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Becoming world road race champion for the first time, or taking the trio of Milan-Sanremo, the Ronde Van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix? It’s a tantalising question, but one Fabian Cancellara is not willing to answer.
The powerful Swiss rider is clear on his general goal for the 2015 season – to have a much better year than in 2014 – but, on the subject of picking one win, or set of wins, over another, he is simply not willing to go there.
“I love those questions because they are questions that you can’t give answers to,” he said, answering a journalist’s enquiry during Friday’s Trek Factory Racing media conference session.
“Of course, winning all three would be a huge thing, but in the end also winning the worlds would be huge. Winning Flanders for the fourth time would be immense because nobody has reached that yet.”
Cancellara has had a superb career and previously won each of those spring Classics. Taking all three in one season would be staggering, of course, but so too would be his first rainbow jersey in the road race. The latter goal has been a big focus for years but while he has clocked up four time trial titles, the road event has continued to elude him.
That could change in 2015. The UCI’s flagship event features a road race course in Hamilton which could play to his strengths, which is selective enough to thin out the list of contenders but not so difficult as to put him out of contention.
However he declined to be drawn on that prospect now.
“These are all things that people come up and ask me, but when I look and think about it, for me I don’t even think about winning the three now or winning this or winning that,” he insisted. “It is just [the case that] I want to get back racing, getting a number on. To kick ass and enjoy.
“Of course, the ambitions are there. I said that straight from the beginning that the Classics are my ambition. It comes already by itself because also the other thing is it can change quite fast, the programme. It depends on what comes.
“[But] to choose one or another, you never do because it doesn’t bring luck.”
Cancellara’s 2014 season was a very solid one but not his most spectacular. He won a superb third Ronde Van Vlaanderen, beating Greg Van Avermaet, Sep Vanmarcke and Stijn Vandenbergh in a four man sprint, and also clocked up another national time trial title.
However he had to be satisfied with podium places in Milan-Sanremo and Paris-Roubaix, netting second in the former and third in the latter.
He was also sixth in Strade Bianche.
The Trek Factory Racing rider is clear that this is not enough. “The thing is that I want always more,” he admitted. “I am not happy with my 2014 season…I won Flanders, but it was not enough. I said that many times and I will always repeat it because it is the truth.”
Cancellara accepts that he perhaps focussed too much on the world road race championship in the second half of the season, losing out on opportunities in doing so. Had he won the world title that gamble would have been justified, but things didn’t work out that way.
As a result he is determined not to take such a singular approach in 2015.
“In this coming season I will not just focus on the Classics and then the worlds. I will focus on the first races that are coming. I am trying to compete and start with the small things, the basic stuff,” he said, making clear that he wants to win early and win often.
“Then to grow up in the way of a pyramid. The top is actually what the Classics are, so the last piece of this pyramid must be the big races. I am thinking about going back to base, instead of just living on the high level of the big races. I think this is what will be changing a lot this year.”
Part of what he hopes will make for a more successful year is greater peace of mind. He said that he had a good period of time at home with his family over Christmas, soaking up their company while he had the chance to do so.
For a rider who has a family and children, such moments are akin to charging a battery. He will always miss them while away at races or training camps, of course, but getting in a good block of time with them refuels his emotional tank. It makes those lonely periods more bearable and enables him to maintain focus.
Cancellara also noted that the team situation is a lot more stable; 2014 was the first year of the Trek Factory Racing team and heading into the start of that season, he and others were still settling in after an at-times turbulent time with their previous setup.
One year on, all is different. The structures are now firmly in place, there are no sponsor or contract concerns, and he feels he can really concentrate on the most important thing: namely, putting his full energy into having a great season.
“I am still hungry”
Cancellara is now 33 years of age but believes he is still at the same standard as before. He notes that he has been on a high level since 2006, the year he first won Roubaix, yet doesn’t anticipate slowing down anytime soon.
He said he is also fully aware of his status in the sport, pointing out that of those still in the peloton, only himself, Tom Boonen and his team-mate Stijn Devolder have won Flanders in the past.
That gives them a level of experience that others lack and while he acknowledges that young riders are chomping at the bit and keen to be the David to his Goliath, he believes he can fend them off for a while longer yet.
“You see there are people who are really hungry…really, really hungry,” he acknowledges, perhaps remembering his own gnawing appetite for success at that age. “But I am still hungry as well. So we are on the same level.
“On the other hand, when you win more and more it is always getting harder also. So that is why this is the biggest challenge for me, that is the pressure that I have. I think I can complete this challenge because I am ready for it. That is actually what counts for me.”
