Fabian Cancellara, who is writing the final chapter of a glorious 16-year career as you read this, is possibly the most beloved man in contemporary cycling. Because, in a sport rife with tactics, where cycling has been transformed into a mental chess game, with lead-out trains transporting their sprinters to the final meters before the finish line, with super domestiques bringing their team’s best climbers halfway up the mountain before they are discarded like used battery cells, Cancellara is a throwback to the halcyon era of Eddy “The Cannibal” Merckx. Because Cancellara’s inimitable style of attack means breaking from the peloton 30km, sometimes 40km, from the finish line and simply outriding every other man in the race. The message is simple and profoundly effective in its Zen-like economy: “I can push a bigger gear than you; I can ride harder and faster than you and once I have a gap, you will never ever even dream of catching me, for though I am mortal in appearance, in truth, I am the Hindu God, Shiva the Destroyer.”
This extraordinary feat of heroic self-reliance, this Nietzschean demonstration of will to power has earned him the highly apropos sobriquet Spartacus. And Cancellara is a gladiator indeed. Because each time he climbs on a bicycle, he walks into the arena and enacts a war of attrition. Because each time he’s won, it has cost Cancellara. He understands more than anyone that the bicycle demands its pound of flesh from those who dare ride it faster than all others. To go fast on a bicycle means to suffer, to be crucified, to die and to be reborn — such is the price of pain it extorts from you. And Cancellara is a master of the resurrection.
The harder the race — in particular, the cobblestone-strewn existential nightmares of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, also known as “The Hell of the North” — the better Cancellara gets. He’s won both of these back to back in 2010 and 2013. In so doing, he’s created some of the most magnificent duels in modern cycling. Who can forget him grinding Tom Boonen into the dust on the Muur van Geraardsbergen during the 2010 Tour of Flanders, and again decimating Peter Sagan at Oude Kwaremont in 2013 at the same race? Indeed, his palmarès is a virtual litany of cycling awesomeness: seven Tour de France stage wins and 29 days in the Yellow Jersey, four stage wins at the Vuelta a España, three wins at Paris-Roubaix, three wins at the Tour of Flanders, three wins at the Strade Bianche, three wins at the E3 Harelbeke and one Milan-San Remo win.