On April 6, 2003, Fabian Cancellara took to the start line in Bruges, to compete in his first ever Monument.
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Fourteen years later the newly retired ‘Spartacus’ is readying himself to watch this brace of events he cherishes so much from the sidelines, and he’s not entirely sure how he’s going to feel: “I don’t know, they still have to come. I’m looking quite relaxed on those things but emotional-wise I’m still quite touched because I have a huge history with all these races.
“It’s a strange situation because I’m not competing any more. I don’t have a problem with that — I don’t feel bad, or sad, it’s just strange. I need to work out myself how I feel.”
While ongoing affiliations with Trek mean he should officially be cheering John Degenkolb and team-mates, it’s unlikely the Swiss, now 36, would begrudge his old jousting parter Tom Boonen (Quick-Step Floors) a fifth win at what will be the Belgian’s final Paris-Roubaix.
“He can do it. It’s possible,” says Cancellara of Boonen’s swansong effort.
“But it’s a really unpredictable race and even if you’re super-strong it doesn’t mean you can do a super thing. But of course, there are chances… there are chances.”
Watch: Paris-Roubaix essential guide
He sounds slightly dubious. And the idea that world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) will replace him as Boonen’s new arch-rival doesn’t fly with him either:
“After me it’s everything different. It will be different challenges, different winners — same as after Tom there will be everything different. So you cannot compare that.
“It’s going to be a new decade in cycling and there will be other battles. I will be left out, but the next few years will be quite interesting.
“I mean, Sagan is not under pressure any more, it’s about ‘can they beat him or not?’ — that’s the question.”
Cancellara himself may be ‘left out’, as he puts it, but he will be far from idle. In fact, he is already studying for a Certificate of Advanced Studies which encompasses sports management and marketing.
“It’s something I want to taste more now because I had a lot of practical [racing, one assumes], but it’s not enough to myself because I have quite big ambitions to myself.
“I had big ambitions as a rider so my ambitions are also in normal business.
“I’m not saying everything starts from zero but you have to calculate… because if you move one step forward but you don’t have the skills, you move three steps back.
“I want to have certain skills so if necessary I can use those.”
To exactly what ends he won’t divulge — only saying, “There are a few things going on. I can’t go into details but one is cycling, one is triathlon…”
He’s a member of the Laureus World Sports Academy and says he’s working on motivational speaking.
“Definitely I’m not just sitting home doing nothing. I need to find time to cycle, that is actually the biggest thing!”
It’s obvious that he’s a driven man. Whether it’s his studies, a future career or the world’s biggest bike races, the same fierce ambition burns within. And that, as he says, is how you become a winner in the Monuments:
“It’s the will — do not give up. The race is never finished. Especially Roubaix, the race is really never finished. It finishes on the finish line. It’s not only the capacity about how good a rider you are, it’s also about how mentally you can handle it.”
Whoever proves the strongest — mentally or otherwise — in the northern Classics this spring, Fabian Cancellara will be watching.
You can’t help but feel he’ll be wishing it was him, hands in the air once more, instead of standing at the sidelines, now just another onlooker.