It’s easy to forget now, as he revels in his status as an adopted Flandrian, but when Fabian Cancellara entered the professional ranks in 2001, few would have envisaged that the Tour of Flanders would be where he would leave his most lasting legacy on the sport.
All the way up until his startling disposal of Tom Boonen on the Muur in 2010, in fact, Cancellara had never even come particularly close to winning the Tour of Flanders. 6th place in 2006 had been his best performance in the Ronde, and the consensus was that Cancellara was a skilled time triallist whose attributes transferred far better to the pavé of Paris-Roubaix than the Flemish Ardennes.
"It took many years," Cancellara conceded on Friday. "Maybe it was just too hard or maybe I didn't think too much to this race. Then suddenly after so many years, in 2010, I was just always up there. It was a late love, but a lasting one."
Winner of the junior time trial title at the World Championships in Valkenburg in 1998 and Verona in 1999, Cancellara picked up a bronze medal in the discipline at under-23 level in 2000, and when he signed on with Mapei at the end of that year, he was billed by some as the next Miguel Indurain, a Tour de France winner in waiting.
Indurain, after all, had carried similar layers of puppy fat through his formative years before undergoing a transformation in his mid-twenties, and for much of the early part of his career, Cancellara laboured under the illusion that he might be able to do likewise. Cancellara joined Fassa Bortolo when Mapei disbanded at the tail end of 2002, and while Giancarlo Ferretti's team was one of the leading Classics squads of the era, at that point, their young Swiss recruit still had designs on metamorphosing into a Grand Tour rider.
"In his head, he wanted to win the Tour. That was his long-term dream, but as the years went by, he eventually realised that his physique wasn't going to allow him to do that," Stefano Zanatta, a directeur sportif at Fassa Bortolo, told Cyclingnews. "But he did a lot of work in that regard early in his career. After he left us, he won a Tour de Suisse, for instance, and he's done some big rides in the Tour."
A rider of Cancellara’s quality was never going to be allowed to bypass the Classics under the command of the 'Iron Sergeant,' of course, and Ferretti sent him north for his first cobbled campaign in 2003. His finished his first Tour of Flanders more than 10 minutes down on winner Peter Van Petegem, but 11th place in Gent-Wevelgem hinted at his possibilities on the terrain.
"He was convinced he could go well in those races from the start. He was very involved in choosing his wheels and tyres, he looked at what guys like Museeuw were doing and wanted to copy them," said Zanatta, now a directeur sportif at Bardiani-CSF. "He'd ask Ferretti for a lot of advice on these races. He knew he wanted to win them."
Fourth place at Paris-Roubaix the following year, at the tender age of 23, was proof of his ability on the pavé. Cancellara's disappointment at finishing fourth in a four-man sprint on the velodrome behind winner Magnus Backstedt, teammate Juan Antonio Flecha and Roger Hammond was tempered by a realisation. "When I missed out there, it was still a sign that I would be back," he said, and there was little surprise when Cancellara won the race for himself in 2006, his first season under the tutelage of Bjarne Riis at CSC.
Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen riding side-by-side in 2010.
The rocky road from Roubaix
In winning Paris-Roubaix, Cancellara continued the longstanding tradition of strong time triallists shining at the Queen of the Classics, following in the line of men like Fausto Coppi, Francesco Moser and Bernard Hinault, but even then, there was no certainty that he would make the leap to competing for the win across the border at the Tour of Flanders.
When Bradley Wiggins attempted to win Paris-Roubaix the past two springs, he noted that the longer, steadier efforts on the pavé of northern France were better-suited to a time triallist than the shorter, sharper efforts required on the hellingen of Flanders.
"The effort is different, but with certain specific work, you can manage to be competitive in both Flanders and Roubaix," Trek-Segafredo manager Luca Guercilena told Cyclingnews. "It's clear that it was a big effort, because it required a lot of specific work to be able to accelerate on those short, sharp climbs you get in Flanders. Fabian put a lot into it and he managed to do it."
Second place behind – who else? – Tom Boonen at E3 Harelbeke in 2007 was an encouraging indicator, as was Cancellara's capable if unspectacular showing at the following year's deadlocked Tour of Flanders, but the great leap forward would come about very suddenly two years later.
One talks now of Boonen versus Cancellara as defining rivalry of the last decade at the Classics, but up until 2010, it was a head-to-head that was confined largely to Paris-Roubaix. Now, at 29 years of age, Cancellara had somehow transformed into a rider capable of accelerating on the steep, punchy climbs of the Ronde.
"It’s hard to say exactly what changed but I’d say it was bit of a physiological development," Guercilena said. "He was the world's top time triallist for years, and right at the same time that his ability in that discipline started to drop off a little bit, that's when he started to win at Flanders.
