After 15 years as a professional cyclist, Fabian Cancellara has officially hung up his wheels. I have tried to write my farewell post to him for about two months now but nothing gelled. But I finally hit on the way of saying goodbye to him – by talking about all the reasons he’s made me love cycling and why, even though he won’t be in the peloton, I will continue to love cycling.
All the yellows
I didn’t mean to get interested in cycling. A friend of mine had asked me to record the opening weekend of 2004 Tour de France for him (he was off to do an Ironman…). In those ancient days, you could only record something if it stayed on the right channel the whole time, so I watched it while it was recording. Of course, that was the first yellow jersey that Cancellara pulled on – he won the opening prologue in Liege and he prompted burst into tears. That sealed it for me – you know how much I love athletes who cry with joy!
Watching sport has always been a thing with me. I watched football (American), baseball and ice hockey with my dad when I was growing up (I can still explain the infield fly rule to anyone willing to listen) and I’ve found that the easiest (and best) way to get under the skin of a sport was to watch one particular person. It keeps you interested as you get familiar with the sport and learn the rules. Starting out by watching Fabs in the Tour meant I paid attention to *everything* and really started to learn the different roles within the peloton. Of course, I always loved seeing him in yellow. As he holds the record for most days in yellow without winning a Tour with 29, I got to see that a lot!
Cancellara v Boonen
I have a theory about tennis that actually works in this context. The theory is that great rivalries of McEnroe v Borg, Navratilova v Evert, Nadal v Federer made those athletes the legends they are. They would have been successful without that other person, but by continually being stretched by their rival, they raised their games so much that they also raised the standard of the sport as a whole. And that’s what I believe about Cancellara and Boonen in the Classics. The two greatest Classics riders of their generation duking it out on the Muur or on the cobbles of northern France made each rider work that much harder. We have been so lucky to see them both in full flow.
Descending like a stone
So smooth, so confident – so liable to make me motion sick just watching it – that’s Cancellara’s descending skills. One of my favourite memories is of Fabs leading Andy Schleck down a particularly twisty-turny descent at full speed and pulling a piece of cake from his back pocket to snack on … I don’t have a clip of that, but I do have a clip of him descending his way back to the peloton after a flat (I think, actually, he had a flat prior to the descent, got it fixed and then stopped because one wheel was yellow, one was blue and that just didn’t work for him so the blue one had to be changed…)
Fabs retires with the joint record of time trial world championships with four – Tony Martin just tied that record this year. But a record that Martin can’t beat is a podium record – Cancellara has been on the podium of all seven time trial world championships he’s ridden – four gold (2006, 2007, 2009, 2010), three bronze (2005, 2011, 2013). I wouldn’t say that watching time trials is the most exciting part of the sport for me, but when Fabs was riding, he had me on the edge of my seat.
The Gold Standard
Speaking of edge of the seat finishes, Fabs’ Olympic career has had me in cheers and tears. Beijing 2008 was the site of his greatest Olympic successes, handily winning gold in the time trial and putting on quite a show in the road race. In fact, the men’s road race was one of the most exciting for a Fabs fan – his turning on the turbo-boosters to bridge the gap to the lead group as the race was coming to an end and riding himself into bronze-medal position was a thing of beauty. (Of course, he was upgraded to silver after Davide Rebellin was DQed)
Then this year, in Rio, where he’d been hoping to podium in his last Olympics. And hot damn, he just went out and won it. I remember I was in the office, trying to not make it obvious I was watching cycling as opposed to doing any work – I kept catching my breath when the splits came through and when he won, I jumped up and down, much to the consternation of my co-workers. Ach, who cares, they were all watching football most of August anyway …
(The less said about London 2012 the better – I spit on that corner in Richmond Park every Sunday morning when I walk past it.)
My kind of rider
Cancellara’s palmares might be stuffed to the gills with accomplishments – from Monuments to maillots jaune – but it’s not his wins that I love so much, it’s the way he rode day in, day out. He’s the kind of rider that I love most – one who rides hard, takes the sport seriously but not necessarily himself, who rides balls-to-the-wall and has been willing to risk losing in order to win. His performance in Strade Bianche this year is the perfect example. He rode hard, took on the chase of Brambilla single-handledly, took the inside corner away from Stybar and powered his way to victory.
So thank you, Fabs, for giving me such a love for cycling. Spring won’t be the same without you – but I can’t wait for it to start.