A hotel in Benidorm in December will always be out of season no matter how it is dressed. The coastal town is all but shut down as the year draws to a close, and the Christmas decorations that deck the bar of the Albir Playa Hotel are at odds with the watery afternoon sunshine flooding through the windows.
Yet as Fabian Cancellara casts his mind dreamily to what he likes to describe as cycling's Christmas Week – the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix – the setting seems strangely apt. Far from the madding crowds of Belgium, Cancellara and his Trek Factory Racing teammates are beginning their preparations in earnest for the spring.
The tweaks to the to the Ronde course have aroused plenty of interest over the winter, but it is Cancellara's battle with ghosts of Christmas Weeks Past and Future that will quicken pulses come the first week in April. His old foe Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) makes a welcome return after an injury-plagued 2013, while his burgeoning rivalry with Peter Sagan (Cannondale) dominated last spring's headlines.
"I still expect a great Tom. I have great respect for him, I've known him a long time and you can't have him missing from those races – it's like food without salt," Cancellara told Cyclingnews of Boonen, effusive in his praise of the other half of the Old Firm that has dictated terms and conditions over the cobbles for the best part of a decade.
In Sagan, Cancellara found a readymade replacement for the unfortunate Boonen this year, and they duly divided the cobbled classics between them – Flanders, Roubaix and E3 Harelbeke for the Swiss, Gent-Wevelgem for the young pretender. Their clash had the added dynamic, of course, of pitting the upstart Sagan against the patrician Cancellara, who made little secret of his unease at the youngster's penchant for exuberant victory celebrations.
"I think the big difference between us is that he is very young. Young riders have less pressure and are a bit colder in the sense that they think less and just do things," Cancellara said, before pointing out that Sagan's early success gives rise to ever increasing expectations.
"It's never easy when a young rider wins a lot of races, it's clear that things change, and the thing that changes the most and becomes most difficult is the pressure. The pressure becomes greater and I've sometimes seen Peter lose races, not because he wasn't strong, but maybe because the pressure weighed on him. Pressure is a very heavy burden to carry."
The snow-interrupted Milan-San Remo, where Sagan was surprisingly beaten into second place by Gerald Ciolek, was perhaps the instance Cancellara had in mind. "Everybody thought he would [win] and I don't want to say how many people would have bet on him to do it in that situation. But I'll say this – he is beatable. That's important. I know where and I know how," Cancellara said, batting away the inevitable follow-up: "I won't say how…"
Trek Factory Racing
Within the confines of the rebooted Trek Factory Racing squad, Cancellara carries his own burden, that of team leadership, but he shakes off the notion that the team's often rocky evolution from Leopard to Trek has seen him completely usurp the Schleck brothers as its totem.
"I never want to hear it said that this is my team. In the end, Luca [Guercilena] is the boss from a sporting point view, and together with [Trek Sports marketing manager] Simon Thompson, they're the guys who decide on things at the team," he said. "Of course, I'm asked what I think of certain riders and whether they'd be good for the classics but I actually didn't say one word about any of the new riders because, in the end, I'm a rider and I have to race."
After enjoying some very significant support at Bjarne Riis' CSC squad, Cancellara found himself more isolated during Leopard Trek's first season in 2011. A solid classics unit has since been assembled around him, culminating in Stijn Devolder and Hayden Roulston's control of the peloton ahead of the finale of the Tour of Flanders, though Cancellara acknowledges that his status within the team brings with it a weighty responsibility.
"In the end, I'm the one who has to work the most. I always remember what [Yaroslav] Popovych told me a couple of years ago – he said he had never had a leader who did less work than he did. For him, if a leader does more than him, it means that he will be able to give more of himself to his leader. But if a leader does less than him, then it becomes harder to work for him. And I understand that."
Cancellara begins his 2014 campaign at the new Dubai Tour in February, followed by the Tour of Qatar and Strade Bianche. As ever, Tirreno-Adriatico will be his final stage race before the classics, while the GP Nobili may also feature on his calendar. "In general terms, it will be the same programme as before, because that's served me well in the past," he said. "It's not exactly a secret that the Worlds are a target later on too, but for now I'm really only looking towards the first part of the season, the classics."
In 2013, Cancellara opted to skip the Tour de France in order to build specifically towards the world championships in Florence, and while the race didn't pan out as anticipated, he declared himself pleased with his approach. On a purely sporting level, one imagines Cancellara would be tempted to forgo the Tour once again, and there is a sense, too, that his achievements at La Grande Boucle – five opening day wins and more total days in yellow (28) than any non-Tour winner in history – have been relegated to something of a footnote.
"I don't know if I'll ride, it depends. I'll have to talk with the team and I have my opinion on the Tour," he said. "I know that the Tour has given me a lot but I've given the Tour a lot too. Still, it's the biggest race in the world."
Ultimately, the decision will not be Cancellara's alone, and it is a similar situation for his possible attempt on the hour record. "It's a thought for now, but I'm not saying much about it because so much has been written about it," he said.
"Right now, I'm just thinking about my general condition and the team, which is all new, and we can't follow a thousand different projects straightaway. The important thing is the classics and then that the team works well beyond the classics to the end of the year."