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The time Fabian waved to me

Frank Heinen Tekst Frank Heinen Gepubliceerd 24 June 2017

Every time people ask me what my favourite Cancellara moment is — and it happens more often than you might think — I reply, the third stage of the 2007 Tour de France. It was a mess of a Tour, I remember, won in the end by a young Spaniard who, just two years earlier, had been dragged from the asphalt on the verge of death at the Vuelta a Asturias. Contador was his name. It was the year of the Rasmussen affair. That Tour seemed to last ten years at least.

Cancellara had won the prologue two days earlier. The third stage was as flat as a pancake. It was the sort of stage that you’re best to plan to get out of the house for, because otherwise you’ll find yourself sitting down to watch it before you know it, even though you know it’s worthless. It was just filler, that stage.

Two Frenchmen had been in front for most of the day — Vogondy and Ladagnous. The average speed was hovering around 30 km/h, and the TV commentators were grasping at straws. Two riders bridged up — Auge, another Frenchman, and Frederik Willems from Belgium. They made the connection to the leading pair, and the foursome rode in the direction of Compiègne. Just 500 metres before the line, they were caught by one rider in a yellow jersey. Cancellara flew by the four at a thunderous pace. He’d gone by the peloton as if he were the TGV passing a lumbering country train. Vogondy made a stiff, awkward attempt to get up from the saddle and onto his wheel, but it was for nothing. The sprint began. Cancellara’s legs pulverised the metres that separated him from the finish. He was still in the saddle. The sprint blazed behind him. Zabel, Hunter, McEwen — those names seem as if they’re from another lifetime. But in that past life, if that’s what it was, Fabian Cancellara was the best too.

Image: Emily Maye

(In pure racing terms, the most beautiful moment came during the 2011 Tour of Flanders, the best contest in recent memory. It was unforgettable — the way he attacked there, and then faltered, how he sat up just metres from the line, for reasons unknown to this day, whether it was because he’d reached the end of his strength or had simply been outfoxed by Nuyens…)

In the bus to Bavikhove, someone comes and sits down beside me. The unmistakable scent of aftershave and pigeon shit fills my nose. Fredje is a pigeon fancier, although he has another name for it, which I forget. “Ya,” he says. I can smell the coffee he’s just drunk. He puts his hand on my knee. “And how’s it going here? Things looking okay?” Fredje is the chairman. He wants everyone in the club to be happy. That’s impossible, but it’s still what he wants. If there’s a conflict — and there are always conflicts — he tries to nip it in the bud. He ends all of his emails with a standard PS: if there’s anything up, just let me know. That’s why he never sits in the same seat on the bus. He drifts about, like the host of a party where no one knows anyone. “Good,” I answer. There’s nothing more to say. I’m fine. I’ll ignore his joke. You shouldn’t reward people when they’re mean. Outside, the E17 glides by. It’s quiet on the road. It’s a Sunday.

“Good,” Fredje says. He’ll be glad to move on, relieved that there’s nothing here to take care of. Fredje is from Zomergem. His wife’s name is Letje. Yeah, I know. If you ask him to describe his marriage, he’ll reply, “Racing, racing, racing, and the pigeons.” And if Letje happens to be around, she’ll add, “and Fabian.”

And then there's his voice, a calm that seems to percolate through the television.

I’d hoped to join the Swiss fan club Cancellara4ever at first. For someone like me, it didn’t seem possible to come any closer to Fabian. I sent a message to the head of the club, a man named Luca, and received a reply from someone else — Luca’s wife, I would later learn. Cancellara4ever is a club for Swiss Fabian fans only. She was very, very sorry. She suggested Club Spartacus, the Flemish equivalent. Her English was perfect, better than that of her idol anyways. In Club Spartacus, I am a special case. I am Dutch, young, and my favourite Cancellara moment isn’t from a spring classic. Moreover, at the moment of writing, I am the only member of any Cancellara fan club in the whole wide world who can’t see his own hand when it’s in front of his face.

Whenever they ask me how someone who’s been blind from the day he was born can have such strong feelings for a particular racer — and, believe me, it happens more often than you might think — I give a different reply. There are several answers really. I can’t help it.

There’s the name. There’s a melody to it, which I love — that combination of a hard-sounding first name, like chocolate, followed by kan-tsje-la-ra, which sounds like a term to do with classical music. And then there’s his voice of course, that English smeared with a thick Bern accent. Voices are important to people like me. They are to us as appearances are to people who can see. He doesn’t have a good voice per se, but there’s something good to it, a calm that seems to percolate through the television.

