his assault on the cobbles, and now Gore. He has also launched a series of amateur events, dubbed Chasing Cancellara, and has partnered with the TriStar triathlon series, which places a greater emphasis on cycling than is typical in the sport. Cancellara has insisted on taking an active role in the events. “I don’t just want to be a face,” he says, and speaks of encouraging all levels of rider to take part.

“I get so much out of riding my bike,” says Cancellara (Pic: Russell Burton)

“I have less time than I had before as an athlete, that’s the truth,” adds Cancellara. Time-management aside, life away from the peloton has brought other challenges, too. “I’m 90kg now,” he says.

That’s little surprise given Cancellara’s frame and the fact he is no longer riding between 25,000 and 30,000 kilometres a year. Instead, he has learnt to “eat differently” while also enjoying the fruits of retirement. “I don’t want to change too much clothing in my closet, because that’s expensive,” he jokes, “but in the end, I’m ok. I feel good. I’m not a pro anymore so I can live differently and I don’t have to sacrifice all the time.”

Cancellara drew a big crowd for a Q&A at London’s Sigma Sport (Pic: Russell Burton)

Cancellara may not have to make the sacrifices of a professional athlete anymore – training, time away from home, living out of a suitcase, watching his weight – but he still rides regularly. Cancellara is a still cyclist at heart – one who has enjoyed a career at the very top of the sport –  but now he rides for the very same reasons as you and I.

“The bike has given me so much during my career and it will still give me so much now after my career”

“I still have the same passion as I did before, when I started as a professional,” he says. “My passion became my work but that passion never disappeared. With the bike you can do so much. It cleans my brain, I’m free and I get so much out of riding my bike, mentally and physically. The bike has given me so much during my career and it will still give me so much now after my career.”

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