The lonely life of Fabian Cancellara

Cycling is a solitary sport. The peloton may be large and teamwork may decide races, but these elements are but fleeting conveniences. At the end of the day, cycling is about getting away from everyone and everything and striking out alone. It is a sport which attracts people who will happily risk frostbite if it means there’s no danger they will have to suffer a conversation at any point in the next few hours.

I had a conversation today. Well, actually I only overheard it, but I possess a very vivid imagination and could therefore experience the same emotions as if I had actually been involved. It was a truly awful experience and I really wished I had been 40 miles from home in the cold and wet with an irritating clicking noise accompanying every pedal stroke.

But even I felt for Fabian Cancellara at Paris-Roubaix. The eventual victor played the role of victim for much of the race with pretty much everyone ganging up against him. The Swiss cyclist-cum-motorbike has been so dominant this spring that race tactics seemed to revolve around his location, no matter which team you were riding for.

Cancellara’s extra effort

Take three groups of riders – one containing Cancellara together with the groups immediately ahead and behind. All the riders in the group ahead would work together because they felt that the biggest threat was approaching from behind. They shared the load and each conserved energy as a consequence. The group behind tended to work together as well for similar reasons.

However, in Cancellara’s group, he often struggled to find anyone willing to work to catch the riders ahead of them. Why was this? Well, quite simply, help him up to the front group and he’s certain to beat you, but sit behind him while he uses valuable energy making his own way there and you’ve got half a chance.

The lone fight

There are a lot of temporary alliances in a race like this, but Cancellara benefited from few. I’ve said before that his computer game special power would be ‘riding with the strength of many men’ and we saw precisely that on Sunday. He was the guy who bridged across to other groups and he was the one who forced the pace when he got there. If it weren’t for all those cyclists who finished after him, you could forgive him for thinking he spent the day riding alone.