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Q&A: Fabian Cancellara on life after pro cycling

Note: This interview was conducted by The Outer Line, which is a collaboration between contributors Steve Maxwell and Joe Harris 

It’s been a little over a year since Fabian Cancellara retired from professional cycling. It is every athlete’s dream to go out on top, and Cancellara did exactly that – winning the 2016 Olympic time trial as his final event in the sport. Cancellara, who earned the nickname Spartacus, after the Roman slave turned gladiator, was truly one of the giants of his generation – winning multiple editions of the sport’s toughest “Monument” races, time trial championships, and eight stages of the Tour de France. Few die-hard cycling fans will forget the end of Stage 3 in the 2007 Tour, when Cancellara simply powered away from all of the top sprinters in the world. Perhaps the true measure of Cancellara’s dominance and consistency is the fact that his closing victory in the Rio Olympics time trial came a full eight years after his first gold time trial ride in Beijing.

While Cancellara needs no introduction to long-standing fans, some background helps to explain how he managed his racing career, and can set the stage for how he is exploring and evaluating new projects and business commitments going forward. Born in Switzerland in 1981 to an Italian father and a Swiss mother, Cancellara took to the bike at an early age; his prodigious talent might best be described by a term often associated with the great cyclists of his father’s homeland: “fuoriclasse,” or a champion beyond class. Twice Cancellara was Junior World Champion (1998-1999) in the time trial, and he was quickly snapped up by the powerful Mapei team in 2001, after he had raced as a “stagiaire” or trainee with the team in mid-2000.

Cancellara quickly racked up a variety of both short and longer time trial wins against other strong riders of his era, including Bradley Wiggins and Brad McGee. When Mapei exited the sport at the end of 2002, Cancellara moved over to another Italian-based team, Fassa Bortolo, where he continued to build his reputation as one of the sport’s best riders against the clock – including his first Tour de France stage victory and his first stint at wearing the Yellow Jersey. However, Cancellara was not yet ready to translate that strength into the big wins that he really coveted: he had finished just off the podium in Paris-Roubaix (4th in 2004) and placed 3rd in the Individual Time Trial of the 2005 World Championships.

In 2006, Cancellara went across to Bjarne Riis’ cutting-edge program at Team CSC (Computer Sciences Corporation) and it was under the guidance of this team that his talent really began to flourish. Riding for a sponsor with global ambitions, and in a progressive team culture that adopted many innovative scientific, psychological, and team-building principles, Cancellara quickly shifted into high gear. He opened his “Classics” account by winning his first Paris-Roubaix, and later that season, his first of four Elite world titles in the individual time trial.

Although the primary team sponsorship changed in 2009 to Saxo Bank, Cancellara’s winning ways under Riis’ direction did not. More major wins soon followed, including Milan-San Remo in 2008, Tour de France stage wins and days in the Yellow Jersey (2007 and 2010), and the aforementioned 2008 Beijing gold. He also developed into a more complete cycling competitor, taking the prestigious Tour of Switzerland and the Swiss national professional road championship. He won his first Tour of Flanders in 2010, and doubled-up with his second Paris-Roubaix win a week later.

Although the team changed hands, after Riis had to admit to doping in his 1996 Tour de France victory, the structure and format of the program he had built carried forward, in various iterations of Leopard cycling, which was managed and influenced by long-time Riis contemporary Kim Andersen. Cancellara gives strong credit to Riis, in helping to shape his career and success – both from the perspective of psychological preparation as well as physical training and tactical strategies necessary to win at the top level. “He was by far the best General Manager, and it was the best team that I worked with in my career,” says Cancellara.

Cancellara continued to thrive in this environment, staking a claim as one of the greatest Northern Classics riders of his generation, winning the Flanders/Roubaix double again in 2013, and Flanders for a third time in 2014. He also won a variety of semi-Classics in Belgium, three Strade Bianche races, time trials just about everywhere, and finally, capped off his career with his second Olympic time trial gold medal. With a body of work which includes some 120 victories, spanning 16 years as a professional, he can clearly claim to be one of the dominant racers of his generation.

