For the past decade there has been a growing rivalry between Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara, who won his third Tour of Flanders on Sunday, and his Belgian counterpart Tom Boonen. The two men have been the preeminent cobblestone-racing specialists of the 21st century, the best at enduring long hours on the throwback roads of centuries past. Since 2005, the two cyclists have accounted for six of the past 10 victories in the Tour of Flanders and seven of nine wins at Paris-Roubaix, the two preeminent one-day cobblestone classics in the world.
Boonen had emerged as a cobblestone contender immediately in his career after reaching the podium at his first Paris-Roubaix in 2002. He would win the race three years later, one week after winning his first Tour of Flanders and becoming the ninth rider to sweep both races. A year later, Boonen would repeat at Flanders and arrive outside Paris at the starting line as the favorite to become the first man in cycling history to repeat as champion in both races.
Cancellara ruined that fairy-tale opportunity, breaking free and using his solo skills to make a long run into the Roubaix velodrome and steal the title from the Belgian. Cancellara would become better known as the world’s best time-trial specialist later that season, and though he would also win Milano-San Remo in 2008 he hadn’t yet become the dominant monument classics specialist that he would become at the end of his twenties and into his thirties. Even in victory it felt like the Swiss star was never a serious threat to Boonen, who was forced to sit out the 2008 Tour de France after testing positive for cocaine but returned to take his third Paris-Roubaix title in 2009.
Cancellara was still characterized as a time-trial champion who was strong enough on the bike to steal a classic once in a while until 2010, when he became just the 10th cyclist in the sport’s century-long history to sweep the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in the same season. Equaling Boonen’s feat, Cancellara was now another marked man to watch in every classic he started.
Since that time injury has played a major role in both men’s recent wins in Flanders and Roubaix. Boonen would belatedly complete his second sweep of the cobblestone classics when he won Paris-Roubaix in 2012 a week after taking his third Tour of Flanders. At that point he was ahead of Cancellara 7-3 on the career scoreboard in cobblestone classics. But the historic success almost felt like it came with an asterisk, as Cancellara had crashed on the Flemish cobbles and broken his collarbone to prematurely end his spring campaign.
And then, just as quickly, an injury to Boonen would open the door for Cancellara to close the gap. Pouncing fully on the opportunity presented by his rival’s crash that resulted in a fractured rib, the Swiss champ equaled Boonen’s feat of the year prior by sweeping Flanders and Roubaix for the second time in four years.
Cancellara’s win in Flanders thus makes the 112th edition of Paris-Roubaix a referendum on these two riders. Should Cancellara tie Boonen and Roger de Vlaeminck with a fourth career victory on the velodrome after the long slog across the cobblestones of northern France, he will also draw even with Boonen in the total accounting of cobble classics titles in the process. But he will also have one more monument victory on his palmares, and he will also become the first cyclist in history to double up at Flanders and Roubaix three separate seasons.
Both 33 years old, separated by less than six months in age, Tornado Tom and Spartacus probably have at most a dozen opportunities left to contend on the cobbles. The oldest winner of Flanders, Andrei Tchmil, was 37 years old when he won the race in 2000; seven years earlier, Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle was four months shy of his 39th birthday when he won the 1993 Paris-Roubaix. After 2020, it is likely that the greatest cobblestone rivalry in history will come to its conclusion.
Whatever the accounting may be when that final bell peals on each man’s career, 2014 could be the fulcrum upon which the story line hinges. A Boonen victory on the 26 sections of cobbled roads would put him past de Vlaeminck as the most decorated rider ever to pedal across the legendary route to Roubaix, prevent Cancellara from surpassing their joint record of two Flanders/Roubaix doubles, and reopen the gap between the two in total classics titles.
Cancellara could conversely level the score, all the momentum squarely on his side heading into their last half-decade of racing against one another, and become the first man in history to win Flanders and Roubaix back-to-back in three different seasons. Psychologically it could tip the scale toward the Swiss side of the ledger.
While it is possible that another of the 200 riders lined up in Compiegne could steal the show seven hours later in Roubaix, the reality is that we are more likely than not to see one of these two men hoisting the chunk of cobble awarded to the victor this coming Sunday. Only two other men have won the race since 2005. One, Stuart O’Grady, has retired from the sport. The other, Johan Vansummeren, was involved in a high-speed crash at Flanders on Sunday with a spectator; the 2011 champ will likely be at less than 100 percent for the upcoming Sunday in Hell.
So let the referendum commence. Either we will see one of the above stories take root… or a surprise victor will emerge from the field to commence a new era for the venerable race.
Boonen and Cancellara at Flanders and Roubaix
Who will win the 2014 Paris-Roubaix?
- Fabian Cancellara (0%, 0 Votes)
- Tom Boonen (0%, 0 Votes)
- anyone else from the field (0%, 0 Votes)
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