Image: Emily Maye

What’s more important really are the voices of the others — those voices filled with awe. They aren’t dogmatic (you could also say blind, but I’d rather not use that adjective in a figurative way, so as to avoid misunderstandings). They’re just adoring, amazed. Their tone suggests that they’ve recognized an objective truth. Usually, choosing a favourite bike racer is a matter of taste. If you love tormented, little climbers, you’ll identify with Pantani. If you’re a classics fan, you’ll cheer for Boonen. If you tend to like underdogs, there’s a peloton full of riders to support. Cancellara transcends mere taste. I don’t need to be able to see to know he is the best.

Two men are sitting behind me. I don’t recognize their voices, but I know their manner of speaking all too well. They are cycling fans of the humourless sort. “Rio was the best,” one says. “Just when no one believed it was possible, he pulled that off… Rio was the best.” “No, no, no,” the other interrupts. I can almost hear his head shake. “He thinks differently himself.” “I know that,” the one says, “but I don’t agree.”

The more specialised a club is, the more important it is for you to have knowledge on hand. Every fan knows the list: three wins in Roubaix, three Tours of Flanders, eight Tour stages, two Olympic golds, three wins in the E3, three Strade Bianches. This is basic information, like the name of Fabian’s wife and daughters. In Club Spartacus, we go further. Every member knows where he was when his favourite Cancellara moment took place (somewhere along the side of the road in most cases). And everyone who was there for one of Fabian’s major wins knows the worthy losers he destroyed. Everyone in the club has read Spartacus, the book by Howard Fast that Kubrick based his film on. Three members named their sons after him, extending a list that includes twelve pets — eleven Fabians and one Canc. Kan-tsje is how you pronounce it.

Cancellara transcends mere taste. I don't need to be able to see to know he is the best.

And of course, we all know which of his wins means the most to him. “The 2013 Ronde,” one guy says. He’s new here, so new that facts still seem as if they’re matters up for discussion to him. In our club, we moved beyond facts a long time ago. Now, we’re based on emotion — the emotion Cancellara inspires in us, how he makes us feel at certain moments, like during his attack in the final kilometre of the 2008 Milan-San Remo, when he was the favourite and everyone knew he was going to attack, which is just what he did, and still no one could follow him. Letje always says that she had to cry then, and Fredje confirms this with a nod. Or there was his crash in the 2012 Tour of Flanders, when he broke his collarbone in two after falling in the feedzone. (Then, the commentator said, and I’m citing this off the top of my head, “Is that Cancellara? That’s Cancellara. It can’t be true guys. He’s lying there in the middle of the road and isn’t getting up. His helmet’s destroyed. Doctor Jacobs is there. This doesn’t look good.”) At that moment, Manu always tells us, Andre punched a hole in the wall. They still haven’t repaired it. With a felt marker they wrote, “F.C. 01/04/2012”.

Andre and Manu are brothers. They live together and have only been a part of the club for a short while. At first, they were distinguished members of the Flemish Juan Antonio Flecha fan club, but it ceased operations when Flecha retired. There were members of the club who weren’t sure if that was allowed in the beginning, to switch from one fan club to another. But their hesitation was immediately tamped down when Fredje had his word. In our club, there are a few time trial enthusiasts, not many, but they are there. They’ve formed their own small faction and speak mostly amongst themselves. Every new member who comes along on an outing for the first time is taken aside by them and asked what percentage of the professional time trials he has raced Fabian has won. Most people give it a polite try. Some explain that time trialling doesn’t interest them. And a few just know the answer. (Which is 39.08%, and will remain that way, barring a comeback.) These few are immediately brought into the fold, and put on the mailing list, of time trial specialists. Fredje says they don’t do any harm.

Image: Emily Maye

I joined pretty late. Cancellara was already nearly old news by the time I filled in the registration sheet on the Club Spartacus website and wrote in the box set aside for extra information, “I am blind, so I’ll need a bit of help with some things (outings and the like).” Now, I was an official fan. Really, I’d been a fan for a while. I’d considered myself one ever since Fabian’s time on Fassa Bortolo, when, as just a boy, he finished fourth in Roubaix behind Backstedt, Hoffman, and Hammond — all kings of the classics. I’d never been sure though. How do those first flutters of affection turn into a feeling of deep admiration? Suddenly, after one or the other win — perhaps his first victory in Roubaix in 2006? Or the Ronde van Rhodos in 2001? Or was it the third stage of the 2007 Tour after all? — I was a fan. Or was it a gradual process? Perhaps, it goes differently for everyone, like falling in love. Letje and Fredje have been together for 43 years already. If you ask Letje how they met, or if Letje just wants to tell you the story so badly that she doesn’t even need you to ask, she’ll say, “I saw a bum on a bike and knew I had to follow it.” Personally, I’d have at least liked to have gone out to dinner with the bum once to be certain, but yeah, I can’t see bums on bikes anyways.

The bus pulls into Bavikhove. Someone slaps me on the shoulder. “We’re going to see him! We all are!” It’s no joke. He really means it.

