Ding, dong, the streak is dead, and there’s a new king of the clock after today’s elite men’s time trial concluded at the UCI World Championships being held this year in Copenhagen, Denmark. For the past five years, no other athlete has dominated the world’s biggest time-trial settings than Fabian Cancellara. From Salzburg to Stuttgart, Mendrisio to Melbourne, with a stop in Beijing in between, he is effectively the five-time defending world champion on the world’s biggest stage (though in 2008 he declined to defend his rainbow jersey, citing fatigue after the Olympic effort).
Proving his strength, he has also won seven grand-tour time trials of varying lengths (five at the Tour de France, two at the Vuelta a España)… and he has branched out into one of the most dominant road riders of his generation on top of all that success against the clock, winning three of the five monument one-day classics (Paris-Roubaix in 2006, Milano-San Remo in 2008, and both the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in 2010).
But now the streak is dead. Even had he not overcooked one of the final bends in the course and nearly crashed into the barriers, the best Cancellara was going to be able to achieve on this day in Denmark was silver. As it was, his bungle allowed Britain’s Bradley Wiggins to slip into the silver spot on the podium, relegating the Swiss superstar to the bottom step for the first time since 2005. It ends a reign of dominance in one event the likes of which we’ve rarely seen demonstrated consistently through the course of season after season.
We saw Cancellara’s greatness coming for over a decade. As the 20th century would down, the Swiss cyclist first burst onto the scene by winning the junior world championship in the time trial in 1998 in a thrilling two-second pipping of defending champion Torsten Hiekmann of Germany. Hiekmann would become a footnote in cycling’s history, competing for seven anonymous years for T-Mobile and Gerolsteiner before retiring in 2007. Cancellara would go on to repeat as world champion over Rouslan Kaioumov in 1999 before moving up to the U-23 ranks. In 2000, he would be the best of the rest behind Evgeni Petrov — who took both the TT and road title at the U-23 race in Plouay that year.
He would turn professional in 2001 with Mapei, forming a strong core of youth alongside Filippo Pozzato, Michael Rogers and Bernhard Eisel. After two seasons with the Italian squad, though, the team folded ahead of the 2003 season and Cancellara signed with Fassa Bortolo to ride in support of sprinter Alessandro Petacchi. By then he had claimed his first Swiss national time-trial championship, and would go on to a breakout season with his new team in which he won the prologue at both the Tour de Romandie and the Tour de Suisse.
2004 would start the buildup of notoriety toward his streak of dominance. Cancellara won another Swiss championship ahead of his first Tour de France appearance. Arriving in Liege, the 23-year-old outkicked Lance Armstrong in the opening prologue, seizing the yellow jersey on his very first opportunity. Of course, by the end of the race in Paris he would be nearly three hours down on the general classification… but nevertheless it was an auspicious burst onto the scene.
His biggest noise, though, was always destined to be shouted in the quest for the rainbow jersey. In 2005 he would finally reach the podium after years of steady progression, placing third behind winner Michael Rogers (his old nemesis from juniors competition) and missing out on silver by finishing just 12-hundredths of a second behind Iván Gutiérrez. It would serve as the appetizer for his next big breakthrough.
Fassa Bortolo folded after 2005, another casualty of a vacuous sponsorship system that supports cycling’s elite teams. Cancellara moved to Team CSC, uniting with team director Bjarne Riis and breaking out his fullest potential. By this point everyone knew Cancellara was a time-trial rider to be feared. But on the legendary cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix, he also showed that his tunnel focus against the clock can also be used to distance himself in a road race.
Punching it on the Camphin-en Pévèle section of cobblestones, Cancellara burst clear of the select group of 17 at the lead of the race and soloed in to nearly two minutes’ advantage to claim the victory in the Roubaix velodrome. In one race he completely changed his perception in the eyes of observers, metamorphosing from quirky specialist of a solitary discipline to all-around threat in every race he contested.
Which led later in the year to his full-circle chrysalis. Confident upon arriving in Salzburg, knowing that he was on stellar form, Cancellara attacked the time-trial course to win his first professional rainbow jersey by a minute and a half over his nearest competitor. His dominance would only magnify, as he repeated as world champion in 2007 — replicating the same feat he achieved as a junior. He won Tour de France stages he helped teammates reach unprecedented heights, and he proved his savvy in all disciplines when he showed up at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and nearly pulled off a double in both the time trial and road race.
His failure to bridge his back-to-back world championships with a title in 2008 was mitigated by his success in the Olympiad. Even Bert Grabsch, who won the rainbow jersey against the clock in 2008 in Cancellara’s absence, recognized as much. “Normally he is a big favorite. Normally there are six to ten who can win, but today it was open to all riders. In the last (few) years, when Cancellara started he was a heavy favorite.”
That statement held true to form for the latter half of the 21st century’s first decade. When Cancellara was clipped into his pedals, tucked aerodynamically on his machine, and sitting atop the starting ramp, everybody competing instinctively knows that he is the biggest threat to claim the title.
And while Wednesday’s result in Denmark is hardly the end of the 30-year-old’s career, the reality is that a new generation is inevitably ready to step up and challenge for the right to begin their own era. Today it was 26-year-old Tony Martin who got the better of Cancellara. Tomorrow it could be almost anyone on the rise. The podium is still within his reach as he proved once more today, keeping a seven-year streak of results alive. But no longer is rainbow an afterthought for the man who has created a time-trial dynasty and maintained it while expanding beyond the discipline…