"He'd been the best time trial rider for a long time and so winning a race like Flanders also gave him a new motivation. It's the kind of race where you can leave your mark on cycling. Mentally, it's maybe easier to devote yourself to winning those races. I think that's what happened to Fabian. His mentality was to make that change and focus on those races, and obviously with his physical characteristics, he was able to do it."
The lessons of 2011
The disarming facility with which Cancellara completed the Flanders-Roubaix double in 2010 made him the overwhelming favourite to repeat the feat the following spring. Accusations that he had used a hidden motor in his bike on the Muur and again in Paris-Roubaix had gained considerable traction in the intervening period, and he lined out in the colours of the newly-formed Leopard-Trek team in defiant mood; keen not only to win those races again, but to do so in ways that hadn't been seen in the modern era.
Cancellara began his campaign with an astonishing fightback and solo win at E3 Harelbeke, leading Garmin-Cervelo manager Jonathan Vaughters to quip that the only way to stop Cancellara was "with a sniper." At the Tour of Flanders, Cancellara attacked alone on the Leberg with 40 kilometres remaining, bridging across to Sylvain Chavanel and ploughing on even when the Frenchman was ordered not to work with him. With grim irony, Cancellara's hubris would catch up with him at the base of the Muur, where he suddenly faded due to cramp.
Although Cancellara would attack again in the finale to force the winning move and claim third place in Meerbeke, the lessons of 2011 would – eventually – force a rethinking of his approach. Over time, he realised that he could no longer simply bludgeon his way to victory. As he advanced in years, some finesse was added to the armoury.
"In 2010, he was younger and managing his strength in certain ways was easier than it is now," Guercilena said. "He's had to work at becoming more efficient and wasting less energy. Up to a few years ago, Fabian was always a rider who used a lot of energy in races, who did more work on the front than all of the others and so on."
Cancellara's 2013 Ronde victory was arguably his most dominant. If anything, the new finale over the Kwaremont and Paterberg suits him better than the old Muur-Bosberg one-two, and his disposal of Peter Sagan that day was an emphatic one. But he had raced with more caution ahead of the Ronde's denouement, leaving teammates Stijn Devolder and Hayden Roulston to do the bulk of the work in forcing the selection.
"Fabian's great strength, certainly in the past five years, has been his ability to adapt," Guercilena said. "He's always looking at what others do, and if there’s some new approach out there that might help him. That's a characteristic that not a lot of riders of his calibre have. Often a rider gets used to his own methodology, especially when it's been successful for him in the past, and he sticks to it. But in doing that, he shortens his career."
In 2014, Cancellara, who had all but ground to a halt in the sprint on the Roubaix velodrome a decade earlier, out-stripped Greg Van Avermaet, Sep Vanmarcke and Stijn Vandenbergh in a four-up sprint in Oudenaarde. At an age when most riders' speed has been blunted, Cancellara had learned how to sprint.
"When we analysed certain races, we found there was a far greater chance of coming to the finish in a sprint than there was of arriving alone," Guercilena said. "So he worked a lot on his sprint in his last few years, which was never a strong point. That just shows how attentive he is to the details."
Fabian Cancellara makes the race winning move in 2013.
The long farewell
Cancellara lines out for his final Tour of Flanders, though throughout the build-up to the Ronde, he has been eager to downplay the valedictory feel to his last season in the professional peloton. As Boonen so incisively put it during Etixx-QuickStep's pre-race press conference on Friday afternoon, "I think there's a time for everything but the time for saying goodbye is not at the Classics."
As he has done since 2012, Guercilena motor-paced Cancellara on Thursday during his final, lengthy training ride at home ahead of the Tour of Flanders and said that they had noted in passing that it would be the last time. The Italian adamant, too, that the emotion of the occasion will not cloud Cancellara's judgement on Sunday afternoon.
"He knows it's the last Flanders of his career, but mentally that's a bit of a liberation," Guercilena said. "You can go deeper, you know there's no second chance and you just go as hard as you can. So I don't think it's going to create any additional stress. Of course there'll be more emotion, it's the last Flanders. But that emotion will come afterwards, not during the race."
Fabian Cancellara's Tour of Flanders record:
2003: 73rd, 10:06 behind Peter Van Petegem
2004: 41st, 2:10 behind Steffen Wesemann
2005: 62nd, 10:21 behind Tom Boonen
2006: 6th, 1:17 behind Tom Boonen
2007: 53rd, 1:32 behind Alessandro Ballan
2008: 23rd, 21 seconds behind Stijn Devolder
2010: Winner, 1:15 ahead of Tom Boonen
2011: 3rd, same time as Nick Nuyens
2013: Winner, 1:27 ahead of Peter Sagan
2014: Winner, same time as Greg Van Avermaet