Tag Archives: boonen

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

Cancellara and Boonen: together at last?

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.

Boonen and Cancellara at Paris-Roubaix, 2008.
Boonen and Cancellara at Paris-Roubaix, 2008.

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.