They are two men with disparate goals. One is a time-trial legend, the only man ever to don the rainbow stripes of the world TT champion four times. The other is a tortured sprinter, as infamous for his past cocaine issues as his ability to streak past rivals at the finish line of a long day of racing. One has seven Tour de France stage victories, the other six; one has earned them in the race against the clock, the other in bunch sprints against the other rockets of the peloton. They are two men unified by one similarity — rarefied success on the bone-rattling farm roads of northern France and Flemish Belgium.
Belying their differences is the premium that both men place on two races that fall on successive weekends at the beginning of April. With different objectives for most of the year, the rivalry between Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen is a professional feud borne of cobblestone clashes and the annual quest for victory in two of the most legendary one-day classics in cycling. Only eight other men have accomplished the feat that binds these two men in their rivalry — winning both the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix back-to-back in the same season. Boonen secured his legend in 2005, winning both races for the first time as a 24-year-old. Joining a long list of Belgian greats to pull off the feat – Romain Gijssels, Gaston Rebry, Raymond Impanis, Fred De Bruyne, Rik van Looy, Roger De Vlaeminck and Peter Van Petegem — Boonen cemented his status as a marked man in the cobbled classics for the rest of his career. When he won the rainbow stripes of the world champion later that year, it appeared that a long reign of dominance was in the works.
Yet Cancellara would duplicate Boonen’s feat just five years later, methodically fending off repeated waves of attacks from Boonen to secure both his first Flanders crown and a second chunk of pavé. His run started in 2006, when Boonen failed to become the first-ever rider to repeat the Flanders/Roubaix double in consecutive years. Boonen repeated in his home race, the Lion of Flanders once more, but it was Cancellara who streaked away alone in the Camphin-en-Pévèle section of cobbles and stayed clear to the velodrome. His victories in the classics have followed a similar script every time, the time-trial champion displaying a masterstroke of tactical and physical superiority with perfectly-timed attacks that distanced the field each time. After gaining a gap, Cancellara soloed into the velodrome over a minute ahead of his chasers. 2010 was a triumph of perfect timing once again, pulling off solo efforts into Meerbeke and Roubaix to join Heiri Suter as the only other Swiss rider among the Belgians to pull off the Roubaix/Flanders double.
Entering the 2012 spring classics, Cancellara and Boonen had gobbled up fourteen of the 42 total podium positions available at the two cobblestone titans since 2005. And as April loomed, both men were in top form as they each hunted a common goal which only one could turn into reality — if they could defeat not just their competitive doppelgänger but the other 197 riders lined up at the start in Bruges.
For the first time in forty years, the race would be finishing somewhere other than Meerbeke. Many were inflamed about the route change, which took the race away from the iconic Muur van Geraardsbergen for the first time since 1970, but reality is that the route has been altered many times over the years and the race has survived and thrived. With the new finish in Oudenaarde, the Muur and the Bosberg were gone from the race and the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg took center stage. It looked like a route that would favor the strengths of Cancellara, whose punch on short climbs and tactical savvy seemed to favor the new parcours.
Boonen, though, had been the stronger rider throughout the first few months of the season. In February he won the Tour of Qatar for the fourth time in his career, taking two stage victories and leading the general classification from wire to wire. At the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad a few weeks later, Boonen took second behind 23-year-old compatriot Sep Vanmarcke in a three-man sprint on the line in Ghent. A stage win at Paris-Nice followed, preparing Boonen for the spring classics. In preparation of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, the Belgian won the E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem the weekend before the twin titans loomed. While the course favored Cancellara’s style, the run of form favored Boonen.
What few had expected was that the duel would be over before it started. As the riders streaked off the 11.2% cobblestoned Koppenberg and into the feed zone in Bevoorrading-Ravitaillement, Cancellara clipped something as the riders slowed slightly and positioned themselves to grab bags of fuel for the remaining 65 kilometers. Hitting the tarmac, several RadioShack-Nissan support-team personnel had appeared at his side instantaneously though in vain. Shattered in four or five places, the Swiss star’s clavicle had been mangled beyond being able to climb back on the bike. The combination of cobblestones and seven more of the steep punchy quintessentially-Flemish climbs would prove too much for the collarbone to bear.
Boonen was now left alone, without his main rival in the field to force other teams to divide their focus. As he has been so many times in his career, the Belgian was a marked man. A lead group of elite challengers was together on the final climb of the Paterberg. Following every acceleration, Tornado Tom found himself alongside 2007 Flanders winner Alessandro Ballan (BMC) and former teammate Filippo Pozzato (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia) in the final fifteen kilometers. Fighting a strong headwind, Ballan had tried to break clear after the final climb of the Paterberg. Pozzato and Boonen were the only two who managed to hold his wheel, and the trio came into Oudenaare together to contest the finish.
Ballan, fearing a straight sprint against his two foes, continued to launch futile attacks that only served to tire him by the time the final meters were in sight. Boonen charged around the Italian, rocketing past and holding off a fast-closing Pozzato to tie the record for wins at the Ronde. With his third victory, the 31-year-old Boonen joined Fiorenzo Magni, Achiel Buysse, Eric Leman and Johan Museeuw in an elite club of just five men who have thrice topped the podium.
And that is a tradition far more powerful than the finishing point of the race in any given year. All of the five men in the triple-winner club won their crowns at different places. Magni won his three (1949, 1950, 1951) when the race finished in Wetteren. Buysse (1940, 1941, 1943) won twice in Wetteren and once on the track in Ghent. Leman (1970, 1972, 1973) won twice in Gentbrugge and once in Meerbeke. Museeuw (1993, 1995, 1998) claimed all three of his victories in Meerbeke. And now Boonen joins the club in 2012, merging his victory at the inaugural finish in Oudenaare with his two crowns taken in Meerbeke.
Did the absence of Cancellara affect the finish? When the Swiss rider crashed out of the race, it set off a chain reaction that allowed his chief rival in these cobblestone races to take the spoils. But many variables were in play, as the new route played some role in the way the peloton raced throughout the six hours on the roads of Flemish Belgium and both the tactics and the prevailing wind were major factors in the way the race concluded in the final kilometers.
In the end, every rider has to deal with these variables every year. No two races are ever the same, even if you could completely control the route and the surface conditions and the climate. Ultimately Boonen now holds an edge in the two cobblestone classics against Cancellara, with the 2012 Tour of Flanders title making it an even half-dozen for the Belgian between his home race and Paris-Roubaix, against just three total in the two races for the Swiss rider. With Cancellara out of commission on Easter Sunday, every eye will be following Boonen as they course over the weathered roads of the Hell that is Paris-Roubaix.
Can Boonen match another record and tie Roger de Vlaeminck’s record with a fourth title in the Roubaix Velodrome on Sunday? Last year’s champion Johan Vansummeren, who survived the final five kilometers of the race on a flat rear tire to pull a Cancellara-like solo victory over none other than Cancellara himself, will be on the line hoping to defend his title and thwart the ambitions of the generation’s other premier cobblestone specialist. 2007 champion Stuart O’Grady will be hoping for some graybeard magic as he leads the new Australian GreenEDGE team as a 38-year-old veteran. Nobody else among the 25 teams has ever previously lofted the cobblestone trophy overhead in Roubaix.
One thing is certain — whoever does ultimately prevail in the velodrome, whether in a sprint finish or alone to fully bask in the glory, will be a worthy champion. Kismet is cruel sometimes, but the two-hundred challengers that will toe the line in the Parisian suburb of Compiègne and everyone who manages to endure 27 stretches of cobblestone roads to arrive upright in Roubaix will not be any less worthy of adulation for the absence of this or that rider from the field.