Fabian Cancellara v Tom Boonen: the rivalry

With Spartacus preparing to retire, the curtain is coming down on a Classics rivalry

With Fabian Cancellara set to retire at the end of the season, and the future of his biggest cobble-busting rival, Tom Boonen, also uncertain, this year’s Spring Classics mark the end of an era.

Boasting 13 Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix wins between them, no other rider in the current peloton comes close to matching their supremacy on the cobbles of northern France and Belgium.

Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara boast 13 Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix wins between them (pic: Sirotti)

Tornado Tom and Spartacus have simply been a class apart over the past 15 years, and what developed over that time is one of the greatest rivalries, with the two riders seeking to assert their authority over the Classics.

As that rivalry draws to a close, with one final chapter to come at the 100th Tour of Flanders on Sunday (April 3) and Paris-Roubaix seven days later, it’s the perfect time to go right back to the start and relive the best bits.

Back to the beginning

In a country which prides itself on its Classics stars, who become the focal point of Belgium’s sporting world each spring, it takes something quite special to reach the top of the pedestal, though Boonen seemed destined to be Belgium’s next Classics hero from very early on.

Boonen entered the professional peloton just as Johan Museeuw, the Lion of Flanders was preparing to leave it. At the 100th edition of Paris-Roubaix in 2002 – Boonen’s debut race – the then 21-year-old, riding for US Postal as a neo-pro finished third, announcing his arrival as Belgium’s next big star, in a race won for the third time by Museeuw.

Tom Boonen won the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and the world road race in 2005 (pic: Sirotti)

The following year, Boonen and Museeuw were racing together at the newly-formed QuickStep-Davitamon and, after an injury-hit first 12 months, the young Boonen was soon realising his potential.

Victory at E3 come in 2004, then Gent-Wevelgem and Scheldeprijs, and in 2005 he went even better – becoming the first man to win the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and the World Championship in the same year.

His domination was such that Rabobank’s Erik Dekker reportedly said: “I’m happy that I am near the end of my career, since with a cyclist like Boonen the Spring Classics will be rather boring in the coming years.”

As if to prove the point, Boonen won at Flanders again the following year. But Dekker had reckoned against one thing… enter Spartacus.

Fabian Cancellara turned pro with Mapei-QuickStep in 2001, though, better known as a time triallist and lead-out man, it took longer for the Swiss rider to mark his on the Classics than Boonen. However, Cancellara gave an indication of the success to come in 2004 when he finished fourth at Paris-Roubaix – missing out in the final sprint, which Magnus Backstedt won from Tristan Hoffman and Roger Hammond.

It could have been very different between Cancellara and Boonen. Cancellara was a young rider with the Mapei-QuickStep team when it folded and merged with Museeuw’s Domo-Farm Frites team to form QuickStep-Davitamon for 2002, the year Boonen turned pro with the squad.

Fabian Cancellara’s Paris-Roubaix win in 2006 laid the foundations for their decade-long rivalry (Pic: Sirotti)

Cancellara, however, left to join Fassa-Bortolo and so did not become a team-mate of Boonen, allowing the rivalry to develop.

By 2006, he was with Team CSC (the precursor to today’s Tinkoff team), and won Paris-Roubaix for the first time the same year. And the rest, as they say, is history.

First blood Boonen

After Cancellara’s solo victory at Paris-Roubaix, the seeds of his and Boonen’s rivalry had been sown and they went wheel-to-wheel again at E3 Harelbeke in 2007.

This time, however, there would be no late escape by Cancellara and the Belgian triumphed in the sprint.

Tom Boonen won at Paris-Roubaix in 2008, when the two burst clear of the peloton with Alessandro Ballan (Pic: Sirotti)

While neither managed to bag a Monument win that year, Boonen was successful again in 2008 – outsprinting Cancellara and Alessandro Ballan in the final 500m to win Paris-Roubaix.

On that occasion, it was Cancellara – winner of Milan-San Remo weeks earlier – who instigated the winning move, blasting clear of an elite selection.

Boonen on Cancellara

 The thing with Fabian is that, when we are both in shape, we are pretty similar. The only difference is that he has a little more endurance and I am a little faster. I think what I would like to have from him, he would like to have from me. But they are both weapons.

