Sitting in with Fabian Cancellara

After arguably his worst-ever season, Cancellara reflects on his career, world championships, and his role as one of the peloton's patrons.

Photo: BrakeThrough Media

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the October issue of Velo magazine.

Fabian Cancellara climbed off his bike and into the team car — another abandoned race. This season, it had become an unfortunate routine.

The swiss strongman suffered his way through the first road stage at the Vuelta a España, and began stage 3 pale and weak. With 37 kilometers remaining, struggling more than 30 minutes behind the peloton and outside of the time limit, his illness won the battle. Another chance to rebuild form was dashed before it even began.

For Cancellara, it was a continuation of a nightmarish season, forced out of his second straight grand tour only three days in. He abandoned the Tour de France after breaking two vertebrae in a high-speed crash on stage 3. Unbelievably, it wasn’t the first time he had broken his back in 2015. In March, he broke two vertebrae at E3 Harelbeke, eliminating him from his season’s biggest targets, the cobbled classics.

VeloNews caught up with Cancellara on the eve of his Vuelta start, to discuss his legacy, his frustration over repeated injury, and his status within the peloton.

After so many ups and downs this season, you must be incredibly frustrated.

It’s not frustration. It was not an easy year. I woke up sick after Oman; I had to take a rest there. Then I crashed at E3 and I had to take a rest. Then in the Tour de Suisse I got sick, and I suffered a lot. Then I went to the Tour de France and I won again and I crashed again. That is what is on the table, and I have to live with that. It is definitely not easy. I had some tough times. That is not a secret. An athlete doesn’t want to sit in bed looking at the ceiling or lounge outside counting the stars. I want to ride my bike, and I want to enjoy and suffer on my bike but not in the way [I’ve suffered].

Do the many setbacks you’ve had this year make you push retirement back another year?

No, no, no. I am working on it already. [Injuries] could happen next year, it could happen anywhere. What I’m doing now at the Vuelta is not just about what is coming at the end of the year, but it is also important for next year. Crashing out doesn’t motivate me more. I have always said I want to stop on the highest level that I can stop, and not just be cruising around. That is not what motivates me.

Another thing: I can choose this by myself, which is also nice. Because in the end, there’s always a second life. Cycling is not everything in life. It’s always part of my life now, but there is always another part of my life. This I see now, and it is always important to see. Yeah, life could be over in just a couple of seconds like in the Tour. I could not ride my bike, and I had to suffer for more months and weeks to get back. I saw fast the reality there, but I think of course the motivation and will are important.

It’s as if you’ve had three off-seasons and returns this year. How did you do it? It would have been easy to say ‘enough’ and sit out the rest of the year.

I had that in mind, but the thing is I am still fresh, still motivated, and I am still ready to go. It might be that [once the Vuelta starts] everything will be different and maybe I will come back to your question and say, ‘Hey, you were right. I don’t know what the hell I am doing here.’ And, mentally, I have to see how fresh and fit I am and how much suffering I can do.

But in the end we are just human. We are not machines. A machine you push a button. We humans have to push the pedals and the brain; the head is all about what’s there when you look in the mirror. That’s the reality.

The whole year was like this: If I was off the bike I had pain, and when I was on the bike I was suffering and trying to get back in shape. That’s why it was a tough year and a harder year than in 2012. In the end, I can’t change anything, and I can just go on.

In some ways it’s clear you’ve already begun to think about life after cycling. What do you want your legacy to be?

For me, what would be nice is for fans to like me how I was. For me to say I was the best here or the best there is not up to me — it’s up to the people. I still want to be supported by the people and in the hearts of people, and not to be forgotten as soon as I retire. Yeah, I am not Eddy Merckx. I am me. I never won the Tour de France, and we know the Tour de France is what gives you the biggest exposure. But in the end the Tour de France is not what it is all about. I am me, and that is what it is all about. I’m happy about what I achieved and proud of what I did. And this is what I try to do until the end of riding my bike — to get the best result and be remembered by the people.

Do you have any regrets about previous world championships?

Maybe Mendrisio [in 2009] was the world championships I threw away in the end. Mendrisio was the bad one. But in the end I won two classics. So I lost worlds, but on the other hand, is it now good or is it now bad? I saw it afterwards as a positive. It’s possible I may never win a world championship, but I have many other wins, so that’s better than a rider who may just win the world championships. Of course I would love to have all the wins I had in my mind, but it’s not that easy. And the older I get, the harder it gets.

If I stop cycling, and I haven’t won worlds, I won’t cry. Of course you’ll say Fabian hasn’t won worlds, but it is what it is. (Cancellara is a four-time world champion in the time trial -Ed.)

Was the fact that you were wearing the yellow jersey when you crashed on stage 3 of the Tour the only reason you got up and finished?

I was really hurting. I was in a world of pain but also a world of relief, because if you crash you want to stand up straightaway and go on, especially in this jersey. When we stopped, I said, ‘I’m not good.’ I felt straightaway this is the same kind of pain I had at the classics. We get up the climb and I went slowly back to the car and asked about some painkillers because I had some really high pain. But they tried to motivate me and keep me up. They said, ‘Okay you can stop the race.’ But I didn’t want to do it with this jersey. You know the jersey helps so much, gives you so much, and I tried to honor it and make it to the finish.

At 75kph, it’s not fun to crash out. Some people really didn’t believe that it was 75kph. I can be lucky I landed on the grass and not on asphalt. Just go in a car and jump out at 75kph; that’s how it feels at this speed. Yeah, it’s not fun, but even with the dangers, I am still alive. It’s amazing more actually didn’t happen.

In recent years you have become a leader in the peloton, a patron. You’ve spoken up when things aren’t to your satisfaction, when things aren’t safe. Is your position as a patron something you enjoy?

In the end there are situations where I am looking after myself and I am looking after cycling. Sometimes there are situations where it is okay for me, but it is not okay for cycling or for the riders. I am helping and standing up because when you are a leader of a team and you have won some races, people listen. It’s not the small riders that have to stand up for other riders. It has to be the bigger riders who win the big races because in the end we [are the ones who] can help in giving back. Of course, politics are not always easy, but if what happened this year in Oman [when a sandstorm threatened the safety of the racers] happened again, I would again stand up. I didn’t get shit, but I got comments. Safety first, and that is why I was pushing, pushing to find a solution, to a find a solution together. It’s never an ending; there is always a solution, but we have to find the solution together. This is cycling, and when everyone is [being egotistical] we are not going to move forward.

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