Fabian Cancellara: A Classics Legend

Fabian Cancellara won seven monuments throughout his career — his lucky number. We dissect Cancellara’s accomplishments to understand why he is one of the most revered classics riders of his generation.

The Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Two races stuffed to the brim with history. Together, the two events have over 220 editions.

Winning either race all but confirms the victor's place in cycling folklore. Win Roubaix and Flanders... three times? Only three riders have completed that feat: Johan Museeuw, Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara.

Cancellara, also known as Spartacus, was one of the most revered classics riders of his generation, and for good reason. He won seven monuments between 2006 and 2014, including three apiece at Roubaix and De Ronde. But which monumental victory was Cancellara's best, and what makes his career so remarkable?

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Fabian Cancellara wins Tour of Flanders 2013Fabian Cancellara celebrates winning the Tour of Flanders in 2013 — one of his favourite victories. (Image credit: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

At Rouleur Live in 2017, Cancellara explained which victory he looks back on with the most fondness, “I have different emotions for all of them when I look back, but at the end, seven is a nice number, it’s my lucky number which is maybe why I’ve only won seven. They were all awesome, but I think 2013 Flanders stands out the most.”

With 18km to go, the 2013 De Ronde was together before the final ascent of the Oude-Kwaremont. Most of the favourites had hidden patiently in the peloton for the majority of the race, before Cancellara put in an explosive attack on the Oude-Kwaremont. Only Peter Sagan could follow, before Cancellara dispatched of him and Jürgen Roelandts, who had been up the road before the Oude-Kwaremont, on the Paterberg.

Cancellara swiftly put the result beyond any doubt, expanding his lead to win by a whopping one minute and twenty-seven seconds — the largest Tour of Flanders winning margin since Johan Museeuw won the ‘95 edition by the same margin.

Fabian Cancellara at Paris Roubaix 2016Fabian Cancellara after finishing Paris-Roubaix for the eleventh time in 2016. (Image credit: Russell Ellis/SWpix)

Away from the cobbles of Roubaix and Flanders, Cancellara was a key protagonist throughout his career at one of cycling’s other monuments: Milan-Sanremo. Cancellara won ‘La Primavera’ — the longest race on the calendar — in 2008. 

Then riding for the CSC ProTeam, Cancellara made his decisive move with just over 1km remaining. No one reacted, and Cancellara soloed to the finish line before sitting up to celebrate with 100 metres left.

Although he wasn't able to pick up a second Sanremo title, Cancellara's consistency at the event in the years that followed may be equally impressive. He was on the podium every year between 2011 and 2014, finishing runner-up three times.

Reflecting on his near misses at Sanremo, Cancellara said, “Once in a while, I realised I was too strong, too super strong, that it cost me the win. It didn’t cost me the podium — I was for so many years on the podium in Milan-Sanremo, second and third — but almost always someone was faster or smarter.”

Fabian Cancellara at Rio 2016Fabian Cancellara won his second gold medal at the Olympic Games in Rio, 2016 (Image credit: Alex Whitehead/SWpix)

Paradoxically, Cancellara’s accomplishments at the classics are made even more phenomenal by his achievements away from the one-dayers and on the time trial bike.

Spartacus is perhaps the greatest time trialist in history. He won the rainbow jersey at the time-trial World Championships four times between 2006 and 2010, a feat which has only been matched by Tony Martin since. Additionally, he claimed gold in the Olympic time trial twice. His victory at the 2016 Olympic Games was his final race as a professional, yet he defeated Tom Dumoulin by a remarkable 47 seconds around the Rio de Janeiro course.

Cancellara’s prowess in the time trial also brought him success at Grand Tours. The 2004 Tour de France was his inaugural Grand Tour, and he started in a spectacular manner, winning the prologue ahead of Lance Armstrong. Cancellara went on to win eight stages of the Tour de France in total, seven of which occurred in time-trials or prologues.

A master in both one-day classics and time-trials, few riders can claim to be as versatile as Spartacus.

And then, we must consider Cancellara's opponents — notably the aforementioned Tom Boonen. Boonen is the only rider in history to have more combined Paris-Roubaix and Tour of Flanders victories than Cancellara. Yet, the two men were born less than six months apart. Naturally, this meant their careers had similar arcs, and they clashed at the peak of their powers on many occasions, particularly at Flanders and Roubaix.

Boonen was runner-up to Cancellara at Roubaix in 2006 and Flanders in 2010, whilst Cancellara was second to Boonen in the Roubaix Velodrome in 2008. Despite competing against each other, the two greats both forged their way to the forefront of the record books.

See Fabian Cancellara in London this November at Rouleur Live

Cover image: Russell Ellis/SWpix

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