Fabian Cancellara: Can Superman recapture the power?

This article comes from the new issue of Procycling magazine.

For more than half a decade now, Fabian Cancellara has stood like a colossus over the sport, winning Monuments, Tour de France stages and world time trial championships almost at will. But in 2011, his touch deserted him and he had his worst season in six years. To compound matters, he was beaten by Tony Martin in every time trial that mattered. Yet the Swiss refuses to see the season as a failure:

So what happened in 2011? Where was the high prestige victory – or victories – that fans have come to expect from Fabian Cancellara, particularly in the spring classics and particularly given the coruscating form he showed in late March and early April? The question in the run-up to Flanders was not who would win but how could Fabian Cancellara be beaten. Our question draws a thin smile from Cancellara. “Yes, it was missing,” he confirms, principally because “it’s easier to win a bike race than to defend one,” he reflects.


But beneath the race tactics there were other more structural reasons why 2011 didn’t work out. His team swap at the beginning of the year was at the heart of it. His move from the hearth of Bjarne Riis at Saxo Bank, where he had become such a dominant rider, was drawn out and controversial. At the time he told Procycling he had to break his Saxo Bank contract because he didn’t feel comfortable at the team. Riis had only secured sponsorship for 2011 late in the season and too many key support personnel – not to mention the heart of the squad – had departed for the safety and security of the Luxembourg Pro Cycling Project. “At the end of the day, I wasn’t happy because I felt that [Saxo Bank] was a new team and I didn’t feel comfortable,” he said.

It’s probably with a sense of irony, then, that it was at his new team, Leopard Trek, where his objectives were frustrated. Those feelings would undoubtedly have been compounded by having to watch his Saxo Bank replacement, Nick Nuyens, sneak the win at Flanders.

Observers also noted the lack of a hard taskmaster behind him, such as he had in Riis and previously in Giancarlo Ferretti at Fassa Bortolo. There was no one of that stature at Leopard. Kim Andersen was focused on the Tour and Brian Nygaard, the team’s general manager, openly admitted he had no sporting expertise. Was the lack of a big character behind him also to blame? Cancellara sighs. “It’s hard to say. I mean it was the first year and then for sure there was a bit missing in terms of the riders – I don’t say better riders – but maybe we could have had a stronger team. But I think in the end we managed to get the best out of it and we fought until the end.”

Does he agree he was stronger? “I was different. it could be that i was a bit stronger but the situations are very different. I mean I got new bikes, I was in a new team… Quite a few things were new and in a way they all cost energy.”

In reality though, Cancellara’s mind lay elsewhere that week in Denmark. After four world TT titles, he says his “motivation was different”, for which we read not as powerful. Novel success is what motivates Cancellara.

“I prepared more for the road race than the time trial and I saw the difference. I also had a bad day in the TT. Against the sprinters, I got so much more out of it. Those other three riders in front of me, they are pure specialists for that and I was there. That gave me a lot of respect for what i have done.”

With justification Cancellara sees the season as a good one, not least because he won the heart and minds of legions of fans who adored his powerful and attacking performances. Never once did Cancellara accept a defeat without first putting up one hell of a fight. On the Muur van Geraardsbergen in Flanders, when he was racked in the agony of muscle cramps, he summoned the strength to stay with the other leaders right into the endgame. in Belgium he was a hero. There, the only thing the Wielervolk love more than watching a great champion win is to watch them tear the race to pieces and then lose by a wheel – then they can add a pinch of pathos to the scene. When he says simply, “I was a fighter”, it’s impossible to disagree.

Like 2011, Cancellara’s 2012 starts in a state of flux. The team formerly known as Leopard Trek incorporates huge chunks of RadioShack: 12 members of the American team, two of its major sponsors who now headline and not least Johan Bruyneel. Love him or loathe him, the Belgian sports director is gifted at orchestrating success.

Cancellara is resolutely optimistic about what the next year holds for him. Hayden Roulston and his friend and compatriot Gregory Rast add substance to his classics support, which was thinner last year, and Bruyneel, ever hungry to direct winners, will be the powerful director watching his back.

“Now I must say I am more motivated this year. Maybe I had too high expectations of the team last year, so in a way maybe it’s good to have lower expectations now. That’s nothing against Johan or those people in the team but the less you expect about how good the team will run the less energy you lose thinking about it.”

What's more, a powerful force has returned – one he missed in the furore of Leopard Trek’s first season. Cancellara leans in and says: “I was on the bike the other day. There was blue sky and I just felt like a little kid with his first bike. I didn’t really have that last year. This year I don’t have high expectations, I just have high goals. That’s my motivation and for this I’m giving everything.”

Time will tell exactly what effect the second big shake-up will have on his team's harmony and operation but there’s little doubt that, for Cancellara at least, the upheaval has been minimal and elements that were missing last year have been replaced. If rivals needed any reminding of his avowed intention, Cancellara has the cobbled classics firmly in his sights.

Cancellara’s journey to becoming a great champion began 11 years ago when he stepped into the Mapei Centre in Castellanza, northern Italy, where his puppy fat was pinched and prodded by the doctors. “Are you the new mechanic?” the 19-year-old was teased by the galaxy of star riders on the squad. He certainly wasn’t and Dr Giorgio Squinzi, architect of Mapei’s hugely influential involvement in cycling, saw something else – the makings of a champion. He could be the next Miguel Indurain, he told Gazzetta dello Sport. It’s a story recounted in Cancellara’s book which charts his professional career, from learning the ropes at Mapei to being blooded in the tough northern classics and ultimately emerging as one of the most successful, recognisable and exciting riders in the peloton.