No one would blame Cancellara if he had chosen to simply hang up his wheels and enjoy a good long vacation. Cancellara clearly relishes the additional time to spend with the family, but his retirement from active racing hasn’t led to a slowdown in his cycling-related activities, or much sitting around on the couch. Indeed, the end of his racing commitments seems to have unchained Cancellara – and freed him up to get involved in a wide variety of other competitive and business endeavors. And he is digging into these new ventures with the same dedication, unwavering focus and instinct he showed as a racer.

Cancellara clearly believes he has much to give back to the world of sport, with several new projects in the works and a full schedule of cycling events planned in the coming years. While attending a recent CA Technologies industry symposium in Las Vegas on behalf of his former Team Trek, Cancellara sat down with The Outer Line to talk about the experiences that shaped his storied cycling career, his current projects and his vision for the future of pro cycling.

The Outer Line: Thanks for taking some time to talk with us, Fabian. Can you give us a quick overview of the various projects and activities you’ve been involved with over the last year or so, since you retired from pro cycling?

Fabian Cancellara: I have always approached my life with passion – to find the things that I loved to do, and to try to achieve the most that I could. That is the way I approached my cycling career, and it is now the way I am approaching my post-racing career. I am looking at and getting involved with several different sporting activities and also looking at personal involvement and investment in various business ventures as well.

I have always believed that my strengths – both in the past as an athlete, and now in the future as a business person – come from my ability to act and make decisions instinctively, to have an innate feel for how to succeed, and what will be interesting and challenging for me. So, I have initiated my “Chasing Cancellara” series this year, and I have also taken an ownership and leadership position in TriStar, a series of triathlon events.

TOL: Tell us a little more about those two projects.

FC: Well, my Chasing Cancellara program is more of a fun cycling event for serious, and less serious, cyclists. We set up a race route, maybe ten to twenty kilometers, or longer. Then we close off the roads, and we have a race. All people – particularly cycling enthusiasts – can come and join us, and challenge me to a race. We have some good fun, and if you can beat me, you get a formal certificate! There is a VIP Rideout – 50K to 100K rides – the day before the raceday. We will have a dinner in the evening, and after the dinner I give a talk about racing, or perhaps a more general discussion about how to succeed against challenges, and so on. It is a way for people to get to know me, to have some fun, and for me to meet some new and interesting people.

I have also gotten involved in a sports program called TriStar. This is essentially a series of events focused on bringing the excitement and satisfaction of the sport of triathlon to a bigger cross-section of the people. These are shorter events, which more amateur athletes can get involved with, and perhaps then they can improve and move on to longer-distance and more challenging triathlon events. Our TriStar events are as short as a 300-meter swim, a 30K bike and a 3K run. Or 500 meter swim, 50k bike ride, 5km run. The more common competitions are in the range of a 1000-meter swim, 100K bike ride, and 10K run. In a way, we are trying to break down the traditional triathlon mindset, allowing more people to enjoy the sport. It is also possible to create teams for the events, where individuals just do part of the event, so that everybody feels they can participate. It is great to watch more and more people be able to participate in the sport. I have gotten involved in this not only as a participant and former athlete to help promote the sport, but also as an owner and leader to help grow the TriStar business. (Editors’ Note: see more about this sport at www.tristartriathlon.com.)

TOL: It looks like you also spend a fair amount of time acting as a spokesperson for a number of commercial products as well?

FC: Yes, I am still involved some 30 days per year to work as a global ambassador with Trek – my main corporate relationship. This keeps me involved with leaders in the global cycling industry, and I am always learning more about the business and economic aspects of the sport. I also represent GORE-Tex cycling products, as well as some other more local Swiss products, IWC watches and Terravignia. In addition, I’m involved as a Global Academy Member with the Laureus Foundation, which helps develop sporting programs for disadvantaged children around the world. And of course, I have my family and two children, and so I am keeping very busy!

TOL: Do you have a longer-term interest in getting more involved in the top level of pro cycling, perhaps as a team manager, a coach, even an owner – that sort of thing? Or perhaps involvement with the governance and policy-making aspects of the sport?

FC: Well, perhaps this will surprise some people, but at this point, I think no, I am not so interested in getting involved now with a cycling team as an owner or a director. I don’t really have the business experience or background which I think you need to become really successful as a manager. Perhaps that is something which I will learn or develop over time as I build more business expertise, but at the moment, no, I am not thinking of a further career in the management of pro cycling.

