Swiss road cyclist Fabian Cancellara won Olympic time trial gold at Beijing 2008 and then bowed out from the sport in style eight years later, after claiming a second gold in the same event at Rio 2016.
The Swiss Spartacus
“I’m like a Swiss clock,” said time trial specialist Fabian Cancellara, summing up his qualities. “I know how to race against the clock and like all Swiss, I have a hard head, very hard.”
Nicknamed “Spartacus” on account of his impressive physique, Cancellara, who was born to an Italian father and Swiss German mother in the canton of Bern, took up cycling at the age of 13, after coming across an old bicycle in the garage at home. He instantly fell in love with the sport, and gave up football to devote his energies to it.
“It completely changed my life,” he recalled. “I suddenly realised that I had been closed off in a box and that nature had suddenly opened my eyes to new aspirations. So I threw myself and my body into road racing. The scenic Swiss mountain roads are the most beautiful in the world.”
A versatile champion
During the course of his brilliant career, Cancellara excelled in time trials, road races, the major classics and stage races. A world junior time trial champion in 1998 and 1999, he turned professional at the age of 19 at the turn of the new millennium.
His ability to set the pace at the front of the peloton and lead out the sprinters made him a prized team member, but he began to come into his own in 2006, winning the Paris-Roubaix (the most prestigious of all the classics) in March that year and then becoming world time trial champion in September in Salzburg (AUT). The following year, he won two stages of the Tour de France, including the prologue, before retaining his world time trial crown in Stuttgart (GER).
The next level
He began 2008 on a hot streak, winning no less than three major Italian classics in March (the Monte Paschi Eroica, the Tirreno-Adriatico and the Milan-San Remo) and finishing runner-up in the Paris-Roubaix. That meant he arrived in Beijing for that year’s Olympic Games as a real medal prospect. In the road race he had to come from nowhere to finish third behind Spain’s Samuel Sanchez. The Swiss was later awarded the silver after Italy’s Davide Rebellin failed a drug test.
A few days later, Cancellara was the last rider to set off in the time trial, held on an undulating 23.8km course that the riders covered twice. Picking up the pace after a measured start, he was six seconds behind Sweden’s Gustav Larsson at the last split, but he hit top speed in the final descent to win by over half a minute from the Swede, with the USA’s Levi Leipheimer taking the bronze, over a minute behind.
“At the top of the climb I heard I was six seconds down, so I gave it everything I could,” said Cancellara. “I didn’t want to lose. I was the favourite, and I prepared specially for today, so there was a lot of pressure. But I’m proud to be the winner.”
Further world time trial crowns came Cancellara’s way in 2009 in Mendrisio (SUI) and the following year in Melbourne (AUS). He also won the 2009 Tour de Suisse, and a second Paris-Roubaix title in 2010, when he also claimed victory in the Tour of Flanders.
His preparations for London 2012 were hampered by a broken collarbone sustained when he fell in the Tour of Flanders that April. After coming in a lowly 106th in the road race, he could do no better than seventh in the time trial.
After completing another Tour of Flanders/Paris Roubaix double in 2013, Cancellara then pulled the yellow jersey on for a 29th time in the 2015 Tour de France, which is a record for a rider who has never won the race.
Bowing out on top
At the age of 35, Cancellara made the final outing of his career, at Rio 2016. Before embarking on his third Olympic time trial, the Swiss announced that he would be retiring from competitive cycling as soon as he crossed the line. The fastest man in the field at the first split, after 10km, the Swiss then found himself more than 24 seconds adrift of Australia’s Rohan Dennis at the second.
Digging deep on the demanding Grumari circuit, Cancellara hit the front again on the second lap. While Dennis suffered a broken handlebar and eventually finished fifth, the Swiss completed the 54.5km course at an average speed of 45.255km to win by fully 47 seconds from Tom Dumoulin of the Netherlands, with Tour de France winner Chris Froome over a minute behind in third.
“There are just no words,” said Cancellara after claiming his second Olympic title. “To leave the sport at the end of this season with the gold medal is just a perfect way to end my career. It was a big scream on the podium. This was the last big time trial of my life.”