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Fabian Cancellara is flesh and blood like the rest of us

Fabian Cancellara is "Spartacus," but also a husband and a father. Like most, he's just trying to find the right balance

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Fabian Cancellara once had an Aston Martin.

And for three days he drove that Aston Martin around his Switzerland, which one must imagine belongs to him at this point, with other parts in there somewhere for Roger Federer.

He drove his wife around in that Aston Martin, and in it he was a reflection of his success and the things he had achieved as “Spartacus,” his on-bike persona as a granite-hearted man who put the dreams of others to sleep before pushing them out to sea.

And then, Fabian Cancellara took that car back. Those days were a long test drive. The car was not the extension of who he was. It was all too much. He grew up working and hasn’t stopped since.

“I know from where I come from. My father came to Switzerland from Italy at just 18 years with just a backpack and he started to work and make money and he learned … they’ve been always working. My mother’s still working now, and my father’s in pension,” he said.

It’s no surprise that, after he won Olympic gold in 2008 with a brilliant time trial (and a silver in the road race), he didn’t buy himself anything special. It’s all a bit much for the everyman rider. “I didn’t buy any cars. Didn’t buy any special watches,” he said. “The biggest thing I buy per year is my holidays with my family, that’s my luxury. … I mean, just to buy a car because you won a race. I mean, do you need this car? That’s me. I was so close to buying a car, on the other hand I say, ‘what I do with this car? It just sits in the garage.’”

Cancellara, 33, is something of a throwback in a bling-heavy sporting culture, and in his relentless racing style, too. He used to save the money he earned by winning kids’ races on the weekends. His purchases included handfuls of candy and a pair of Hugo Boss shoes.

“I had always 100 Swiss Francs in the pocket. I won almost every race every week. Always I had this money and my colleagues and stuff, they always had nothing because they went for drinks and this and that,” Cancellara said of his early days.

He’s obsessed with quality. It’s why he cherishes a solo win at Paris-Roubaix more than a few time trials at the Tour de France these days. Call it the general pursuit of excellence.

“Yes. Yes. Every race. I prefer to win less, but what I win, I win in a strong way. It keeps for me, and it stands out to myself. That’s why, when people ask me, ‘when was your best moment? What was your biggest victory?’ It starts from ’06 and ends last year,” Cancellara said this spring in an extended interview with VeloNews and Het Nieuwsblad. “I mean, find me a victory please that I could say, ‘Hmm, that just came.’”

We probably can’t. Cancellara never had a high dose of sprint octane, meaning those big victories — two at the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) and three at Roubaix, myriad time trials, and a Milano-Sanremo, among others — were all earned with blood and gears and by being the strongest man among strong men. Since 2010, in monuments he’s finished, he’s been on the podium 11 out of 12 times.

This Sunday when he takes aim at De Ronde yet again, he’s a marked man. That’s fine. It means he’s a quality rider with a quality scroll of victories. Par for the course.

“I see it in everything. I prefer to have less holidays but quality holidays. Of course it will be nice to have 500 victories in your pockets, but I will never reach Cannibal [Eddy Merckx] … no one will … even we put all our victories together … not even with 10 riders you reach that,” he said. Cancellara doesn’t know how many races he’s won. He stopped counting.

“I have no idea. It’s not what I need to know. I know [I win less] per year. I’m not a super sprinter. I’m not a super climber. That’s why for me sometimes it’s harder to win races,” he said. “I think quality comes first. I don’t want to have something crap. Something bad. I stand out for the best in what I’m doing.”

Athletes are often interviewed completely out of the context of their characters as men. In the drama of bike racing, they are modern athletic warriors, and Cancellara — Spartacus — is a prime example. It’s a role his racing style put him into. But, like most athletes stuffed into archetypes, that isn’t who he really is. Mostly, he’s just a guy trying to win a bike race and then disappear afterward.

“He’s a normal guy for me, to me. Also how he goes on with the whole team. You see, you feel, especially as he comes to his goals, his targets, his races, the classics, the sharper he is,” his director, Dirk Demol, told VeloNews. “And also because he gives himself 100 percent and also he wants the people around him to come at 100 percent. You have to be sharp. And he feels it. And you feel like he’s loading up. You see him growing on the bike and everything, but he’s mentally preparing. He’s good at that. Physically he’s an incredibly good athlete. But mentally, he’s strong in the head, eh? He’s really strong.”

For Cancellara, a driving force is his family. He constantly talks about his wife or daughters, and seems to genuinely lament the time he spends away from home. When he goes out to dinner with friends and family, he faces the wall, so he’s recognized less and not distracted. It’s all a very careful balance, being the dad and being the cyclist.

“You have to find a middle way of everything,” he said. “I mean, I’m strict on things, but certain things no, you need to find a middle way. I’m a dad, I’m not someone who goes 24 hours like this [taps table], the clock goes, you’re there, you do this. I mean, no. I like to be — I don’t say top or flop — but it’s like training sometimes. Doing things 100 percent, really focused.”

Sometimes, he declines autographs. When told that, to a lot of people, he’s a hero, he’s Spartacus, he inches back. “Yeah, I know. I know. That’s the thing. You have to understand that … I’m a normal person like everyone else … once in a while I say, ‘do you like talking about your job all the time?’ … Sometimes that’s the funny thing. You make them understand that we are normal people. In the press we are heroes, whatever we are. We are 365-day athletes. That’s the sort of things you get along through the years. These kinds of things are there, and you have to try and to go on and live with that.”

Of course, it’s easier to live with that — heroism and brilliance — than irrelevance. “I do what I like. I do my best I can. And on the other hand, I am how I am. I’m me. That’s what is important … it’s not just, ‘OK, I’m a bike rider, you ride your bike you win and ha ha, it’s all good,’” he said.

But come Sunday morning, there’s little doubt that “Spartacus” will be in full armor again, seething and ready. This is the binary of life and sport, where one moment riders are competitors and the next they are husbands with bouquets of victory flowers.

“You’re in the war, you’re in the fight. You want to show your strength,” Cancellara said of the waning hours of a classic. “You want to show you’re the strongest. And then when you win and you have this feeling, this new experience … tactics and feelings and mentality and power and luck and so many things, and it’s just something beautiful.”