Blazin' Saddles

No.24 – The Classics Guy from Luigi

Cancellara climbs the Geraardsbergen wall in 2008There was a quite wonderful quote this week from twice Paris-Roubaix winner Fabian Cancellara. Quizzed about just what made him love the cobbled classics so much, Cancellara let rip with an animated answer that captured both the magic of cycling and one man's passion for his sport.

"One thing, for sure, is I don't love cobbles. It's something I don't love. It's something I hate, but I know how to handle them. That's why I have a battle with the cobblestones. I have a battle with myself as a hard warrior to go over them, to fight against the cobbles, because the cobbles damage you, and the damage makes you tired.

"That's why you have to try to ride as fast as possible over it and then that's less damage, because the less minutes or seconds you go over it, the better. But that's hard because the more intense you go, the more it makes you tired. It's like an individual time trial, for so many kilometres."

Cancellara is a rider so talented in the cobbled classics that, following his emphatic 2010 Tour of Flanders win, one respected former Italian pro even suggested that he was riding a special motorised bike.

In last week's interview with SBS's Al Hinds (an old crony of Saddles' from his sejour in Sydney) Spartacus also detailed his infatuation with the Flanders classic.

"You have uphill, downhill, left, right, small roads, cobblestones, no cobblestones... Everything – wind, rain. And the people there are crazy. They are crazy about the day, crazy about the race, they support you like hell, they yell you up the hill sometimes. It's a unique race that you won't find anywhere else in cycling."

Watching Cancellara speak so passionately, you realise too that he's a unique rider that you won't find anywhere else in cycling.

Such a poetic description of one man's battle on a bike, turning his worst enemy into his very best weapon, almost brings a tear to the eye. In those matter-of-fact yet strangely compelling words, Cancellara summed up the wondrous enigma that is classics racing. That soundbite deserves to be played and played again for posterity.

Tom Boonen aside, Cancellara is perhaps the rider of his generation you'd think about who would merit the succinct nickname 'Clasicomano' – man of the classics.

But with every silver lining... The name 'Clasicomano' came up this week in another context – the ongoing Operacion Puerto trial, where one of Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes's codenamed clients in 2006 – along with the likes of Birillo, Zapatero, Bella, Huerta et al – was revealed as the unidentified 'No.24 - Clasicomano (Luigi)'.

At the beginning of the week, the Dutch press claimed that 'Clasicomano Luigi' was none other than Thomas Dekker, who at the time of Puerto was the 21-year-old great hope of Dutch cycling who trained in Tuscany with the Luigi Cecchini, an Italian doctor who has been investigated for involvement in doping but never indicted.

Here's the thing: Dekker has never really been a classics specialist and he was by no means the only rider in cahoots with Cecchini at the time. Something didn't fit.

Which made an interview given to Cyclingnews by convicted doper Tyler Hamilton, published on Wednesday, all the more timely.

During the interview, Hamilton talked effusively about the hypocrisy in the sport. His first example came from after his own doping comeback during the 2008 Tour of Georgia when he heard through the grapevine that a "prominent team director" had announced on race radio "here comes Fuentes' client" as Hamilton was chasing back through the team cars.

It has since been suggested that the outspoken man in question was the DS of the Chipotle-Slipstream team – a man who is now (quite rightly) feted as one of the biggest anti-doping campaigners in cycling, but one who, at the time of the incident, had not yet come clean about his own misdemeanours alongside Lance Armstrong at US Postal.

In the same year, Hamilton and two other Rock Racing riders (Oscar Sevilla and Santiago Botero) sidelined from the race because of the ongoing investigation into Operacion Puerto were heckled by a "prominent rider" at the Tour of California, which they had attended to support their team-mates and sign autographs for fans.

"These guys shouldn't be at the event," the rider in question told the press before outlining their involvement in Puerto.

The next day, Hamilton recalls that his Rock Racing team-mates in the race surrounded this rider in the peloton and heckled him: "Hey Luigi. Luigi, f*** you," they said.

Hamilton's anecdote send many journalists scurrying into the archives where, from a piece on the 2008 Tour of California in Cycling Weekly, they discovered that Fabian Cancellara – funnily enough in an interview in which we was primarily talking about the welcome comeback of Mario Cipollini – admitted that he had "a problem with some other riders [who] think they can ride their bikes and be at the start line but they still have problems on their shoulders and that is not good for our sport".

"They really have to think about what they did and not be here to make a show," he added. Although he wouldn't name any names, Cancellara said: "I think everybody knows who I'm talking about."

And it now seems, if you put two and two together, that we all now know who Fuentes' client list was talking about when it mentioned 'No.24 – Clasicomano Luigi'.

Thomas Dekker was not even riding the 2008 Tour of California – whereas, Cancellara – a bona fide 'classics guy' – was there, he did have a pop at Hamilton, he has worked with Luigi Cecchini in the past and he was, perhaps coincidentally, 24 years old at the time of the 2006 Puerto raid.

It does certainly make you think about hypocrisy Hamilton said was an ongoing scourge in cycling. As we know from Hamilton's case only too well (not to mention the experiences of Floyd Landis, Jonathan Vaughters and David Millar, to name a few) – there's a big difference between a doped rider and a doped rider who has been caught and sanctioned.

Going back to where we started and Cancellara's wonderful interview with SBS last week – the Swiss powerhouse, when quizzed about his plans for the coming season and the rumours that he will overlook the Tour de France, said: "I don't think so much what is ahead".

But judging by other interviews given this week, Cancellara doesn't like looking back at what is behind much either.

"When I see all the things going on lately, I won't say it's a waste of time, but you can go into so much detail and you're not going to find a solution," he said at the Tour of Qatar. "It's another chapter, from the past. I want to turn the page and leave Lance and Fuentes."

He's right. Finding out who 'Luigi' is won't exactly pave the way to a clean future for cycling. But it might, by the looks of things, help us understand its present – especially if the rider in question appears to be one of the peloton's main figureheads.

On Monday damning news broke of widespread match fixing in football. "Cycling has a problem we all know," Cancellara tweeted. "But the 380 football games manipulated globally are the same level of doping," he said, adding the hashtags 'cheating' and 'stopShootingcycling'.

"Great point," replied former Rock Racing cyclist Michael Creed. "Even football has Clasicamano Luigi's."