TOL: So, let us change gears for a minute, and ask you a few more questions about your cycling career, and get some of your opinions regarding the future of pro cycling. From your first year as a pro with the Mapei team through to your last season with Trek, what were some of the biggest changes you saw in professional cycling?

FC: Well, of course there were a lot of changes. Usually, people are asking me about the doping – how bad was it in the old days, how much have things improved today? And yes, I think the situation has definitely improved. Doping was truly an epidemic in the peloton back in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But then after that, I believe it started to be restricted to just certain teams, and then it became restricted to just certain riders. Today, I believe that it is just the occasional “black sheep” who is still trying to dope. Doping always depended mostly on the help of the team, and most of the teams have cleaned themselves up now.

Also, there is more social engagement; for example, the sponsors are always getting more access and more influence, and this is also a positive thing to help clean up the sport. Also, today teams are building around three or four riders, not just one rider. So yes, I think cycling has done a good job to address the doping problems, maybe the best job of any international sports federation. Riders, teams, the UCI, WADA – they have all worked to make a big change for cycling. But there will always be some black sheep or idiot who wants to dope.

TOL: What is your general opinion about athletes’ rights, and the need for a strong riders’ union or association? Can the CPA be strengthened, or should it just be discarded and a new effort started?

FC: A stronger union could definitely have an impact, but how can we make that happen? It’s difficult to say. For me – people were always pushing me to go out and try to help solve problems in the peloton, and sometimes I did. And this was not to make myself look big, but just to get out in front of certain issues – for the goodness of the sport. I just said “if someone is going to die, why should we race?” “If the weather is terrible, why should we race?” The racing is more complicated today – more transfers, longer transfers, a lot of logistical difficulties to make the race happen, and often it is the riders who are paying the costs.

The problem is that most riders believe they are just the slaves of the team, and the teams are the slaves of the race organizers, and so on. So, no one takes the responsibility for the sport – there is no single leader, each rider goes his own way. It is like those Italian riders in the Giro (Editors’ Note: the 2009 edition, stage 9, when Cancellara helped to organize a go-slow to protest unsafe race conditions, but Italian riders from wildcard teams raced the final four laps anyway, after they were reportedly threatened to be blacklisted by the race organizer). And you don’t see the French riders stand up to protest during the Tour, for example. But I never made a step back – someone has to make a decision for the peloton sometimes.

TOL: Particularly in your later years, you were often viewed as the “patron,” or statesman – one of the moral authorities of the peloton. Would you participate in helping to strengthen the voice of the riders in pro cycling?

FC: Right now, no, I would not get directly involved in the riders’ union effort myself. First, I need to find my way for the future, and right now I am neutral – I can jump in any direction. But I am always positive for cycling and for the riders. But people must remember – without the riders there is no sport. We are like “Muppets” – without us, there is no Muppet Show. (Editors’ Note: Cancellara is clearly spending more time with his children.) If 220 WorldTour riders stand together, I would like to see who in cycling tries to shoot them down. So, a bigger and stronger riders’ association is important. But it is difficult to get the attention of everyone, because most riders just want to race.

TOL: If you had one career decision that you wish you could have made differently, what would it have been?

FC: No, you know, things went how they went. I have always operated on my instinct, and usually the decisions were the right ones. I am looking back, and I think every step I made was OK.

TOL: Did you have a favorite teammate or teammates?

FC: You know, I’ve had a lot of good teammates and friends. Maybe my best teammate was Stuart O’Grady. We were roommates for several years. We talk together every once in a while, but you know, everybody is always busy with something.

TOL: Were there riders you raced against that you thought would become great pros, but who didn’t succeed? Why do you think promising young athletes most commonly fail?

FC: Well, I always think that perhaps if you are too fast coming up, you may also be going down too fast. If you come slowly up – develop your career and your skill more deliberately – perhaps that will allow you to stay at the top longer. The team that you are on is also a very important factor; some young riders have the right team, the right manager, and the right environment. And then maybe some have the wrong team. But it is unfair to mention names. (Editors’ Note: Damiano Cunego is often held up as an example of the former situation – winning the Giro in 2004 at age 23, but then not really being able to stay at the top level.)