Being in his thirties means that his body responds differently than how it did in the past. Time marches on and, inevitably, at some point the system will begin to slow down. For some riders that deceleration is often due to flagging motivation and hunger, but listening to Cancellara makes clear that this aspect doesn’t seem to be the case.
He still wants the big results, and promises he is willing to put in the sweat to achieve them.
“I know what I have to do this year,” he said. “I am always training hard, but I have to train and adapt many things that I can use to race smart.
“I still maybe need to be a bit stronger than the other ones, although my experience helped me a lot last year to win.
“So, of course I have to work harder. That is definitely the truth. I think I worked hard enough last year, but it was not enough…so I know I need to work much harder.”
The first races are still at least fortnight away for him and, of course, there is a period of wondering how things will go. Training is never the same as racing and he will get a clearer picture once he pins on a number and re-enters the maelstrom of the professional peloton.
Still, at this point his hunch is that the signs are good. He said that he has had no disruptions to his schedule and doesn’t consider himself to be behind in any way. Feeling physically good and mentally strong, his talk about wanting to win multiple races will encourage his team-mates and sporting managers.
“There are always rivals”
Cancellara and the rest of the Trek Factory Racing team are currently in Mallorca, making use of the mild conditions to rack up training hours and to begin ramping up the pace. The team was presented on Friday and in the days ahead planning will continue being done.
The precise details of his schedule are yet to be ironed out; according to the rider, SRM data will be used to pinpoint exactly where he is at physiologically and, from that, a decision will be made as to when he will start racing.
It’s possible that he will line out in one of the Challenge Mallorca races at the end of the month. Beyond that, though, the likely programme is a lot more clear.
“Confirmed now is Qatar and Oman, Strade Bianche, then Tirreno,” he explained, noting that the team won’t ride the Tour of Dubai. “Then we race Harelbeke, Wevelgem. Everything like normal with Flanders, Scheldeprijs and Roubaix…that is 100 percent with a big eye also on Amstel. That also will be there.
“Like I said, I am not in a hurry, but I am motivated to race. That is actually a good combination.”
He will be keeping an eye on the condition of his rivals in the races they are in. Feeling good is important for him, and encouraging, but he also knows that the form of others will also be a factor in what happens in the top races.
Like Cancellara, others will also be chomping at the bit at the thoughts of the Classics. He is fully aware that there are dangers out there.
“There are always rivals,” he acknowledged. “Sagan changed the team, now we will see how he can handle this pressure. He will have big leadership in a big team, he has a big salary. So that is already big things that have changed. [There will be] big expectations from inside the team. He has expectations from everyone.”
Other names also spring to mind when he’s asked to list the threats to his ambitions.
“There is Sep Vanmarcke with all the big results he did, although his team looks a bit weaker. There is Greg Van Avermaet. There are tons of riders every year.
“Then we have Tom [Boonen]…Tom will be in a different situation [than before] because he will be soon a dad. Honestly, I am really happy for that situation. I am hoping that everything comes good and Lore and the twins are healthy.
“Of course, the team of Tom will be super strong.”
Then there is another, a rival who Cancellara and the others know could be the darkest of horses. He may lack a strong Classics palmares, but his other career results mean nobody will rule him out.
“We have Bradley Wiggins coming up. What Bradley will do nobody knows really at the moment,” he said, knowing he cannot be dismissed.
Wiggins won the Tour de France in 2012 and took the Tour of California last year, but has abandoned stage race ambitions in order to focus fully on the Northern Classics. He was in the lead group towards the end of last year’s Paris-Roubaix and ultimately finished ninth.
This time around, he has staked everything on a top ride in the Hell of the North, and his past record at hitting targets means that Cancellara and others are wary.
“We know he is going to go for Roubaix but he can also be competitive for Flanders,” he said. “We know Bradley…when he focuses on things, he normally really could somehow achieve it.
“I believe he will be a real contender in Roubaix. I think is it not just talk, it is really serious. I think [it is important for] Team Sky and also Bradley himself, because it will be his last race for the team.
“He prepared last year already and he came pretty close. He impressed a lot of people. Of course, Roubaix is a special race, but Bradley is a serious contender.”
He’s not the only one. In reality there are a cluster of riders who could come out on top in March and April, who could emerge best from the clashes and chaos which define the top one day races.
Cancellara is very much one of these. He may be a year older than the rider who finished third in the 2014 Roubaix, but he sounds utterly committed to getting back on top.