A year after acquiring his signature in 2001 and with just one victory to his senior palmarès, Georgio Squinzi, the man who gave him his first job as a professional cyclist, said his protege was destined to be "The future Miguel Indurain".
"It looked like an inauspicious lead-up to Rio... But upon closer inspection he was right where he needed to be."
The Mapei–Quick-Step boss was totally wrong but perhaps that was more a product of choice than circumstance, because when he wanted to, Fabian Cancellara was able to win races like Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour de Suisse. "At one point, I'd said I could win them all," he told L'Equipe in an interview early this year, referring to the five Monuments of which he conquered three, including a hat-trick at the Ronde and Roubaix, "but I spoke about it with Michele Bartoli and he said to me: 'I was never world champion, but you know, it didn't change my life...' Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Tour of Lombardy are impossible with my weight and I didn't want to slim down to try to win them," he said. "I found my territory, and it didn't encompass the Grand Tours, Liège or Lombardy."
"All of that's in my pocket," Cancellara, prior to embarking on his final Spring Classics campaign, said of his seven glorious Monuments. "But there's still a little bit of space in that pocket. San Remo, Flanders, Roubaix – it's not a secret, I want to win them this year. I want to go down in history."
Thirty-first in San Remo. Second in Flanders. Fortieth in Roubaix. Not a bad run, considering he also won Strade Bianche for a record third occasion and will now have a sector of white gravel roads named after him, but not a win; there was still space in his pocket.
He rode nine days of the Giro d'Italia, chose not to start the last stage of his home tour, then in July, pulled out before the uphill time trial. To the layperson it looked like an inauspicious lead-up to Rio, where he was to ride the road race and the time trial, the latter which he won eight years ago in Beijing and the one he was clearly targeting. But upon closer inspection he was right where he needed to be: this season, the 35-year-old from Wohlen bei Bern had in fact won more tests against the clock than any other.
February 19: winner of an 18km time trial at the Volta ao Algarve, ahead of Tony Martin and Geraint Thomas. March 15: wins a 10km TT at Tirreno-Adriatico, beating Johan Le Bon and Martin. June 6: wins a 6.4km prologue at Suisse. June 22: wins the Swiss TT championship for a record fourth time, over 41km. The anomaly was his performance on Stage 13 of the Tour, where he finished 23rd to winner and Rio TT favourite Tom Dumoulin; a surprising three and a quarter minutes behind the Dutchman.
Nonetheless, more times than any other current rider, Cancellara has proven he can rise to the occasion when a world championship is on the line. Still, his last rainbow jersey came in 2010, in Geelong. And at his last Olympics he ran seventh to Bradley Wiggins, finishing more than two minutes in arrears over a 44km parcours. (To be fair, his sub-par performance was due to a heavy crash in the preceding road race more than anything.)
Whether his adversaries underestimated him matters little, especially in a man-against-mind event like the individual time trial - and matters even less now. As Chris Froome, this year's Tour champion and third-place finisher behind Dumoulin said afterwards: "Fabian was definitely the strongest rider out on the road today."
In recent years, Cancellara has spoken more about his yearning to be with his wife and two children and less about his professional vocation of sixteen years by the time he retires. As the eloquent David Millar recalled to journalist Richard Moore last year, he often told his sister Fran, who works as director of business operations at Team Sky: "The team is not your family, your job is not your family - your family is your family."
"It means a lot to participate in sport's highest event that the world presents and to win the gold medal in my retirement year, I think I'm just super proud," Cancellara said Wednesday.
"But I want more than this (from life). This will not give me any doubts about this - my retirement continues."
There will be no comeback. And he'll be better off without it. Ciao, Fabian - and thanks for the memories.