The end of a monumental rivalry

One of cycling’s great rivalries probably ended last Friday when Fabian Cancellara’s crash ruined his classics campaign. It followed Tom Boonen’s own classics-killer crash at Paris-Nice two weeks ago.

That’s it, it’s done.

This year’s cobbled monuments will be without their two great champions, and with both approaching the final stages of their careers, we’ve almost certainly seen the last time they duke it out in earnest on the pavé of Belgium and northern France.

Spare a moment to think about the end of an era.

We’ve written about Cancellara and Boonen a lot on The Roar over the past three years, because their rivalry is one of those sporting stories that rises clear above the daily news cycle of race results and speculation.

It’s a rivalry built more on statistics than any personal grudge, or even that many direct contests.

In fact, actual head-to-head battles between the two in top form have been rarer than we might have liked. Too often, especially in recent years, one has crashed out, been injured from a crash in a previous race, or been out of form after a crash.

They clashed at the 2010 Tour of Flanders, where Cancellara rode Boonen off his wheel on the Kapelmuur to win (find a video on YouTube, it’s an astonishing display of controlled power). They were both in the top 10 in 2006, which Boonen won, and again in 2014 which was Cancellara’s.

At Paris-Roubaix they met more often: they genuinely competed in 2005 (Boonen), 2006 (Cancellara), 2008 (Boonen), 2010 (Cancellara, Boonen 2nd) and 2014 (Terpstra).

But the last few years we have been starved of the sight of Spartacus and Tommeke pounding over the cobbles together, and this year we will see neither.

Each has earned his place individually amongst the greats of cycling, rare enough talents in their own rights. But their careers have overlapped almost completely, allowing the pair to dominate the cobbled monuments for the last decade.

Since Boonen’s first Paris-Roubaix victory in 2005, the pair have shared 7 out of 10 editions.

In the Tour of Flanders, it’s 6 out of 10. Considering the rare combination of strength, skill and good luck required to win even one of these monster races, those figures are staggering.

Cancellara has won Paris-Roubaix three times, the Tour of Flanders three times, Milan-San Remo once (we’ll leave his four world time trial championships and Olympic gold medal out of this for now).

Boonen’s collection includes four Paris-Roubaix wins and three Tours of Flanders, plus a swag of smaller cobbled classics (E3 and Gent-Wevelgem have been happy hunting grounds) and a world road race title.

Both have won many other races, of course.

Which is better? Both are great. Nobody has won Paris-Roubaix more than Boonen, but Cancellara has never had the team support that his Belgian rival has enjoyed. Each has produced rides of stunning brilliance, panache and sheer guts.

I can’t really see Boonen winning another Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix. He hasn’t won a cobbled monument since 2012, when he stormed away from the field and rode 53km solo to victory (again, find it on YouTube). It was arguably his best victory, but he hasn’t been able to reach those heights since (crashes have been the main cause).

He was close in 2014, but his teammate Niki Terpstra attacked solo from a reduced bunch and took the win.

By 2016, Boonen will be 35, and his sprint has noticeably faded over the last two or three years. He’s still a formidable rider, but he no longer carries that untouchable aura. See the way Ian Stannard caught and dropped him at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad a few weeks ago.

Cancellara has maintained his dominance better than Boonen, but he still can’t rely on his team like Boonen can, and he too will be 35 by the spring of 2016. He is the most heavily-marked rider in the peloton – his Spartacus nickname is apt considering the overwhelming odds he faces in every race. To win, he needs to be at his absolute peak, because he is never given an inch of space.

He’s said he’ll probably retire at the end of 2016, giving him only one more chance at the cobbles.

Over the next two weeks, get used to the cobbled monuments without these two giants.

Yes, change is inevitable and the next generation has some exciting talents: Sep Vanmarcke, John Degenkolb, Peter Sagan, Michal Kwiatkowski, and Alexander Kristoff among the best. This week’s Tour of Flanders will be the most open for years.

That’s all well and good, but it is sad to see an historic rivalry finish with a dropped water bottle and hospital beds, and not with blazing wheels over the Carrefour de l’Arbre.

This piece originally appeared on The Roar

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