“I’ve had big success – amazing stuff – but also some other stuff,” he trails off. The “other stuff” is the dark side of the success, the unsubstantiated rumours and suspicion that he doped. Through a coaching relationship with the controversial doctor Luigi Cecchini he was linked tangentially to the Operación Puerto storm and he was forced to break off that relationship from which, he says, he learned a lot. New, more damaging allegations surfaced in October of 2008 and his public reputation weathered another storm, especially at home in Switzerland. In a new book, one chapter, ‘From the Splendour of Gold to the Darkness of Doping’, discusses that period in depth. Rather than isolate himself, Cancellara remains one of the most accessible riders in the peloton. He says that he has nothing to hide and that no sporting subject is off limits.

And while he says that he would never seek an advantage by illegal means, because he feels the weight of a family, a team, and a federation on his shoulders, he will pursue all legal advantage: “I would prefer to stop riding my bike than to think of using something which makes me faster, because when it’s over, it’s over. I will do the maximum until the limits because under the limits you can go always as a rider – for example equipment – you can go there. you can do that because otherwise why are we riding the bike?”

“I have for many years now had between 30 and 50 [drugs tests]. This is because my whole life has been in made in steps and I’m standing up for things. I learned a lot from Cecchini but just because I was seeing him doesn’t mean I was with Fuentes. In the Tour de France and the Olympics, just because I was in amazing shape people said I was on CERA. For all those things I was put on a spot and shot at. When you’re fast they shoot, when you're slow they shoot, when you’re in the middle they shoot you also.

“The sport and the riders are going in the right direction [but] you will always find black sheep. it’s a part of my job now to talk about it and I live with those things and have to deal with them.”

He’s responsive, engaging and once he has the floor, he will talk at length. “I want to give all my feedback, all my experiences,” he says “Because I think I have experiences which no one else has had. You can just ride your bike and get your money at the end of the month but I don’t want that.”

Evidently, within Cancellara two worlds collide. He races with a panache that stirs the heart of cycling fans. When he goes, he goes big. Powerful, irresistible, risky – his tactics can look peculiarly old fashioned and impulsive, reminiscent of Hennie Kuiper’s long-range attacks in the 70s and 80s. Or even, as some Belgian journalists have been moved to note: Merckxiaans – Merckx-like.

But while his competitive flame burns, Cancellara sees his sport through very modern eyes. He’s no sentimentalist yearning for a past golden age – he wills the sport to sort itself out. “There’s a big mess in cycling. We have ASO, the UCI, then the teams and the riders. It’s like a big bowl with a bunch of things inside but it isn't guided by anything but self interest.

“I think cycling has to see we are in 2012 not 1960 or 1980. It’s over. There’s another way of working. A few teams have to run a bit faster [to attract sponsors] because why would you want to put money in something that doesn’t run good.”

And like a growing raft of people connected to cycling – managers, financiers and team owners – he sees sharing TV revenue as part of the solution. He will find a sympathetic ear in his new team manager, Bruyneel, who first mooted the idea of a breakaway league and a model for revenue sharing in May last year.

Cancellara doesn’t talk of if it happens but when it happens.

“For sure when the money will be split from the television rights for the Tour de France then I think a few things will be easier. i don’t say you can buy the teams with the money but I learned for myself as a leader – never eat everything yourself – you have to give some food to others. A bit of food to everyone and i think we will all live better.”

Cancellara’s interest in the sport’s governance evidently runs deep. He talks animatedly about the danger of the situation as he sees it, of the UCI monetising races for its own gain, of anti-doping laboratories trying to outdo one another by developing new tests and finding more cheats than the others, of lackadaisical teams needing to smarten up to attract sponsors and money.

He paints a glib picture and one which implies a lack of leadership at the UCI. Here, Cancellara pulls his punch but only just: “I'm not saying that Pat McQuaid is the wrong president or the wrong leader – that would be something against him – but all the things I've said are just the reality.

“Cycling’s not guided. When it is guided you will have a huge product that you could sell on every continent for TV rights. you could help organisations to improve their own event – to make them bigger and attract more sponsors.

“In the end, I’m only a rider but I’m really interested in those details.”

Fabian Cancellara, though, is anything but just a rider. At times – such as at the 2010 Tour when he emerged as the peloton's patron and neutralised the second stage – he became the elite sport’s conscience and voice. It took more than a decade for him to reach this point and it was a journey with more peaks and troughs than most. Now, no one is more suited to the role.

That’s only one, and possibly the smaller, side of him. Inside, the spirit of competition still rules. By the time Cancellara takes to the start line of his beloved Ronde Van Vlaanderen he will be 31 but his enthusiasm shines ever brightly. The objectives are stacked up like dominoes: the classics, the Tour, the Olympics and the Worlds. It’s a season ripe with opportunity and fans’ expectation, if not his, is already running hot.


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Sam started as a trainee reporter on daily newspapers in the UK before moving to South Africa where he contributed to national cycling magazine Ride for three years. After moving back to the UK he joined Procycling as a staff writer in November 2010.