Last week, Fabian Cancellara looked ahead to his final Tour of Flanders and described his relationship with De Ronde as "a late love". One week on, in the same hotel conference room in Bruges, he found himself doing the same for Paris-Roubaix. It's a race that was much quicker to bring success, but it was far from love at first sight.
"The cobbles just beat me," he says, looking back on his first ever Roubaix, back in 2003 when he was a fresh-faced, unprepared 22-year-old.
"I was in Fassa Bortolo, I don't think I had a lot of experience before that; I just went into the race. If I'm not wrong I had an early puncture. I don't remember everything, just that I was alone, one of the last riders riding though Arenberg, and riding the next few sectors totally alone.
"I had only enemies during that ride. I looked back, I saw I the broom wagon, then I saw the feed zone, the cars moving away and finally I got in the car with one of our soigneurs, and he brought me to the finish line.
"When I look back I started with the wrong mentality for this race. I remember really well, at one point Andrea Tafi was behind me, really at the back, so when I saw how he moved up and finished top 10, I learned you can never give up in this race. You need not only the power in the legs, it's a mental race; you can't give up."
Fast forward a year, and Cancellara was riding into the iconic Roubaix velodrome as part of a lead group of four – well clear of the esteemed chasing duo of Johan Museeuw and Peter van Petegem – and ready to fight for the win. The love affair began.
He may have finished fourth from four in that sprint, but Cancellara credits the "small mistake" he made in leading it out with helping to return and win the race later on. He did so three times – as with Flanders – and over the course of his distinguished career, wrote himself into the legend of Paris-Roubaix, of the Classics, and of the sport as a whole.
There was the breakthrough victory in 2006 – "kind of unexpected but still, an awesome race" – the unforgettable solo in 2010 – "almost 50km alone…" – and finally the long break from the Carrefour de l'Arbre in 2013 with Sep Vanmarcke, where he proved he'd learned his lesson from almost a decade ago.
"It's hard to pick out one to be the highlight," he said. "All three stand out in an amazing, unique way."
'Blinding it all out will probably be harder than the race'
Cancellara sat up, waved to the crowd, and drank in the atmosphere one final time as he came down the home straight to finish second in his final ever Flanders last weekend. Saying goodbye to Paris-Roubaix is likely to be harder, and more poignant, still.
"There are things in your mind that you'd like to do, but in the situation it came very spontaneously," he said of that moment in Flanders. "So what's going to happen in the velodrome, nobody knows.
"I know it's going to be damn hard, but I have to blind this out. That's probably harder than the race, to blind out everything that I achieved here."
Cancellara was unable to block it all out ahead of Flanders. With thoughts and emotions swirling round his head last Saturday night, he wasn't able to get to sleep until 1:30am, and he woke early, at 6am. He also described how, in the week beforehand, it was "hard to keep the energy flow high", and how at times he "wasn't talking as much as usual – wasn't so present".
Not that that seemed to impede him in any way – he made a characteristic surge up the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg and ended up second – but he's eager not to let the significance of the occasion get to him in the same way this weekend.
He has been conversing often with 36-year-old teammate Yaroslav Popvych and hopes to have all the reminiscing out of the way, most of the emotions purged, by the time he goes to bed this Saturday night. Indeed, he's more focused on getting a good night's sleep, he says, than on his tactics and approach for the race day itself.
"Somehow it's nice but somehow it's hard," he says of his attempts to come to terms with it all.
With the form he's in, Roubaix will be no mere farewell procession, and if he were to win it one last time, there aren't many who wouldn't wish him to reach the velodrome alone, with time to soak it all up and make sense of all those mixed emotions.
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