TOL: Now that you have more experience from the business perspective, who would you point to as some of the stronger business managers or leaders in pro cycling?

FC: Yes, for me that would be Bjarne Riis. He had lots of different ideas, and he always created good teams. Bjarne always focused on three things: the team, the equipment, and the training. Every one of his teams were successful, and they were a huge learning experience. Other teams have tried to copy his innovations – the team-building exercises, the military camps, and so on. But you have to have the right people in the right places – you can’t just copy it that easily.

I think that Bjarne still has the most vision. I know a few things about his current efforts. He is doing the right thing now, and I think he will be successful again – he has the women’s team, the development team, and he is building up a stronger program. If he can get the money, I think he will get a top men’s team again.

TOL: What do you see as the biggest current challenges for attracting new sponsors and investors into pro cycling? For example, why do you think CA Technologies is sponsoring the Trek team? What benefits do they get out of their sponsorship, how could they get a bigger return out of their sponsorship dollars?

FC: Well, of course a lot of it is based around the individual, the person who has a passion for cycling. Mike is clearly driving the interest and the participation from CA. (Editors’ Note: Mike Gregoire is the CEO of CA Technologies – a $4.5 billion publicly-traded software company.) If Mike was a big golfer, then perhaps CA would not be so much in cycling. This is certainly true for the big patron teams, maybe like Sky and BMC for sure. But sometimes it is also true for the corporate sponsors. Most of the big corporate sponsors also have champions inside their companies to drive the interest in pro cycling.

But cycling can be a great value for sponsors. It is a great tool for hospitality events – it is an easy way to create motivation and interest, both for employees and for customers, and today we see more and more people on the bike. The better the results of the team, the more excitement we have had with the employees and the customers. In Saxo Bank, every employee had on their computer screen-saver a picture of the team – and they felt like they were part of the team. Companies like CA are good at making more out of the sponsorship and getting more people involved in the events.

In a bigger sense, cycling can provide the kind of excitement and emotion that people want, to help people relieve their stress. Cycling is a touchable sport, a sport that you can do by yourself. Anybody can ride a bike, anybody can go climb any col in the world that the pro racers climb, you can do anything! But can you get in a Formula 1 car and drive around a track? Usually, no. Cycling is unique, and can be closer to the fans, the sponsors, the employees and the customers. I think that no other sport can give so much back to the sponsor. But of course, the question is always – what is the right amount of payment for that?

TOL: What are the other most critical challenges facing pro cycling today, in your opinion?

FC: For me, it is mostly just one big thing – everybody has to work together. If cycling wants to get better and stronger, the big organizers, the teams and the UCI have to collaborate with each other much better. They should not let their egos get in the way. The sport would be much better off if everyone would work together, rather than too often just for themselves. Too many of our organizations, like the ASO, are working just for themselves. They forget about the overall growth of the sport. They forget that they can make more money working together than just working for themselves.

Yes, of course you have to focus on your piece, but don’t forget the overall pie! If we cannot do this, cycling will not survive. For example, if the UCI, ASO, RCS and teams would push for a single TV rights package together, you would have a good amount of revenue. But if you sell only one race, you get less. Look at what happened with the Ironman – it was sold for what, $800 million? (Editors’ Note: Sources reported that the Ironman was sold in August of 2015 to China’s Dalian Wanda group for a consideration of approximately $900 million – $650 million in cash, plus the assumption of some $250 million of debt.) So, cycling has to do better in terms of its business management. It is so simple, really.

TOL: How can we get more children interested in and moving towards cycling as a passion or career? As a recognized champion for many years, do you think of yourself as a role model for young cyclists? Would you encourage your children to participate in the sport?

FC: I encourage them to make something healthy out of their life – to move, to use their body as a strong unit – not necessarily cycling, but to consider sport as a life school. Not just to win, but to stay healthy and participate.

TOL: Thanks Fabian, and good luck with all of your ventures going forward!

Postscript: At the time of our discussion in Las Vegas, Cancellara received wide coverage following suggestions by American rider Phil Gaimon that Cancellara had used an electric motor in his bike during certain races back in the 2010 timeframe. Cancellara declined to speak on the record about the topic.

Steve Maxwell and Joe Harris, The Outer Line, December 22, 2017

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