Seven days after winning his record-tying third Tour of Flanders title, Tom Boonen used Easter Sunday to firmly cement his place as arguably the greatest rider in cobblestone history. Without Fabian Cancellara in the field to steal some of the attention, Boonen placed his wheel on the line in Compiègne alongside the other 199 starters as the one rider everyone else would be watching. With a dozen cobblestone sections left, Boonen and Omega Pharma-Quick Step teammate Niki Terpstra burst away on the three-star section at Orchies and gained a fifteen-second gap on the field. A few kilometers later, Boonen dropped his lieutenant on the next section at Auchy-lez-Orchies and set about on his own solo voyage to a rarefied new plane of success.
With fifty kilometers left until the velodrome at Roubaix, the race came down to a matter of clock-watching. Could Boonen stay clear long enough to arrive triumphantly alone? The day was hot, dry, dust swirling behind each tire as bicycles and support cars coursed over the old cobbled farm roads of northern France. Behind Boonen, Flanders runner-up Filippo Pozzato misjudged a corner on the dusty cobbles, sliding and colliding with fellow contender Stijn Devolder. The tumble would cost them both dearly — Pozzato would not be able to finish the race after the crash, while Devolder would remount and ride to an anonymous finish more than eleven minutes back in 58th place.
Two groups of seven riders united with around forty kilometers left in the race, fifty seconds behind Boonen. Featuring four Sky riders, including Edvald Boasson Hagen and Juan Antonio Flecha, the group also contained defending champion Johan Vansummeren and former world champion Alessandro Ballan. As the group behind started to jockey for position, tactically sniping their way collective right out of contention, Boonen extended his gap over a minute as he rode through Cysoing à Bourghelles.
Behind, Terpstra remained in the lead group to mark every move, Ballan and Flecha and Vansummeren and former cyclocross world champion Lars Boom all trying their luck to no avail. Never again would anybody come within a minute of the Belgian, as Tornado Tom entered Roubaix Velodrome alone to equal Roger de Vlaeminck’s record of four Paris-Roubaix titles. Only five of the fourteen chasers would still be together when the battle for second took place a minute and a half after Boonen’s official coronation.
Boonen’s winning move looked much like Cancellara’s victory in 2010, where one decisive acceleration made all the difference. It was reminiscent of his first cobblestone double in 2005, when he overpowered the field as a much younger man. This time around his victories were tactical masterpieces, utilizing the terrain to his advantage in veteran displays of guile. Without his Swiss counterpart around to threaten the attack, Boonen was free to improvise his way to a solo show of strength that belied his new status.
The absence of Cancellara certainly changed the manner in which both cobblestone classics unfolded in 2012. Healing from the collarbone fracture that knocked him out in Flanders and kept him from contesting Roubaix, the Swiss rider could only sit at home and watch on television as his rival pushed himself into a new stratosphere. It was an ignominious way for a two-time champion to view the spectacle, powerless to change history as his contemporary powered free.
But racing on the unforgiving roads of Belgium and France has, for more than a century, been a battle of attrition. The victor is the one who not only prevails over all other competitors but over the course and that particular year’s weather. Luck is always a factor, but the champions also make their own luck.
Boonen’s victories propelled him into the driver’s seat to go down as the greatest cobblestone technician in cycling history. Forget his contemporary rivalry with Cancellara; in one spring campaign the Belgian was able to rewrite cobblestone history:
- His third victory in the Tour of Flanders last weekend tied him with four other riders for the most career victories in the race.
- Winning a fourth Roubaix title tied him with Roger de Vlaeminck for the most career titles in the Hell of the North.
- The back-to-back victories made Boonen the first rider ever to complete the Flanders/Roubaix double twice in a career.
- The two cobblestone classics championships lofted Boonen past boyhood idol Johan Museeuw to hold the all-time record in career cobblestone monuments.
- The last victory in the velodrome allowed Boonen to complete a historic sweep, as he became the first rider to emerge victorious in the quartet of the E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in a single spring.
Boonen still has several years left to continue climbing up the chart of all-time classics greats. (His seven overall titles in the five monument classics — Milano-San Remo, Liège–Bastogne–Liège and the Giro di Lombaria along with Flanders and Roubaix — are still twelve behind Eddy Merckx’s all-time record of 19 monument crowns.) But in one respect all that is left in two of those five monuments is to claim sole possession of the wins records in each race.
The Belgian has never chosen to be a factor at Liège, preferring to recuperate after the punishment of the cobbles and recharge for another assault on the green jersey at the Tour de France. He usually winds down his season after the world championships in September, paring back his efforts before the leaves fall in Lombardy to prepare for another season. The fate of his legend has largely hinged on these two weekends in early April, and on both counts he has proven unrivaled in his success rate.
What lies in store for the two men that have defined cobblestone racing for the better part of the past decade? Boonen is likely to take his coronation in stride as he builds up a base of conditioning for an assault on a trio of goals: more stage victories and his second green jersey at the Tour de France, the Olympic road race in London and the world championships in Limburg. Finally back to the form that saw him dominate from 2005 to 2009, Boonen hopes his summer can yield similar results to his spring.
For Cancellara, the timing of his injury ruined his chances for a third Paris-Roubaix title but are largely inconsequential in the larger scheme of his season. For the Swiss champion the focus of the season was always these two races and then the Olympics and world championships, where he hopes to regain his scepter as the king of the time trials.
Now the other fifty weeks of the year commence, where the two titans of the road diverge toward differing goals. But in the back of both men’s minds remains the rattle and hum of skinny wheels on crumbling roadways, the jarring of the joints with each pedal stroke, and the thrill of competing against a fellow all-time great. Fifty weeks to go until the rivalry begins anew…