The dream match-up between an in-form Fabian Cancellara and an in-form Tom Boonen, which fans have waited for since 2011, looks well and truly on the agenda over the next few weeks of cobbled classics.
Any doubts about Cancellara’s classics form were crushed by his 10th consecutive podium finish in a monument, at Milan-San Remo.
Not that there was ever much doubt about Cancellara’s form: he’s a master of peaking at the right time, and his performances have clearly been building with a 6th at Strade Bianche and solid results at Tirreno-Adriatico.
But yet another podium finish at Milan-San Remo (this was his fourth consecutive podium finish in this race) really settles the argument.
Spartacus is ready.
Perfect timing, because the next three weeks is a cavalcade on cobbles.
This Friday is E3 Harelbeke (Cancellara has won three times, Boonen five times).
This Sunday is Gent-Wevelgem (Cancellara has never won, Boonen has three victories).
The following Sunday, the 6th of April, is 2014’s second monument, Ronde van Vlaanderen (the Tour of Flanders). Cancellara has won twice; Boonen has won three times.
Finally, on the 14th of April, it’s Paris-Roubaix. Cancellara has three victories in the Queen of the Classics. One more would bring him equal with Boonen who, of course, has four.
One more win for Boonen would take him past Roger De Vlaeminck to be the most successful rider in Paris-Roubaix’s 118-year history.
It’ll be a hell of story if either of them wins.
Boonen and Cancellara have dominated the cobbled classics for the best part of a decade, but over the past three seasons it’s been rare to see them both in form at the same time. Since 2011, when Boonen crashed out of Paris-Roubaix (Cancellara finished 2nd), it’s been one or the other in near complete dominance.
Boonen was the man of 2012, winning E3, Gent-Wevelgem, Flanders, and Paris-Roubaix in succession, while his Swiss rival crashed in the Ronde and failed to contest Paris-Roubaix.
In 2013 the pattern was reversed: Cancellara carried all before him, winning E3, Flanders and Paris-Roubaix (but failing to finish Gent-Wevelgem in freezing conditions). Boonen suffered through a season wrecked by injury, crashes and illness.
Each was so dominant in their respective winning seasons that it’s nearly impossible to argue that one was better than the other.
Compare Boonen’s 2012 Paris-Roubaix win, where he rode away from the field with over 50km remaining
with Cancellara’s 2013 Tour of Flanders attack on the Paterberg to win Ronde van Vlaanderen.
Boonen, who began his career as a sprinter, won his last Paris-Roubaix by time-trialling to the finish. Cancellara, a time-triallist, won his last Paris-Roubaix in a two-man sprint.
These two monsters of the pavé going head to head is potentially the stuff of cycling legend.
The two have circled each other like prizefighters this season.
They’ve only appeared at the same race twice, at the Tours of Qatar and Oman.
Boonen prefers to start his season fast, his best seasons often follow a good performance in Qatar, and this year he bagged two stage wins and second overall there, mixing it up in bunch sprints. Two podiums in stages in Oman continued his good early form.
Meanwhile, Cancellara was content to ride around mid-pack, building race miles. There was no genuine head-to-head contest.
Boonen returned to Europe with a victory in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, an early taster on the Belgian cobbles.
Cancellara turned his attention to Italy, building form gradually but inexorably. Nearly winning Milan-San Remo on a course that didn’t suit him shows that he is ready for the cobbles.
This being cycling, there’s still every possibility that the clash of the modern titans could be brought unstuck by a crash, illness, a mechanical, or the intervention of other riders with no time for sentiment.
We should all be making offerings of Belgian beer and Swiss chocolate to the cycling gods, because if everything goes right, we might be about to witness something truly special.