MADRID (VN) — Fabian Cancellara’s done it all. He’s donned rainbow stripes, mined Olympic gold, brandished yellow jerseys, and hoisted cobblestone trophies.
So what do you do for a guy who’s overachieved throughout his career?
The answer: Raise the bar and push the envelope.
Going into 2014, Cancellara will aim to do it all again, with a season targeting the northern classics, the Tour de France, and the world championships.
For next season, however, there could be a few new twists, just to keep things interesting. There have already been exploratory conversations: Think hour record and the Ardennes classics.
“For big riders, you must do things to keep the motivation high. That’s not so necessary with Fabian, because he’s so professional and he loves to race,” said Trek Factory Team manager Luca Guercilena. “We’ve talked about a few possibilities.”
There are a few intriguing “possibilities” for Spartacus. Taking aim at both the hour record and the hilly Ardennes classics are goals that will surely give Cancellara the added challenge and stimulus he wants.
Guercilena said the discussions have been broad at best. There’s no firm plan to try to do either, but the ideas have been put on the table.
“Maybe in the next two seasons that is something he can try,” he said. “We will analyze the situation over the next two months. We need to discuss what can be realistic. The most important thing is to stay true to what you are good at.”
Thirty-three in March, Cancellara is hardly riding into the sunset. He still wants the road world title, the Olympics are looming in 2016, and he’s all but certain to smash the cobbles yet again.
Instead, these are part of discussions that went back to negotiations earlier this season between the Swiss superstar and team sponsors to keep him in a team jersey.
Trek is taking over as the title sponsor, and Cancellara was essential to the project. Keeping him happy was critical. Providing a few extra carrots was just what everyone needed to stay excited.
Not forgetting the cobbles
Of course, what Cancellara is “good at” is just about everything, save for long, high-altitude climbs.
Cancellara already has six monuments on his palmares (three Roubaixs, two Flanders, one San Remo), four world time trial titles, and eight stages at the Tour de France.
While his quest to win the road world title unrealized, there’s enough to keep the Swiss veteran busy enough over the next few seasons. The idea is to add a new stimulus or two just to keep things interesting.
“For Fabian, the classics are the most important part of the season,” Guercilena said. “It’s better to chase your own real qualities, and then adapt yourself to new challenges. So we know that the classics, the time trials, the prologues, that’s what he already does very well at.”
There’s no doubt that Cancellara loves racing the classics. His rivalry with Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) has made the northern classics must-see TV over much of the past decade.
Sweeping the monuments
Cancellara’s made it no secret that he’d like to win all of cycling’s so-called monuments. He’s already won three of the five, but the two that remain — Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Giro di Lombardia — do not fit his style of racing.
Still, he wants to try, and it could happen as soon as this year. Guercilena said Cancellara could race Amstel Gold Race and Liège following the northern classics.
Amstel suits him better than Liège, but he might want to try to race one or both just to see how his body can handle the extra weeks at top level.
Of the two remaining monuments that have eluded Cancellara’s grasp, Liège would be the easiest to target. Cancellara has proven he can get up short but steep climbs when he’s in top form, and even with the addition of the Roche aux Faucons in the Liège parcours, he could in optimum condition make a realistic run for the podium.
So far, he’s never even bothered trying to race the Ardennes. After hitting peak form for Flanders-Roubaix week, it’s a long stretch before Liège, especially since it was bumped back two weekends after Roubaix.
Amstel Gold is even more realistic, though it does not rank as one of the fabled monuments, and certainly would make a fine feather for his cap.
Lombardia, however, is a whole other kettle of fish. Tucked in at the end of the European season, Cancellara could carry form out of the world championships into Italy, but the course is much hillier and challenging that the Ardennes.
While some bruisers can win on occasion at Amstel and even Liège, Lombardia is the domain of the punchy climbers such as Joaquim Rodríguez, Philippe Gilbert, and Damiano Cunego. Cancellara outweighs those guys by 20kg or more.
Lombardia’s route does change, and even though the Passo del Ghisallo remains the emblematic climb, one day there could be a course that suits Cancellara a little better.
But as Guercilena said, sometimes it’s just better to stick with what you’re good at, and have a chance to win, rather than sticking your neck out too far and risk having it chopped.
Chasing the hour
Even more intriguing would be a run at the hour record.
Despite the rise of Germany’s Tony Martin over the past few seasons, Cancellara remains one of the world’s best against the clock. An hour attempt would be much more realistic and have a higher percentage of success than a blind charge into the Ardennes.
“We have already talked about the hour record,” Guercilena said. “There are a lot of things to consider. Perhaps it would be possible 20 days after a grand tour. You have to look at a schedule, the material, making tests, and then training. We have to define if it’s possible.”
Once considered one of the benchmarks among cycling’s true champions, the hour record has slowly fallen out of favor.
There were a few half-hearted attempts in the 2000s, but the last real push came in 2005, when Ondrej Sosenka improved on Chris Boardman’s 2000 mark.
It’s a punishing effort in what’s a relatively simply concept: Ride as hard and fast as possible on an oval track, and see how far you can get in 60 minutes. It’s quite easy to see if someone is on world-record time, usually within the opening minutes, but to keep the pace so high is an excruciating effort that few are willing to tackle.
Up until just two decades ago, however, nearly all of cycling’s top riders attempted the hour record at one point or another. Fausto Coppi and Jacques Anquetil set records until Eddy Merckx established a new benchmark in 1972 of 49.431km at Mexico City.
Merckx’s time stood until dramatic improvements in aerodynamics, technology, and positioning busted the barrier in a series of high-profile attempts starting with Francesco Moser in 1984.
There were a flurry of attempts in the mid-1990s, as Graeme Obree, Chris Boardman, Miguel Indurain and Tony Rominger all used ever-controversial positions and materials to push the record out to 56.375km, the mark set by Boardman in Manchester.
Worried that the new records were out of tune with the purist Merckx record, the UCI decided to create two categories, with the UCI hour record being the “official record,” disallowing such things as aero helmets, disc wheels, aero bars, and non-traditional riding positions.
In 2000, Boardman returned with a “traditional” bike to better Merckx’s mark by 10 meters in 2000. Sosenka improved that to 49.700km in 2005.
Since then, the hour record has sort of died on the vine. Perhaps an attempt by Cancellara could bring it back to life.
Whether Cancellara decides to attempt the Ardennes or the hour record will be decided in the coming weeks and months.
“These are things that are helpful to keep a rider motivated to train and perform,” Guercilena said. “You need motivation, even if you are Cancellara. When you’ve won almost everything, you need a new stimulus to get even better.”
As if the northern classics were not exciting enough.