INTERVIEW: Cycling legend Fabian Cancellara

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Cancellara marked his 16th and final year in the sport with Olympic gold.

Fabian Cancellara, professional cyclist. For 16 glorious years, this has been the reality for the iconic Swiss rider.

But from the moment he steps off his bike at Sunday’s valedictory Japan Cup, this all-consuming  existence will be no more.

The profession has taken ‘Spartacus’ – so called because of his large frame and selfless nature – to three victories at the Tour of Flanders and gruelling Paris-Roubaix, seen him spend 29 days in the hallowed maillot jaune as a seven-time stage winner at the Tour de France, claim a – now joint record – four victories in the men’s time trial at the UCI Road World Championships and become a two-time Olympic gold medallist thanks to his inspiring victory in Rio this summer.

A new life awaits the passionate 35-year-old, away from the gruelling existence required to prevail in the land of lycra.

This will include a developmental role at Trek–Segafredo, and the kind of sponsorship arrangements as a brand ambassador for luxury watchmaker IWC which saw Sport360° discuss the road ahead with the departing legend of his sport at their boutique in Dubai Mall.

“Right now it feels good, because what happened in Rio was quite special,” Cancellara says of imp-ending retirement. “Ending like that and starting kind of a new life…

“The way my career is ending has given me ‘double stories’. It could be totally different, with just the ending of a career.

“Now I am still so impressed, surprised, happy, and proud – so many mixed feeling still – after these few months (since Rio). I am glad.”

Cancellara-Record
A remarkable spell in the saddle received an appropriate ending in Brazil. Fading memories of his time-trial success at the Beijing Games eight years prior ensured Cancellara was placed inside a pack of possible contenders behind Tour champion Chris Froome.

But the power and drive apparent in his prior victories emerged as he blitzed the field over two laps of Grumari circuit, finishing more than 47 seconds ahead of the Netherlands’ Tom Dumoulin. When asked whether such a landmark triumph had caused him to doubt his decision to stand aside, Cancellera reveals a sense of serendipity meant this was never going to change.

He says: “I said three years ago that this would be my last contract.

“I knew 2016 would be my last year, so it came closer and closer. I didn’t have to look about the Olympics, Flanders (he finished second in April) and the Tour de France being in my home town of Bern.

“There were so many things which I didn’t look into, which came after.

“I had a small guideline on the side, which helped. For me, it was the right time and moment.”

Such is the volume of success enjoyed by Cancellera since he picked up an old family bike aged 13, he finds it hard to pick out any specific race as a particular highlight.

“I still really see every one which I achieved,” says the man who has led the Tour de France for the most days without tasting overall victory. “There are so many questions about what was my best.

“But the problem is I had so many wins.

“They were all made in different ways, so they are all special.

“Everything is not old. These emotions don’t disappear.”

Cancellara has represented a gladiator on wheels, pounding through the pain on the cobblestoned classics against great rival Tom Boonen or gritting his teeth during torturous time-trials.

As such, the ‘Spartacus’ moniker which has come to define him was hard-earned and he has every intention of maintaining its ethos.

He says: “I continue and the name will stay in the book and be related. It is like with ‘The Cannibal’, Eddy Merckx.

“I go on a new road and in a new direction, not as an athlete anymore.

“But what I want to keep is that still I take care of others, like I did in the team.”

To cycling’s chagrin, the pursuit has once again been caught up in the issue of suspect practice.

An international furore has developed concerning the files released by Russian hackers ‘Fancy Bears’ detailing the use of Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUE) from the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) databases, in which Cancellara features for backdated permission for steroid-based substances.

This leak about the approved use of banned substances for medical reasons has involved high-profile athletes from a multitude of disciplines, such as tennis’ Williams sisters, British long-distance runner Mo Farah and dominant Olympic gymnast Simone Biles.

But it is the cyclist Sir Bradley Wiggins who has received the most intense scrutiny.

This is a situation Cancellara fervently rallies against, firm in the belief the sins of the past through the likes of Lance Armstrong continue to unfairly cast his sport as the “black sheep”.

“For sure, it is not nice as in the end it is privacy,” he says of the hack. “WADA has to work on that and support the athletes.

“Cycling is always the ‘black sheep’ in sport. If you see how much problems came from the football scandal (FIFA) and Russia scandal (state-sanctioned doping), no-one is talking any more. But they are even bigger. Here, we talk about a health situation which first is private.

“Then second it is not the riders or the teams fault, it is a rule. The rules have said this is how it is and if it is like that, then it is possible or not.

“The reality isn’t really explained, it is like ‘they are all bad’.

“Other big names were involved and no-one talks about them. That shows again that cycling is paying for all the others.

“Cycling had a problem. But we are paying all the time and that is not good.”

Cancellara’s achievements will live long in the collective memory once he gets off his bike for the final time in Utsunomiya.

When quizzed on which young riders excite him, the competitive instincts which have fuelled his outstanding career emerge.

He says: “When you see Peter Sagan, he is still young. I also think Jasper Stuyven, who is in our team.

“That is the future. There are so many young riders ready to rumble – it is their turn now.”

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