From rock bottom to rock solid: Cancellara’s long road back for Flanders and Roubaix

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He’s facing a huge moment of his career, a chance to make history and become the first four-time winner of the Tour of Flanders and also to stamp the mark of greatness on his final season. The stakes could hardly be higher. However, facing the press at Friday’s press conference, Fabian Cancellara was calm.

The Swiss rider stood with the rest of the team as the new Trek-Segafredo sponsor CA Technologies was announced. Smiling, appearing relaxed, he positioned himself on the left side of his team-mates, letting others take centre stage.

If you were a bystander unaware of the sport, the first inkling that he was the star would have come when he stepped forward as the others faded back, sitting down in front of the media for a 20 minute question and answer session.

Until then he was just one of the guys. Weight of expectation on his shoulders? None of that was visible.

Cancellara has come to the race in strong form. Unlike his old rival Tom Boonen, another who had problems with injury at the end of the season, Cancellara has been one of the strongest in the peloton this year. He won the Trofeo Serra de Tramuntana in Mallorca at the end of January. Just over a month later, he proved best in the Strade Bianche.

And even if he had to be satisfied with fourth place in both the E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem last week, outmanoeuvred by his rivals, he is right where he needs to be. “What I can say is I am arriving 100 percent again to this,” he says.

Few would disagree.

Battling back to the top

Reaching peak shape for the Classics might seem de rigueur for a rider who has dominated before in springtime, but last year this seemed far from guaranteed. 2015 was a brutal time for Cancellara; he suffered mishap after mishap, and each attempt to come back was met by more disappointment.

His first big goal of the spring Classics was scuppered when he crashed during the E3 Prijs Harelbeke, fracturing his spine.

He set the Tour de France as a substitute target, working hard to come back to that. The dedication appeared to pay off when he took the yellow jersey after stage three but, less than 24 hours later, bad luck returned. He crashed heavily on the road to the Mur de Huy, suffering another fracture in the same area, and was forced out of the race.

Physically damaged and mentally demoralised, the Swiss rider once again began the long fight back to fitness. He needed a goal to work towards: the thoughts of becoming the world road race champion in Richmond provided that incentive.

He’s won the time trial title four times but taking the road title was the biggest remaining target in his career. Using the Vuelta a España to ride into shape was an important part of that objective but, for the third time in five months, misfortune was lurking in the shadows.

Cancellara came into the race having suffered from a fever and then a stomach problem. He hoped to ride through it but was dropped on stage two. The following day, he suffered early on during stage three and went out the back again. Far behind the peloton, he stood zero chance of making it to the finish inside the time limit.

Advised by his team to stop, he did so. His race was over and, as it proved, so too his season.

“It’s mentally very challenging and it drains your energy,” he said in early September. “I don’t have batteries anymore for a third come-back in one season.

“It’s more than just a lack of motivation. It goes deeper than that. It feels impossible to load the batteries enough to break through that wall in your head.”

In that context, getting back to top shape for the Classics was no small achievement.

“It was for sure a hard 2015,” he said, asked about his recovery by CyclingTips. “After the Vuelta, I just wanted to stay away from competition because after all these impacts I had, all the negatives, I had no energy left to continue towards the last goal at the end of the year, the world championship.”

Giving up on Richmond was much more than missing one race: with retirement certain in 2016 and the worlds on a pancake flat course in Qatar, he knew not going to the USA meant he’d missed his last chance.

That too was a blow.

“I knew I was going to retire without having this striped jersey,” he admits. “But, right now is what counts. With the energy that was left, what I could rebuild there and in the wintertime is now paying off.”

He’s able to see the bigger picture at this point in time. “I have my freedom, I am just enjoying my rides [prior to Flanders, having reached top form – ed.]. If I was pushing last year towards the worlds, then maybe I would not be in the same position now.

“I learned from all the things in my past. With the support of Trek, with the support of the whole entire team, and from my family, I got through it and now I am back and ready again for victories.”

Fabian Cancellara wins the 2016 Strade Bianche
Fabian Cancellara wins the 2016 Strade Bianche

”I will race for winning, not to finish second or third”

For the media yesterday, the fact that this will be his last Flanders – and, next week, his last Roubaix – was a big deal. And naturally so: Cancellara won his first Roubaix a decade ago, and since then has been one of the top one day riders in the sport.

The thoughts of him being absent from the peloton next year seem alien. He’s been such a fixture, such a presence, that it’s hard to picture a Classics bunch without him.

He insists that he’s not pondering the end of the road.

“Right now, and also in the last few days, I was more looking at the race itself,” he said. “Not on this being the last one here.

“I am fully concentrated. There is no space to look [at things like that]. I want to perform and if you want to perform, then I don’t look for other things.”

His tunnel vision is such that there is no room for nostalgia, he says. That will come later when he has time to look back.

The only thing that is important now is doing his utmost to win on Sunday. After that, doing to same the following Sunday in Roubaix.

Of course, winning in the immediate build-up to the race would have been good for morale. Netting fourth in the E3 Harelbeke rankled, and so too finishing in the same position in Gent-Wevelgem.

One week on, though, he sees some plusses.

“Of course I was expecting more. But I think when I look back, for sure there was disappointment, but right now I think I prefer it as it was. Because with this, I still saw [his rivals’ form] and I could still work on a few things that will be necessary for Sunday.”

He said that Trek-Segafredo had given him a free role last weekend. There was no pressure, but rather a green light to ride as he wished in order to be fully ready for Flanders.

“I started Gent-Wevelgem not looking for results. I was just looking to go deep. I used this free role…I was even guiding the team a bit. For me it was more to work towards this weekend.

“In the end I was in the front. I saw things that I can use now on Sunday. Even after 16 years, even if it will be my last race [in Flanders], I will need it as you are never old enough to learn.”

He also got an additional incentive to prove a point and to bounce back this Sunday.

“Sometimes you need to get a little knock on the head to wake up. To realise things that you need to ride better.”

If everything works out as he believes it should, he will top the podium either this weekend or next. Ideally, on both occasions.

But, if he had to pick one or the other, which one would he choose?

“We are right now ahead of Flanders,” he answered, refusing to be pinned down by the question. “I am not looking towards next week, because next week is a completely different race, a completely different scenario.

“I am looking now at this race. I will race for winning, not to arrive second or third.

“What counts is I come here 100 percent. Now it is the race that decides. What is going to happen in the end is not always in your hands.

“I know I can do a lot, I have a strong team. The team is supporting me 100 percent. We have some tactics. We can also change the tactics at certain times. We will play our game as well as the other teams.”

The most important thing is that he believes he is in a good place. Eight months after retiring from the Vuelta with zero morale, he feels he is on the cusp of something special. The fight back has been worthwhile.

“I am ready for everything,” he says, calmly. “I am not scared.”

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