“This is the last time you will suffer like this,” Luca Guercilena shouts into the radio near the end of Fabian Cancellara’s Olympic time trial effort. This is the last time, Fabian, says his coach and longtime friend. Make it count.
Cancellara wasn’t supposed to win the Olympic time trial at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. He was too big, too old, a racer in slow decline. Peter Sagan was dropping him on the cobbles and Tom Dumoulin and Chris Froome were regularly besting him against the clock. In his final season, he failed to win a monument, failed to take a yellow jersey as his retirement ticked closer. Rio was the last opportunity to properly cap a career without modern parallel.
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This is the last time, Fabian. Make it count.
RAIN TAPPED DOWN ON the row of white tents that served as a warm-up paddock for the Rio time trial. A day prior, the Pontal beach behind was full of surfers and sun seekers; now the damp sand lay empty, pock-marked by rain. The whir of stationary trainers slowly increased in volume as riders began warming up. Cancellara walked across a wet lawn toward his own paddock, Guercilena at his side, an umbrella held over his head. A Swiss tracksuit hung off his shoulders.
He looked so big on the bike. Spartacus, we call him, the cobble-killing monster with a Swiss cross on his shield and an amulet with seven spears on his bike. But he’s not a particularly large man by any ordinary human standard. Such is the special scale built for professional bike racers.
Cancellara’s shoulders are pointy, his collarbones visible through his jacket. It’s the sort of leanness we’ve come to recognize as an omen of form. Only his legs filled out the tracksuit—haunches like a horse’s that seem coiled with potential energy. Spartacus? He wouldn’t last five minutes in an actual fight. But few have ever been stronger on a bicycle.
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Four time trial world championships, three Tours of Flanders, three cobbles held high on the infield of the Roubaix velodrome; seven stages of the Tour de France and the yellow jersey on his back for 19 days, more than any other rider without an overall victory. Cancellara won Milano-Sanremo and Harelbeke, too, and gold (in the TT) and silver (in the road race) in Beijing. He came to define the rouleur and the time trialist, and fancied himself the peloton’s patron, after Lance Armstrong retired.
Cancellara’s modern rivals, men like Tom Boonen, Peter Sagan, and Tony Martin, could only top him within their specialty. Perhaps they were better on certain springtime days, or in a single time trial, but they could not touch his versatility. Martin could not crack Roubaix, and Boonen never even bothered with the world time trial. Cancellara often felt a hold-over from some bygone era when the biggest stars felt they could do anything, and did.
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FOR 10 FULL MINUTES Cancellara sat in a folding chair in his white warm-up tent and stared straight ahead at the blank plastic wall. Minders and mechanics buzzed around him like doting nurses, preparing bottles, checking, then double-checking, then triple-checking tire pressures. Their athlete appeared to be meditating.
“Fabian is the kind of rider who becomes more and more inside himself as a big race approaches,” Guercilena says. “He is relaxed early, and then he is focused, and then he is inside his head. Then nothing can touch him. It is one of the things that makes him great.”
He second-guessed himself in the lead-up to the Olympics, Guercilena says. He saw his competitors and their speed and worried he couldn’t match them as he once could.
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On race day the nerves seemed gone, pushed away by focus and preparation.
Meditation over, Cancellara stood up and set about his warm-up, a series of high-output efforts with a long recovery in between. It lasted nearly 45 minutes, a routine that hasn’t changed much in two decades.
He rolled down Rio’s start ramp fifth from last. At the first split, 10 kilometers in, he was close on time with Rohan Dennis, Froome, Dumoulin, and Spain’s Jonathan Castroviejo. In fact, he was ahead.
“EVEN 17 YEARS AGO, we all knew,” says retired American pro Will Frischkorn. “He was unbelievable at junior worlds. Beat us by so much it was almost embarrassing.”
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“Almost embarrassing” became the Cancellara standard. When he won, he usually won big. At Paris-Roubaix in 2010 he left a group of almost 20 behind and rode Bjorn Leukemans off his wheel with such force that the Belgian threw up an arm in frustrated hopelessness. He won gold in the Beijing time trial by over 30 seconds. Two of his three Flanders victories saw him cross the line more than a minute ahead of his nearest competitor.
For a rider like Cancellara, there was often no other way to do it. Victory doesn’t come easy for men like him, outside of time trials. A sprinter wins in a few seconds with timing and speed. Climbing is mostly math: power divided by weight. The rouleur’s wins take longer, and are harder fought. Cancellara won only by dispatching rider after rider until just a few remained, each too tired to fight in the finale, or until none remained at all.
