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GHENT, Belgium (VN) — Fabian Cancellara fell in love 13 years ago in northern France riding the famed Paris-Roubaix. He failed to finish in 2003, but has since dominated the mean and ugly pavé farm roads, taking home three of the famous cobble trophies. Sunday, he races for the final time.
Cancellara will retire at the end of 2016 after a career that includes not only three wins in Paris-Roubaix — in 2006, 2010, and 2013 — but three in the Belgian monument Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) and four time trial world titles too.
Every spring, he keeps returning to the Hotel Weinebrugge in Bruges where team Trek-Segafredo bases itself for the cobbled classics. Yesterday, the 35-year-old Swiss rider from Bern spoke with journalists in the meeting room before waving goodbye to the hotel staff today and traveling south to Compiègne for the start of his 12th Paris-Roubaix.
He agreed that it was love at first sight for him in France, unlike De Ronde, where he had to wait nine years to win the first time in 2010. “In my first Roubaix, I gave it up at the second feed zone,” he said. “In my second, I fought all day for the win [4th in 2004].
“It is a game more than just good legs, you have to be mentally strong, don’t crack after some bad luck, because it can still turn around. You can’t quickly throw in the towel.”
He is a favorite Sunday, like he has been before. He showed why he should be with an attack in the Tour of Flanders on the cobbled Kwaremont climb and a chase behind eventual winner Peter Sagan (Tinkoff). He is currently a slight favorite with most oddsmakers, with Sagan close behind. Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) stands as the bookies’ third favorite. Tom Boonen (Etixx–Quick-Step), a four-time winner who suffered a skull fracture in October, is a bit further down the list this year.
Unlike the younger Sagan, who has only raced four times and placed as highly as sixth, Cancellara brings loads of experience with him. He can draw on years of highs and lows over the 52.8 kilometers of cobbles that make up the 257.5-kilometer monument.
“All my wins were special,” he explained. “The first one was special because it was my first. My win in 2010 came after a 50-kilometer solo attack and in 2013, I out-sprinted Sep Vanmarcke. Each of those victories I cherish.”
Cancellara planned for an early evening Friday after Trek – Segafredo and the hotel staff prepared dinner. “I can’t stay awake all night thinking about my last Roubaix,” he said.
Today, he enters the arena. Organizer ASO presents the teams this afternoon in Compiègne, the start of the race 55 miles north of Paris. The 25 teams meet again in the morning where Cancellara will begin his fight for a fourth title at 10:40 local time.