Wheels of fortune: The rise of Fabian Cancellara

03 July 2023

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There are no other cyclists like Fabian Cancellara. Nicknamed ‘Spartacus’ for his determination, he’s been the time trial world champion four times, won the opening stage of the Tour de France five times and taken home three Olympic medals. Although technically retired, he’s not slowing down – he recently set up Kids on Wheels to promote cycling enthusiasm in children, and created the Tudor Pro Cycling Team. Andre Portelli, our Global Co-Head of Investments, spoke to him about his achievements so far and goals for the future.  

Andre Portelli (AP): Fabian, we’d love to hear a little more about what motivated you to become a professional cyclist.

Fabian Cancellara (FC): For me, it was the bicycle that was left in my father’s garage when I was a 13-year-old boy. I asked him whether I could go for a ride. He said: “Yes, of course. Take it, go.” I went off to explore my neighbourhood and instantly fell in love with cycling.

Back then, I never thought about being professional. That came later when I joined the small cycling club in my hometown of Berne and started racing. I trained in good and bad weather, even in the dark. One day, I decided I wanted to become a professional cyclist. I thought: “I want to ride Flanders, the Tour de France and Paris-Roubaix.”

AP: Not all of us are lucky enough to do something we love for our work. Did that make it easier for you?

FC: Sometimes it’s hard for people to understand, even my wife. On the one hand, I think I’m lucky. On the other hand, I believe it’s up to each of us to find that one thing that brings us peace. I try to give back to cycling because cycling has given me so much. It’s why I’m super-happy.

AP: You clearly love the sport. But what does it take, mentally, to perform at the levels you reached for so many years?

FC: Cycling has changed since my day. When I became a professional cyclist, I only had my heart rate belt. In contrast, juniors today are training with power meters and different devices for measuring data. For me, it was mainly about learning from my own feelings and experiences.

Winning a race is not about data. When you’re standing on top of the podium, only you know how it feels to be up there. It’s lonely at the top because nobody else can feel what it’s like to be there. You represent yourself, your team, your country and your sponsors. There is pressure that comes with that, which not everyone can handle.

It’s important to have mental breaks when you reach a big race – to take a moment to step back and recover. That’s true for everyone and not just cyclists because we are not machines. I always say to people: “Go for a bike ride because it will refuel your mental engine.”

AP: When you look at your career as a professional cyclist, what were your greatest personal highlights?

FC: I have this wonderful problem of having too many wins to choose from. Of course, winning the time trial gold at the Olympic Games in 2016 was a huge highlight for me. There was also the Tour of Flanders victory in 2013, which  was made sweeter because I had crashed out as a favourite the previous year. 

After that crash, I had to take a step back because it had taken so much energy out of me. I just said: “Leave me alone. No racing, no training.” Fortunately, I had my health and the support of people around me to help me learn from these mistakes. 

AP: Thinking of the olympics, how did it feel to represent switzerland?

FC: It’s amazing to represent your country, especially if you can bring home three medals from four Olympic Games. I’m proud to have been at four different Olympics, and to have met so many different people from different cultures. 

I was sad not to have been at the opening and closing ceremonies, though. The organisers asked me to walk in with the flag, but I didn’t get the chance because the bike race was always the first event after the opening ceremony.

AP: You’re widely known as ‘spartacus’. We’d love to know how that name came about.

FC: The nickname was born in Italy in 2005. An Italian rider came over to me and said: “For me, you’re Spartacus.” He explained it was due to the way I race, and also because I’m half Italian, with large shoulders! The Roman Gladiator Spartacus helped others around him, and I like to think I’ve treated people the same way.

AP: You’ve also described yourself as a swiss clock. As a t ime trial specialist, what exactly did you mean by that?

FC: A watch only works when everything functions and it’s the same in sport. Your training, motivation, mental health, equipment and preparation all have to come together perfectly. I became good at time trials and prologues, winning world championships and so on because I always wanted to beat the clock.

AP: And how have you found the transition from pro rider to team owner?

FC: It took a while, but I’m glad I did it. It meant that I could have all these different experiences. First of all, I wanted to give back something to cycling lovers, which motivated me to organise the Chasing Cancellara series. These events allow me to race with cycling fans from all over the world.

After that, I created the Kids on Wheels programme together with the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation Switzerland. The aim is to get young people cycling, especially those who cannot afford a bike. You can’t compare cycling with any other sport: on a bike, everybody’s the same, no matter who you are or where you’re from.

My involvement with teams came later. I’d previously been a mentor for the Swiss Racing Academy and wanted to support that team because it was crumbling. I said: “No, if this project falls apart, 16 boys cannot follow their dreams.”

Today, I’m the owner of the Tudor Pro Cycling team. I’m kind of an adviser, supporter and helper. I’m always around when they need me. I was incredibly proud when the team recently won its first race. Our boys and our work made that happen.

AP: What do you see as the next steps for the team?

FC: The biggest focus is working on our structure, what we stand for and what we still need to do. Of course, we want to win races and eventually we hope to create a World Tour team. But at the moment, we’re just trying to be the best we can.

The dream is that one day, kids won’t be coming home with a famous footballer’s jersey, but rather with a cycling cap or Tudor Pro jersey.

AP: And can i finish by asking about the goals you have for yourself?

FC: First of all, I want to be healthy and happy, and find a good work-life balance. Sometimes that’s not easy because my work isn’t a nine-to-five job. I accept that because I love what I do and have my spirit, motivation and positivity. But if the day ever comes when it doesn’t work anymore, I’ll take a step back.

I also want to use my energy for doing something good for young people because ultimately, the next generation is the future of tomorrow. If I can be a part of supporting them, that’s the direction I want to go in.


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