Fabian Cancellara has seen me twice. The first time, we were guests together on a television programme called Van Gils en Gasten. The editors had heard of me and wanted me to come to the studio no matter what. I didn’t want to go. I’d always made clear, both in the club and outside of it, that I didn’t want special treatment. I never want to jump ahead in line just because I’m blind. I’m not a mascot. I can’t see anyways. According to the girl who kept bothering me during the weeks leading up to the show, Fabian knew of me. That’s possible of course. I’d never met him, but I’d regularly been around him. There’s a good chance he’d seen me before, shuffling around the CSC or Leopard-Trek bus, or at one of the parties our fan club hosts in the Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen. Apparently, I was filmed once during a tour of the Roubaix velodrome, where I’d touched his shower stall (I didn’t feel anything). Maybe, that’s what he’d seen. But I’d never met him. And I really wanted to keep it that way. Meeting your heroes is often a letdown.

Image: Emily Maye

“He said he’d be disappointed if you don’t come,” the editor said, making a final attempt. And I fell for it. I was worried for days before the show. I didn’t want to look crazy — a blind racing fan. I was worried that my love wouldn’t survive our meeting, that I would sweat buckets due to the heat of the studio lamps. In the end, it was all unnecessary. On the day of the show, another man from the programme called suddenly, a man with a voice that was more authoritative than that of the girl who’d built up my expectations. I was still welcome, he said, but not to sit at the table. Instead, I could sit in the first row of the crowd, beside three other fans. My place at the table would be taken by a Flemish folk singer who’d wanted to be a cyclist in his younger days. I don’t remember much more about the programme, just that Fabian came in at the last minute and I didn’t get asked one question, so I must have looked as if I was someone who’d wandered into the wrong studio. At the end, all of us fans were lined up near the exit and we all got a handshake.

The boy in front of me said, “I love you, Fabian.”
“Thank you,” said Fabian.
When I felt his hand in mine, I didn’t know what to say.
“I’m Fabian,” he said.
“I know,” I said.
“I heard all about it. It’s unlucky man.”
And then, he was gone.

The second time Fabian saw me was just a couple of months ago, the day after his final Ronde, in which he finished second. This time, it wasn’t due to bad luck or because all of his opponents ganged up on him. Someone was just better.

It was in Oudenaarde, in the Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen. Fredje had organized it all. The small room in the visitors’ centre was packed with members and pseudo-members of the club and journalists. It was hot, and, not for the first time, I asked myself why I’d registered to be an official fan. What was wrong with being a casual supporter? Catherine was my helper that evening. She was so in love with Fabian that she’d left her husband. She’d been disloyal to him in spirit for a long time, she said, and could no longer hold her head high. She whispered everything that was said on the podium to me, as if I wasn’t just blind but was also hard of hearing.

We were pretty far back in the crowd. “Cycling is not my life,” she whispered. “Cycling is a part of my life.”

Image: Emily Maye

I chose to believe that it wasn’t her saying it but him. It sounded like Fabian, but you can never be sure with Catherine. “Thank you all,” Catherine whispered, “for all of the support over all of these years. It’s given me a lot of pleasure and strength. That you are all here now for me, for someone from another country, I find that extremely special.” The crowd broke into a thunderous ovation. The MC said that Fabian would now pour a beer.

“He’s waving,” Catherine whispered. “He’s looking towards…” She was still for a second. I could feel her body quiver.
“He’s looking at you,” she said.
“He’s waving at you and giving you the thumbs up, with both thumbs now. Oh my God.”

Leaning on the arm of someone whose name I’ve forgotten, I walk through Bavikhove. We’re going to stand by the finish. The sound system is being tested.
“Test! Test! 1, 2, 3! Cancellara!”
Soon, he’ll ride past here, past us, past me, for one final time.

Every time people ask me what the most beautiful Cancellara moment is — and it happens more often than you might think — I answer, the third stage of the 2007 Tour de France.

And, to myself, I add, and the one time he waved to me.

Image: Emily Maye

This story is fiction, but all of the facts about Fabian Cancellara are true. I don’t know if there are any blind Cancellara fans, but I do suspect so.
Club Spartacus exists, but I’m not aware of any conflicts in the club. The Van Gils en Gasten episode happened, but without fans in the first row.
Fredje and Letje are real. The quote about the bum on the bike is from the documentary Tour de Silence, which was broadcast on Argos TV in 2013. Whether or not Fredje and Letje were ever members of Club Spartacus is unknown.
The writer of this story can see just fine.
And Fabian Cancellara really is a smart, friendly, and somewhat clumsy guy. As far as I know, he has never waved enthusiastically to someone who isn’t able to see him.

If you liked this story consider purchasing Soigneur Cycling Journal 16 where it was first printed.

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