 “Mostly though, I’m really happy that I have been fighting against a big rider like Fabian Cancellara my entire career. I consider it an honour actually, and I think we put on a good race. He never fights or complains. He is great to race against.” Bicycling 2012

Boonen followed the move, and the two – alongside Ballan, who also latched on – worked well together to keep the chasers at bay.

Expectations of a Cancellara attack on the Carrefour de l’Arbre failed to materialise – Boonen later telling reporters ‘Cancellara had cramps up until his ears’.

It played into Tommeke’s hands, and he kicked hardest in the Roubaix Velodrome to seal his second victory in the Hell of the North.

Cancellara was ‘cramping up to his ears’ according to Boonen, and could not escape the Belgian’s attentions (pic: Sirotti)

“If one us would attack, the other one would chase him down,” commented Cancellara. “We were the two big favourites and the fact that we were there in the finale meant a lot to me.”

With Cancellara – by then Olympic time trial champion – out-of-form the following spring, Boonen then added his third Paris-Roubaix title in 2009.

2010: Spartacus storms back

Fabian Cancellara started the 2010 season in fine form, winning the Tour of Oman, and he carried that form into the spring.

Boonen got a taste of things to come at E3 when, with the two leading with Juan Antonio Flecha, Cancellara jumped clear to take a solo victory.

Belgian champion Boonen and Swiss champion Cancellara did battle in the 2010 cobbled Classics, producing some of the most iconic images of their rivalry (Pic: ff2204, via Flickr Creative Commons)

At the Tour of Flanders, however, one of the most defining images of their rivalry came to pass after Cancellara again ignited the race with a burst of pace on the Molenberg.

With 44km still to race, Cancellara, in the Swiss national champion’s jersey, and Boonen, sporting the colours of Belgian national champion, were clear of the chasing pack.

They led the way onto the Muur together, but Cancellara kicked again as they rounded a corner on the cobbled part of the climb and motored away from his rival.

Fabian Cancellara accelerates on the Muur, with Tom Boonen nowhere to be seen behind him (Pic: Sirotti)

Boonen had no answer – and his compatriots in the Sporza TV commentary booth were seemingly lost for words too – ‘AiyAiyAiyAiyAiyAiyAiy’ the best the co-commentator could muster.

Cancellara could not be caught, and entered the record books as just the 12th man to win Milan-San Remo, Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in a career – Boonen has never won the former.

“Aiyaiyaiyaiyaiyaiyaiy” – Boonen is dropped on the Muur in 2010 (Pic: Sirotti)

And he wasn’t finished there either – just a week later, Cancellara bolted clear of the peloton on the Mons-en-Pevele secteur of pave at Paris-Roubaix, and won solo by more than two minutes.

Such was the power of Spartacus, allegations of mechanical doping and motorised bikes were thrown at the Swiss rider – something he has always denied, and a matter on which the UCI insisted he had no case to answer.

Boonen’s quadruple

In many ways, 2010 was the pinnacle of the rivalry between Boonen and Cancellara, with subsequent injuries meaning head-to-head battles have been much less frequent in recent years.

Their reputations have preceded them, too, with rivals riders reluctant to work in groups containing the two favourites, as Cancellara, now at Leopard Trek, found to his peril when he had to do the lion’s share of the chasing as Johan Vansummeren soloed to Paris-Roubaix victory in 2011.

Tom Boonen won all four cobbled Classics in 2012 (Pic: Sirotti)

But both have still enjoyed plenty more success, and in quite some style too – with Boonen dominating the 2012 season in unprecedented fashion.

Cancellara crashed at E3 Harelbeke, suffered a mechanical at Gent-Wevelgem and then had a more serious crash at the Tour of Flanders when an errant bidon in the feed zone led to a fractured collarbone.

While his rival was struck with misfortune, Boonen had no such issues – winning a record-breaking fifth E3 Harelbeke from a bunch sprint to kickstart an unstoppable few weeks.

Cancellara on Boonen

 “Tom and myself are similar riders and we both aim for the same races. For the Classics, we are rivals and cycling fans around the world will remember our battles in Flanders and Roubaix. For me, having a rider like Tom next to me stimulates me to perform at my best.” Bicycling 2012

Just days later, from another bunch sprint, Boonen bettered Peter Sagan to win Gent-Wevelgem and arrived at the Tour of Flanders as huge favourite.

