During a 16-year professional career, Fabian Cancellara grew to become one of the best one-day riders of all time, winning three editions of Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders, Strade Bianche, and the E3 Harelbeke. He also won the 2008 Milan-San Remo plus eight stages of the Tour de France.
The 36-year-old Swiss rider was known for his horsepower, and this strength helped him become one of the best time trialists in cycling. He won the world title on four occasions and the Olympic gold medal in 2008 and 2016. He brought his career to a close in Rio with the second of those Olympic titles, finishing his career on top.
Since ending his racing career, he has worked on several new projects. He is co-owner of the relaunced TriStar triathlon series and of the Omata analogue bike speedometer company, and also works with the Laureus Foundation Switzerland. On June 25 he will hold the first Chasing Cancellara event, where over 300 cycling fans will race against him.
In this edition of our What I’ve Learned series, Cancellara gives us an insight into his motivations, his character, the life lessons he picked up during his career, and how he has been able to use the knowledge gained in this new chapter of his life.
Persistence is really important, both in racing and in life itself. I had difficulties with crashing out of races. I think pushing through the difficulties helped me to get stronger. Not giving up was important.
I was in the winning move in the Olympic Games road race in London and I crashed out. I took a break afterwards because I needed a break, but then I came back stronger. I kept working and it paid off.
Life is not always about winning. There are times when you are in difficulty and you have to remain persistent. You have to keep fighting.
I think I had a certain ego as a rider. I was kind of an egotist about my goals. When I was performing for my races, I had my targets. After my career I spoke with many riders. They hated me when I was focussed for my races. Especially on the day of a big race, I would not talk to anybody.
But a normal, regular race for me was nothing… it was normal to be open then, that wasn’t a problem. Knowing when to switch off from my perfectionism was important.
Aside from that ego, aside from those days when I was so focussed, I was generous. I would take care of people to a certain level. I am not the riders’ speaker or the patron, but in the 2010 Tour where Andy and Frank crashed on the wet descent on Stage 2, I told the peloton to slow down. Honestly, I didn’t know that they crashed so hard, but for me, that was not the reason. Someone had to say ‘hey guys, stop. What the hell are we doing?’ The conditions were very dangerous.
It was the same in Oman in 2015, when the tyres were being affected by the extreme heat and causing crashes. When we stopped, it was not about having a nice afternoon at the beach or just trying to be back earlier in the hotel. For me, it was taking care of certain dangerous situations. To take responsibility.
There are many young riders in the bunch, but we are older. We are leaders. We have to take responsibility when it is needed. And, after my career, this is also what I try to do now. Try to get the responsibility by myself for the things I have around me.
I really believe in the value of instinct. Instinct was a really important factor in my career, and it is important now.
Let’s consider when I was in a race. It wasn’t the case that I would be thinking beforehand, ‘I will attack here, I will attack there.’ Okay, we tried to prepare everything beforehand to get the right result, but in terms of the timing of attacks … you can’t plan for that.
It is all about going by your gut feeling. When I won San Remo, Flanders, Roubaix… There were heaps of one-day races where that sort of move happened. For example, the attack on the Muur in the 2010 Tour of Flanders wasn’t planned. The attack in Roubaix the same year wasn’t planned. When I won in San Remo in 2008 – that attack wasn’t planned. It was instinct.
Now, after my career, it’s still important to do that. In this case, instinct is about saying yes or no to certain deals, to certain requests. If I look too much into details, then suddenly I get lost. It causes chaos in your head. Instead, if you like something, if you feel good about it, and if you feel good with the people linked to it, then I go for it. So that shows the value of instinct.
I’ve learned to take things step by step in my life by learning from what I did as a rider. Just after I retired, I went full gas. I tried to do everything. I was like, ‘I am going to miss business opportunities. I am going to miss new options.’ I also thought I could take more responsibility, but in the end I put back my manager to have him in the middle, because otherwise the communications with all the emails, all the wishes, with everything — I could not handle it. It is something I am not made for.
My manager, Armin, said to me: ‘Fabian, you are not preparing for Flanders, Roubaix or the Classics. You are preparing your next life, you are preparing your next chapter. But even when you prepared for the Classics, you did it step by step. You started with the base training, and then afterwards you added intensity.’
And that’s true. For example, when I was preparing for the big races, I did things gradually and built up step by step. So I now do the same in my new life. I have to balance what is a priority and what is not a priority. I have an assistant to not only delegate, but to give things away that are not necessarily a priority. If I go too fast, if I am jumping around from left to right, if I am trying to do too much, that is also not good. So that is why I take things step by step.
I was a perfectionist when I was racing, and a lot of my wins came from that perfectionism. Every small detail was necessary to be on top. That was especially the case with time trialing. At times I went against the sponsors. I went against the team. I wanted to get the best out of what we had. And if we didn’t have it, we had to try to get it. That was certainly important for some of my successes.
But also you have to know when to stop. In Rio, before I won the Olympic time trial, I was focussing on perfection, but also on simplicity. On knowing when to accept what we had, and not to be stressed any more. Not to argue. To be at the point of saying, ‘we have what we have. We have that bike, we have those wheels. We have this, we have that. We are in the Olympic Games, and that is the situation. So we will do the best we can do.’
So I let the mechanic work, I let the soigneurs do their jobs, and we trained. I did this race in the opposite way than I might have, but I was experienced enough with the perfection to be able to accept things as they were.
For me people were always important. For me, everyone is the same. There is nobody different in the world. I was a bike rider. The mechanic cleaned and fixed the bike, the soigneurs did their job. The press officer did his work, and the sport manager and the cook did theirs. Everyone has their own job. Everyone has his things to do. But at the end of the day, they are all normal people. It is important to treat the normal person with respect.
That is what I did a lot in Belgium. I treated the Belgian people in a way to show them that I am not different. I am like them. I am like everyone else in the world. I have my own family. I bring my kids to school. I go and do everyday things. I am not different just because I am winning big races.
I think my authentic way, how I am, that is still the thing that is bringing me forward in my life. That was as a rider, but that is now also coming back as a person.
My family is very important to me, and I wouldn’t change anything. I’m happy to not have had a wife who was just waiting and waiting for me. It was never the case that she was stuck at home 24-7 while I was off going to the race, going all over the world. I wanted my family to be modern.
People were asking me if I would still want things the same way if I could do it all again. Would I still have had children early, or would I change it and have them later? I said, no, I am really, really happy with the way it is.
If I had waited until I retired and then thought about us having babies then, I think that would have caused a double problem. When the baby comes, you have to take care of it. That is normal. But if this was at the time when I was also going through the life change after ended my career, it would have been much more complicated.
Secondly, you want to be able to live life when you stop racing. You want to travel, to go visit people or whatever. So you don’t have space for brand-new kids, building things up yourself during this change. My kids are 10, almost 11, and almost five. I can spend a different type of time with them now. It’s a good time to be living with them.
Honestly, I would not change anything. I would not turn back the wheel and do anything differently.