Fabian Cancellara walks – glides, really – through the lobby of the Hilton Hotel, leaving in his wake a trail of stunned double-takes. Since his retirement in 2016, after one of the most glittering palmares in the sport’s modern history, Cancellara has clearly stayed active: he’s a lean picture of vitality, and looks capable of crushing anyone on a bike at a moment’s notice. Still a specimen.
But quite apart from being the poster boy for graceful ageing, there’s a certain indefinable quality about Spartacus – an aura that he drifts along in, sweeping fans along the barriers at stage starts into a frenzy of selfie-requests and whispered asides. At the Tour Down Under, Cancellara traded kit for khakis, but with his swept-back mane and face that launched a thousand products, he’s still instantly recognisable as the winner of those Olympics gold medals, the conqueror of the classics, the yellow jersey holder, the four time world champion.
Even with sensible shoes and a cardigan knotted loosely around his shoulders – heck, even that one night when he was wandering around in a Port Adelaide AFL jersey he bought himself – he manages to be cool.
But ‘cool’ is not the same thing as ‘charismatic’, which leads me to a confession: as a fan of the sport, I found Cancellara a little difficult to connect with. He always struck me as a little coldly analytical in his riding style, a little subdued, a little lacking in personality alongside rivals like Belgium’s #1 party boi, Tom Boonen, or certified kook, Peter Sagan. In Cancellara’s 86 victories, there weren’t many that had me cheering.
But the other week at the Tour Down Under, he pulled an unlikely performance out of his hat that had me reassessing everything I’d assumed about the guy.
That Friday night, you see, he sat down with a selection of cycling media in the corner of a media centre, and dropped some of the greatest quotes in the recorded history of human speech.
Rewind a few days, to a media alert that landed in my inbox for a round-table event called ‘“Press Neutral” with Fabian Cancellara’. (To date, I’m not sure if that was a clever wordplay from the organiser on his Swiss nationality, or whether it was a subtle way of flagging that we could only come prepared with softball questions. Perhaps both.)
The night before the night with Fabian, I’d sat in a round-table with UCI President David Lappartient (key quote: “It’s not true that if you say, ‘Fake news, fake news, fake news,’ then something becomes true news”), skulked on a Bjarne Riis round-table (key quote: “If I fail again, throw me in jail”) and was grappling with a story about George Bennett that no-one read (key quote on that front from both George and myself: “It’s still giving me a bit of grief”).
So at 7.15 on a Friday night, I was not particularly enthused about sitting down for an hour of flaccid questions with a retired rider I’d already written off as a little bit boring. But on the off-chance, I shook Cancellara’s hand, introduced myself, plonked a recorder on the table in front of him with an apology, and went back to my Bennett manifesto.
It was only later when I listened back to the recording that I realised the error of my ways. The transcript starts with an opening admission from Cancellara that he “[has] this two hour slot where the jet lag really hits me. But now… now I can go on for hours.” And oh, dear readers, oh, I believe him.
Now, it’s important that you understand that this is not simply a flimsy premise for a jokey article punching down on somebody speaking English as a second language. That’s not a true statement in any case – Cancellara is fluent in Italian, German, French and English, which puts him at least three languages ahead of me. And ‘punching down’? Nah. The guy is an extremely successful, handsome, and popular millionaire, which again, puts him at least – at least – three up on me.
But here’s the thing I learnt about Spartacus: he has this meandering way of formulating his thoughts and then expressing them that strikes me as more than a little magical, regardless of fluency. That is what really gets my attention.
So: of the many things that Fabian Cancellara said that night, here is a selection of my personal highlights, dutifully transcribed and categorised by theme and line of questioning.
On training and trainers
“It was just German school hours, hours, hours and today is about less hours, but short, intense. And adapting this and trainer from not cycling, [with greater urgency] trainer from whatever, which sports, other sports, coming into … a swimming trainer training bike riders, so is a trainer a trainer?”
On whether he wants ‘a beer or some wine or something’
“No I don’t.”
On riders he saw in an elevator
“It’s interesting. You go into the elevator; you’ll see riders who have no clue who they are. Some young kids. And then one makes a picture and then … my business partner’s here and said, ‘do you know who that was?’ I said, ‘no, no’. And they make a picture.”
On team discipline and training metrics
“Before it was no social. So how they talk on the table and how is the structure of the team putting every day the weight, every day, the hours of sleep, the scale of one to twenty to which how fit you are?
The Italian school was just the doctor came into the room and measured your heart rate. And then you stand up and you went for breakfast. I mean, that was the old Italians. [under his breath] Damn! Why you always come?”
On what Milan-San Remo isn’t
“Yeah, it’s not Flanders. It’s not Roubaix. It’s not Amstel, Liege… it’s not Lombardy, it’s not Sormano, it’s not Nicola (?), it’s not whatever, it’s not Kwaremont, it’s not… But you see, San Remo has… [emphatically] so many.”
On whether he would ride away with Mathieu van der Poel at Flanders or Roubaix
“But I’m not riding anymore.”
On life as a celebrity and Donald Trump in the toilet, perhaps
“Donald Trump – he’s maybe not the best example, but I spoke the other day about him, too. He came into Switzerland and he cannot even go to a toilet in peace. Probably. I don’t know.”
On new trends in cycling
“I have plenty of gravels at home. We have a lot in the forest.”
On being on the bicycle
“I was in Sardinia and training and I will not mention names, but I tell you, I was on the bicycle.”
On something that I really hope doesn’t actually happen at pre-season training camps
“It’s fundamentally important to create the team in the wintertime to put them in a cold water and let them survive in surviving.”
On where the fingers are
“Telephone, digital… Less talking, more on the phone. We have rules on the table. No one has the phone out. But as soon as you’re in the room, we know where the fingers are – on the phone.
If it’s music, if it’s social, if it’s a film, if it’s a game, if it’s whatever it is. The phone has given to the world [measured pause, upward inflection] good things, but also [shorter, weightier pause; downward inflection] bad things.”
At end of the session, on who this recorder left on the table belongs to
“It is the guy with the moustache.”
A new side of a superstar
Across his glittering career, Fabian Cancellara won almost everything that there was to win. After retiring, he’s successfully stepped into what seems to be a fulfilling and lucrative career as a brand ambassador. I didn’t think that either of those facts made him interesting. Still don’t.
But I’d never dared to dream that beneath the cardigan lurked a man with weird, wonderful things to say about a wide array of topics – often all at once. Spartacus is unafraid of taking a circuitous pass at the big questions defining our age: is hyperconnectedness a tool for good or evil? Is a trainer a trainer? Can Donald Trump take a restful dump?
Fabian Cancellara may have won Olympic medals, monuments and world championships, but he’s more multifaceted than just his results.
He has gravels at home. He is suspicious about smartphones. He knows where the fingers are. And because of all of these things, he snared the most elusive prize of all: my jaded black heart.