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Throwback Thursday: How Fabian Cancellara helped revive interest in the northern classics

The big Swiss time machine won just about everything, and his long-running rivalry with Tom Boonen ushered in a new generation of fans into the cobblestone classics.

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Fabian Cancellara nearly won everything in his long and successful 16-year career, and he emerged as a master time trialist who could do more than just smash the pedals against the clock.

His classics rivalry with Tom Boonen marked a generation, with the big Swiss cobble-smasher winning three of the five monuments, including Milano-Sanremo once, and the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix three times each.

Their long-running rivalry across the northern classics helped revive interest in the cobblestone one-days and transformed “Flanders Week” into an international phenomenon.

Cancellara’s palmares is stacked with exclamation points, from four world time trial titles, two Olympic gold medals, eight stages at the Tour de France, and 88 victories across the arc of his career.

So what made him so good? Our European team of James Startt and Andrew Hood dive in.

When did you first realize Fabian Cancellara was something special?

James Startt: For me, that was probably in the prologue of the 2004 Tour de France, when he beat a certain Lance Armstrong by two seconds to capture his first yellow jersey. I mean he beat Armstrong at his best, not to mention a host of other favorites.

Until then, Cancellara was an up-and-coming time trial specialist, but a lot of us who followed the sport still did not know who he was. That prologue and his two days in the yellow jersey announced that he was a force to be reckoned with.

And he confirmed all expectations time and again, winning the yellow jersey no less than seven times in his 16-year career. But he soon proved to be much more than just a prologue or time trial specialist, winning the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix both on three occasions, as well as Milano-Sanremo. Cancellara would never be confused for a climber with his impressive muscular stature, but when he was attacking he simply exuded power and efficiency.

Fabian Cancellara
Fabian Cancellara, shown here in the 2007 Tour de France in London, specialized in prologues. (Photo: James Startt/VeloNews)

Andrew Hood: I remember I went to a CSC pre-season team camp in 2006 the first year that Cancellara joined the team. He was a budding star at that point right on the cusp of hitting his best years.

The team was doing bike fitting with a sizing expert, who was measuring all the riders’ flexibility and reach to set them up in the ideal fit. Riders were asked to go through a series of poses, including reaching down to touch their toes. Some riders were having a tough time even hitting the ground. When it was Cancellara’s turn, he reached down and stretched out, putting both palms flat on the ground as if he were some yoga guru. Surprised, the fitting expert asked him how often he stretched, Cancellara replied, “Never!”

Most pro riders are simply born with huge natural motors, yet from 2006 on, Cancellara later admitted he really started to work harder and pay more attention to the details that came with being an elite pro. He later went on to win just about everything he put his mind to.

Fabian Cancellara
Cancellara, shown here in the 2013 Paris-Roubaix, helped spark new interest in the northern classics. (Photo: James Startt/VeloNews)

What was Cancellara’s finest moment?

Hood: Cancellara was most impressive on the cobbles at Roubaix. I remember asking him who was going to win the 2006 edition of the Hell of the North, he looked up at me and said without hesitation, “Me.” And boom! Twenty-four hours later he did.

His clashes with Boonen and the top classics riders of the day helped the northern classics to explode in popularity. Decades ago, Flanders was just another race, albeit a very important one, on the Belgian calendar. Thanks in part to Cancellara and Boonen, the cobblestone classics grew into one of the most popular weeks in modern cycling.

His build, TT motor, bike-handling skills, and ambition lined up to perfection on the cobbles. There are the rumors that he used a motor — something he angrily denies — and he always testily replied that the motor was in his legs.

Despite all of his successes, Cancellara regrets not winning the world road title. It was something he desperately wanted to fill out his trophy case. Another miss was the Olympic road race gold medal. In 2012, he was riding in the lead group when he misjudged a corner and crash 10km to go, later saying, “Have no words left. The tears are stronger than the pain.”

Fabian Cancellara 2010 Paris-Roubaix
Cancellara, shown here winning the 2010 Paris-Roubaix, won seven monuments during his career. (Photo: James Startt/VeloNews)

Startt: That is really hard to say. He had so many. What impressed me most was that when Cancellara focused on an objective he was very hard to beat.

And this was never more the case than when he was racing against the clock for the yellow jersey, the rainbow stripes, or an Olympic Gold medal. He just possessed this overwhelming sense of power and efficiency, spinning the biggest gears imaginable with barely any movement.

Perhaps his greatest victory was his last significant one, the Olympic Gold in the 2016 time trial in Rio de Janeiro. Cancellara was in the final months of his final season and there were numerous up-and-coming time trialists that had been more consistent approaching the Games. But Cancellara bested them all in what can only be considered one of the great swan songs of modern sport.

I do have one regret when it comes to Cancellara, however, and that is the fact that he never attempted the world hour record. I would really have loved to see what he could have done in that discipline and the record books somehow seem incomplete without his name in there somewhere.

Fabian Cancellara 2009 Tour de France Rotterdam
Cancellara, shown here at the start of the 2009 Tour de France in Rotterdam, won eight stages across six editions of the Tour. (Photo: James Startt/VeloNews)