So I recently spoke to Fabian Cancellara from his training camp with the Trek Factory Team in Spain a few weeks ago. Yep, just me and Fabian, chatting on the phone. Talking shop...
[Transcript is minimally edited, because for his fourth or fifth language Cancellara does an impressive job of communicating.]
Podium Cafe: What was your earliest memory of the cobbled classics? Did you watch them on TV as a child?
Fabian Cancellara: Well I watched all those old races on the television, I was watching all the classic races with Museeuw, with Tafi, with Van Petegem, thinking those were my races. I was so excited all the time watching those races and, that was not my dream, but it was what I wanted to do. I watched the Tour de France as well but that was different, the Tour was for three weeks, the other races they did in one day and this is what made me excited about them.
PdC: When did you realize that this was a good style of race for you, when you were a junior or not until you joined Mapei?
Tony Montana: I think it started after Mapei, in Fassa Bortolo where I had the opportunity to do more of those races and to maybe compete for the win. That's where everything started in 2004 and 05, that was a great experience.
PdC: Were there riders in Mapei or Fassa Bortolo who helped you? Obviously you had sport directors but you were also surrounded by many of the great classics champions at both of those teams. Did any of the riders help you learn about the cobbles?
Spartacus: I didn't learn so much from my teammates, (rather) I tried to adapt myself I tried to make experiences by myself, but I was watching a few times the other riders, how they went to the front, how to do this and to do that and so on. But in the end I think I was made for the classic races, that's why it's easier for me. Sometimes it's easier for me to challenge than for others. Some riders (just) have the perfect body or have the perfect combination of things that you need to have success in the classics.
PdC: I see that the Spartacus fan club is now located Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen in Oudenaarde, that sounds remarkable for a foreigner.
The Swiss Bear: Yeah for me it's a big thing that this happened, as a Swiss rider to be placed in this place is fantastic. It is a great honor that my fan club had this possibility in Belgium.
PdC: When did you first have a Belgian fan club, after Paris Roubaix (in 2006) or not until you won de Ronde van Vlaanderen?
Tony Spartacus: I always had fans, not a fan club but a little comune in Belgium. This is different from my Swiss fan club, but to have a club in Belgium is great it is an honor.
PdC: I want to ask you about Tom Boonen. You have both achieved historic wins in the Classics. Is it meaningful to you to win against someone who is as significant as Boonen?
Fabian Spartabear: I mean it's always a pleasure what happened with my victories, I'm so happy with my palmares.
PdC: I know you are racing against everyone but do you think about Tom particularly or just focus on winning against everyone?
Spartacancellarabeartana: Yeah, it's always a challenge with Tom. I am just so so so happy when there are other riders who are healthy and we can compete together to get the best out of each other on the road. Tom was missing from those races this year, and last year I was missing from them. It's always better to have less competition for yourself but for cycling that the best of the best can compete in one race then you can get the best out of it. I don't like it when I see Tom down, it's not good. I know Tom so many years already, I respect him so much and as a Belgian he has to be in those races.
PdC: Now we are seeing some new faces, Sagan, Sep Vanmarcke, Stybar -- does it feel like the quality of the competition is getting stronger?
The 10x Swiss Champion: Yeah of course it's a big challenge. I am getting older and when you get older things are harder. Also the younger riders are motivated and they are different -- when you get older you have many things to do and that's where everything gets harder. But all of those names, I think they are the new generation.
PdC: What do you think about that calendar? Your career started when Gent-Wevelgem was a mid-week race and now the order has been changed. Do you think that the way the races are arranged now is the correct way?
The Olympic Champion and Silver Medalist: I mean that's a challenge every year: we can't live just on tradition. Sometimes I would love to live that way every year (repeating the same race order) but sometimes I think it's good that the change is coming, and I think this is not a problem for me at the moment.
PdC: What is your opinion about the changes of the course at the Ronde van Vlaanderen?
The 4x World Champion: You can ask me after the race but I think it's a nice change. It's new and it's just going to be harder again and maybe it's good for me. I think that the new course is just as good as the old course.
PdC: With De Ronde and ParisRoubaix, the style of racing is very different. You have been successful in both races which race do you enjoy more?
The 2X Double Flanders-Roubaix Champion: It's hard to give an answer. I enjoy both races, both are important, both are special and unique.
So there you have it. Frankly this is a challenging interview for me, not because of Cancellara -- au contraire, he's as gracious and helpful with his answers as you would guess from his many media appearances. But it's hard to go deep with a stranger in your fifth language, and anyway I suspect his perspective is shaped by where he is in his career. Many of the riders I've spoken with over the years can wax poetic about Flanders because they are hunting their white whale there. With Cancellara, he's hunting his legacy, a (technically) shapeless beast comprised of... whatever he can add to it, as often as possible. I also sense from his answers and some past interviews that he's a pragmatist and a highly competitive athlete, as opposed to us fans. He is into winning. The challenge is to win, and then win again. His job is winning, and carrying a team on his shoulders. Flanders or Roubaix? Of course he likes them both now. The differing styles don't mean much because he can win either way.
But I should have asked about the Hour Record. Oh well, he's probably already said all he can say about it at this point. The presence of one or more Hour Record challenges is possibly the story of 2014, or has a chance to be. Every season is unique but if you don't try hard you might fail to see the differences. With an Hour Record challenge looming, the distinctness of this moment, should it happen, will be impossible to miss. Personally I love the suggestion that Cancellara, Tony Martin and Bradley Wiggins should all attempt it at the same time, in different locations, with live TV broadcasting the events and measuring their relative progress. I would pay $30 to watch that, in a heartbeat.
Cancellara vs Boonen has of course happened many times, but only in 2010 did it feel like the true, unfettered battle. Well, 2006 too -- it's easy to forget that Cancellara was sixth in Flanders that year (sitting on the Hincapie group), before forever bursting out of obscurity with his first Paris-Roubaix win a week later. But really, it's not til 2010 that both riders met in peak condition, with no teammates or mechanical failures in the way. It happened again in 2011, albeit not with a peak-form Boonen, and the last two years they've traded dominance and injury. Both riders will race as 33-year-olds in 2014, meaning they have at least a couple more seasons of pitting their talents and legacies against one another before the next generation shoves them rudely out of the way. Or maybe the generation after that. Lord knows, stopping Cancellara on the cobbles has never been easy, for anyone.