“It’s never easy. I’m not a pure sprinter. I’m not a pure climber. I have to do what I have to do,” Cancellara said.
What he has to do, always, is fight.
At the second split Cancellara tumbled down the rankings into fifth, 24 seconds behind Dennis, eight behind Dumoulin. The first major climb appeared to have taken its expected toll. It was all playing out according to script. Low expectations would be met, we thought. This course was simply too heavy, too hilly, for a Cancellara past his prime.
A day before the Rio time trial, Cancellara paced in listless steps through the halls of Rio’s athlete village. He wandered down to a common area full of Swiss fencers and took a selfie with an American basketball player. Anything to distract; anything to stop thinking about the race. The walk calmed his nerves before the final deep, painful effort.
If you asked his team what they expected out of the Olympics, the answer was candid — and not golden. They looked at the course and saw considerable climbing. “We looked at Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin and saw better climbers,” Guercilena says. It didn’t take much to put two and two together. “We were thinking about bronze.”
Perhaps that’s where the nerves came from. Underdog is not a familiar position for Spartacus.
He was unmistakably an underdog in Rio. The first half of his final season was beset by bad luck and mediocre form. He was 40th in his final Roubaix (shed by a mechanical) and dropped by Sagan at Flanders. His single Tour time trial was unimpressive. There was talk that Spartacus had lost his edge, that perhaps at the age of 35 he was a year or two too old. “He’s not the man he used to be,” the pressroom whispered.
It’s been two years since Cancellara last won Flanders, three since his last Roubaix victory. The sort of power we witnessed in 2010 and 2013 — attacks of such ferocity they led to accusations of motorized cheating—has been relegated to the rearview mirror.
Motors are a sore point — “that’s an old story,” Cancellara said gruffly when confronted with the news of Femke van den Dreissche’s motor cheating last winter. Though not as sore as doping accusations that cropped up in 2008. The motor rumors he can laugh about, at least. Sometimes when his legs are bad he jokes with other riders, “Shit, today my motor is broken.”
The doping stories weren’t so funny, particularly when it was announced that Cancellara was one of 14 riders whose blood samples from the 2008 Tour de France would be re-analyzed for a new type of EPO called CERA. The retesting caught Stefan Schumacher and Bernhard Kohl. Though Cancellara’s samples were clean, the stress of the negative press got to him.
“I gained 10 kilos in the space of three weeks,” he told l’Equipe. “I wasn’t training anymore, and I was eating. I went to the Maldives with my family and I stuffed myself from morning to night.”
High times seem inevitably to follow from Cancellara’s lows. The third split came in and with 34.6 of 54.5 kilometers behind him, he returned to the lead. He had 18 seconds over Dennis, 26 over Dumoulin. With one more major climb to go, thoughts of a medal returned.
“He understood that this was the last day in his life that he really needed to go deep,” Guercilena says. “We knew that he was taking time on everybody. So then we started thinking about silver. I pushed really hard on him, told him he should be hurting himself to go faster and faster. We started thinking of gold.”
THERE ARE THINGS LEFT undone, though not many. Cancellara never won the Tour, a stated goal early in his career that he abandoned when the reality of his physique set in. More painful was the realization that he would never be a road world champion. That unfulfilled dream turned and curdled into sour regret as retirement approached. But he’s at peace with it now.
“I can live with that. I definitely can live with that,” he says. “I will be like Michele Bartoli: I will retire having never won a world championship on the road. I don’t want more than this.”
[pullquote align=”right” attrib=”Luca Guercilena”]”I pushed really hard on him, told him he should be hurting himself to go faster and faster. We started thinking of gold.”[/pullquote]
In Rio, a light Brazilian drizzle turned to a downpour just in time for the Olympic medal ceremony. Froome stepped up first, collecting his bronze with a smile. Then Dumoulin, almost sheepishly. The Dutchman expected better.
Cancellara skipped onto the top step, shaking his fists at the sky. It looked like the joy of a pro’s first victory, yet was almost certainly his last. It was bliss borne, surely, of expecting, or at least dreading, yet another failure.
“There are no words to describe what happened today,” Cancellara said. “This gold medal, in the last days of my life as an athlete, it makes me proud. It closes my history.”
It was the last time, and Cancellara made it count.