Fabian Cancellara will ride his final race as a professional athlete at the Japan Cup Criterium on Saturday, bringing down the curtain on a 16-year carer that included three victories at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, seven stages of the Tour de France and 29 days in the maillot jaune, four world time trial titles and two Olympic gold medals in the time trial. His second gold came this year at the Rio Olympic Games, offering him a final emotional moment of success and a perfect way to bow out from the sport.
Cancellara has not raced since Rio but will pin a number on his jersey for the last time on Saturday in Japan. On Tuesday he was given a special award at the UCI Gala in Abu Dhabi in recognition of his gold medal in Rio and his successful career. He also gave an exclusive interview to Cyclingnews, revealing the emotions of ending his racing career and his plans to build a new career and life without the demands of professional sport.
Cyclingnews: You announced your retirement early and raced a lot during your final season but now the moment is almost here. How do you feel?
Fabian Cancellara: Since the Olympics, I'm already over. I'm done. I already somewhat feel like an ex-rider but I'm sure on Sunday it'll be emotional and another ending, too.
The truth is that I'm only officially an ex-rider when I've finished with my whereabouts notifications for anti-doping controls. That's when you're not a rider anymore.
For me the Olympics were the culmination, the ending of it all on a high. After the emotions of winning the gold medal in the time trial, I wanted to announce and talk about ending my career right then but you can't do everything at once. So I've taken it step by step in recent weeks and months. But it's special because its still feels like a big thing.
CN: Is there any chance you will change your mind? Are you having any second thoughts?
FC: We can't change how things happen in life, it is as it is. But it feels right for me to stop now. It feels better and is more enjoyable doing it now with a final farewell at the Japan Cup. If I hadn't won the Olympic time trial, then maybe Il Lombardia would have been my last race, like it traditionally is for most riders. But things changed and winning the gold medal took a lot of pressure off my shoulders and made the whole process easier to handle.
I went through a lot to get to this point, even this season so I'm happy to bow out. I learnt a lot about myself in the Classics, from the disappointment of being ill before the Giro d'Italia and so unable to perform well there, from the Tour de Suisse and the Tour de France. I could have finished my last Tour in Paris and that would have been nice. But my priority was to get ready for the Olympics and go out on a high.
It was actually hard in the summer before the Olympics because so much was going on and I could feel I was just older and near the end. When you get older, you see things differently. Young riders like Peter Sagan or Greg van Avermaet, they're enjoying the best years of their careers right now. It won't get any better for them now.
[Alberto] Contador has changed his mind about retirement and could go on for two years now. Other guys have preferred to end their careers this year, with people like [Yaroslav] Popovych doing it during the season and immediately working as a directeur sportif with Trek-Segafredo. Everybody holds their career in their own hands. When you don't win so much anymore, it always makes it harder. It was hard for me too, but I've absolutely no regrets.
Giving something back
With Cancellara already putting some distance between himself and competing as a rider, he has been able to understand the problems of professional cycling. He seems keen to play his part in helping resolve some of them and revealed he will soon visit the UCI to give share his opinion and ideas.
FC: An athlete is always focused on their racing, training, their own life and family. Only afterwards does he really have time to look around and understand things in a wider context. I've already seen some things that I like others that I don't.
For example it's good that riders, race organisers and the UCI were all together at the Gala to celebrate the season. That's how it should be, one direction, all together. But the UCI Gala should be on a different day to the Tour de France presentation and everyone should be here. It's not about different factions or different race organisers being involved, it's about building our sport together, to create something good together. That's what I told Brian Cookson, too.
It might be a surprise but I've never been to Aigle, I've never seen the UCI offices. So I told Brian that one day this winter, I'll come by to visit, to have a chat, to see what is behind the UCI. At the end of the day the UCI is the head of our sport. We have to support them but also look at what we can change and improve together.
When you are a rider its not easy to speak out and make a statement because there are always the interests of the rider and of his team and the sponsors. But I'm not a rider anymore. I think some things are going well but when we see how many good sponsors come into the sport but then we see how we lost them, that's a problem. There seems to be to many barriers, too many issues all the time. I'd love to help where I can.
Ready for a new rhythm in life?
CN: Are you also ready for life after retirement? Are you ready for life without a lot of training and racing? Does the future perhaps scare you in some way?
FC: Things will be very different for me now but I'm not worried, I'm aware of what's coming. I know my future is in my hands. It's up to me to start afresh and build a foundation for my next career. If you build a house, you don't start with the roof, you start in the ground and build upwards. That's what I'm doing, for myself and for my family. I know I can't just sit at home, watching television. And for sure I don't want that.
It's going to be a change of rhythm. My life isn't performance driven anymore. It's about following my passions, about riding my bike when I want. Now if it's raining I can stay inside. But if I want to go and ride hard, I can do that, too. The decision is in my hands now. There's no training programme to follow, to heartbeats or watts to follow to study and strive for.
Stopping racing after so long feels good, but its strange. I still get excited in some ways. I watched the World Championship road race from my sauna at home. I was relaxed but then my heart rate still went up in the finale, I still got excited but then when Peter won I switched the television off and I was suddenly an ex-rider again.
I feel like there's already a barrier or a gap between me and racing. I told my wife it felt strange. I don't know if I was missing it, if I wanted to be in there fighting for the rainbow jersey I never won. I don't think I'm missing the racing, I'm not bothered about racing but some of the emotions are still strong and come back out.
I'm curious to see how I'll feel at the Classics next spring too. That could be a big moment. But I suppose it's the normal process. I know I need to ride my bike because otherwise the endorphins are not there and you start to feel down. I'm also learning about how to eat normally but also not to get fat. I'm trying to find a new rhythm in my life, as a retired rider.