And he lived up to expectations, beating Pippo Pozzato and Alessandro Ballan in a three-way sprint, before putting the icing on the cake with a fine solo victory at Paris-Roubaix.

Boonen accelerated with 56km still to race, joined only by team-mate Niki Terpstra. When Terpstra went back to the chasing group, Boonen continued solo for some 53km to become the first man ever to win all four major cobbled Classics in the same year.

Cancellara’s treble

Lady luck, of course, promptly switched allegiance in 2013 and it was Boonen who suffered the injury and illness.

A serious infection affected the start of his season, before crashes at Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders forced him to retire and ultimately miss Paris-Roubaix with a broken rib.

Boonen and Cancellara did vie for supremacy at E3 Harelbeke though, with Boonen igniting the race on the Taaienberg and Cancellara bridging across as an elite front group formed.

Cancellara won E3 Harelbeke in 2013 and then, in Boonen’s absence, sealed another Flanders-Roubaix double (Pic: Sirotti)

Boonen kicked again on the Paterberg, with Cancellara following, and only six men remained in the front group off the climb.

Cancellara shot clear, still sat in the saddle, on the Oude Kwaremont and went on to solo to victory while Boonen lost touch with the chasing group.

And Spartacus followed it up with another attack on Oude Kwaremont at the Tour of Flanders, before ridding himself of Peter Sagan – the only man to mark his move – on the Paterberg to solo to another victory.

Boonen’s victories at the Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix the previous year had made him the first man to do the double twice in a career, but Cancellara soon joined him by following up his 2013 Flanders win with another triumph at Roubaix.

Who was better?

How do you judge ‘better’? Both men have won a record-equaling three Tour of Flanders titles, but Boonen has four Paris-Roubaix wins to Cancellara’s three.

Boonen has also won five times at E3 Harelbeke, to Cancellara’s three and Spartacus has never won at Gent-Wevelgem, a race much more suited to Tommeke given the latter’s sprinting prowess.

Top of the world: Boonen and Cancellara have been the dominant Classics riders of the past decade(Pic: Sirotti)

Cancellara does, however, have the Milan-San Remo title to his name, which Boonen doesn’t – giving them both a career total of seven Monument wins with the chance to add to that at this year’s Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Will that be the crowning glory?

That said, Boonen has another ace up his sleeve, having also worn the rainbow jersey though – the world road race title having eluded Cancellara on several occasions.

Despite their dominance, both riders have different attributes and it would be unfair to compare Boonen’s sprinting with Cancellara’s, or Cancellara’s time trialling with Boonen’s, so in the Classics alone perhaps it is enough to simply say the two together, at their peak, were the best by far.

What next?

As Cancellara closes the final chapter in his career, and Boonen’s own time in the professional peloton approaches the end, who is next in line to the throne?

There are a number of contenders, not least Peter Sagan, 26, who has already won twice at Gent-Wevelgem, once at E3 Harelbeke and been in the top-five at the Tour of Flanders on three occasions. Can the world champion break his Monument duck this year?

Alexander Kristoff and Niki Terpstra enjoyed a strong rivalry in 2015, but it pales in comparison to Boonen and Cancellara (Pic: Sirotti)

Defending Tour of Flanders champion Alexander Kristoff, 28, is also proving a formidable force in the Spring Classics – also winning Milan-San Remo in 2014 and enjoying multiple top-ten finishes at Roubaix and Flanders.

Though injured this year, after his training camp crash, John Degenkolb, 27, has already won Gent-Wevelgem, Paris-Roubaix and Milan-San Remo and finished in the top ten at E3 Harelbeke and the Tour of Flanders too.

Those three, alongside last year’s third-place finisher at both Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders, 30-year-old Greg van Avermaet, and Boonen’s team-mate Niki Terpstra, 31, Paris-Roubaix winner in 2014 and Flanders runner-up last year, will be among the contenders for years to come.

And is Lotto-Soudal’s Tiesj Benoot the next big thing? The 22-year-old has proven to be a natural on the cobbles, finishing fifth at the Tour of Flanders in 2015, his first year as a fully-fledged, and already notching up top tens this spring campaign at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and E3 Harelbeke.

But whatever comes next, it will take some doing to match the show put on by Cancellara and Boonen, and the special rivalry the pair, the finest Classics riders of their generation, have enjoyed over the past decade. Let’s enjoy the final races between the two and the fireworks they may bring.

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