In April, 1962, Belgian classics ace and world champion Rik van Looy enjoyed possibly the greatest week in the sport's history. On Sunday, April 8, van Looy outkicked Michel Van Aerde and Norbert Kerckhove to win the Tour of Flanders. Four days later, he won his third and last Gent-Wevelgem. The following Sunday, April 15, van Looy completed his historic treble, taking Paris-Roubaix over countrymen Emile Daems and Frans Schoubben.
Now, "countrymen" is used loosely. To hear anyone from Eddy Merckx' world tell it, van Looy was a country of one. The elder van Looy clashed violently with the somewhat shy and vulnerable young Merckx, taunting him unnecessarily and insisting on a loyalty that was not going to be returned. I don't want to try to unpack their legendary battles, very little of which is described in English anyway, but I suspect that the "Emperor of Herentals" nickname wasn't entirely meant as a complement to van Looy.
Still, love him or hate him, van Looy is the only man in modern history to sweep the three biggest cobbled classics in a single week's work. And as dramatic, unthinkable accomplishments in cycling go, it doesn't get any better than this.
Yes, champions of the Tour de France are recognized as the very strongest riders in a peloton of supermen, but winning a grand tour is about consistency and chipping away at one's rivals day by day, occasionally making a dramatic move when necessary. Tour wins are the greatest accomplishment, but they inspire silent awe more than jaw-slacking amazement.
Classics and grand tours are apples to oranges, but one thing you can say is that by comparison there are an awful lot of ways to lose a classic in the blink of an eye. Lose a wheel, make a wrong decision, suffer a flat or hunger knock, and your race is over. There is no tomorrow, there is no point in limiting your losses. Classics are played out entirely in the immediate.
IMHO this is what makes sweeping the three cobbled races more dramatic and amazing than winning a grand tour. The secret to winning the latter is to be stronger and hold things together; to the former, be stronger, bolder (but not too bold), don't have bad luck or misplay your cards, on each of three pressure-packed, fast-moving days.
I also rate van Looy's 1962 sweep ahead of Davide Rebellin's Amstel-Fleche-Liege sweep in 2004... just. Rebellin's historic feat was incredible, but I find van Looy's harder. The cobbled classics are more capricious, more capable of rewarding boldness and punishing bad luck arbitrarily. By contrast, the Ardennes races tend to play out more predictably and the fastest guy in the last km (or ten meters) is likely to win.
I don't know much about the 1962 racing scene; maybe van Looy simply had no rivals. Maybe his famous "Red Guard" phalanx of teammates simply checkmated the peloton. Maybe riders were less specialized and the fastest finisher simply won each time. But ask yourself this: what is hardest to imagine happening in 2009? Someone (oh, I dunno, Alberto Contador?) demolishing his rivals in each of several critical stages of the Tour? Someone (Valverde? Cunego? Rebellin again?) getting hot and matching Tintin's 2004 treble? Or someone -- Boonen, Cancellara, Ballan -- winning Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem and Paris-Roubaix consecutively?
But hey, that's just my opinion. Take the poll and let me know what you think. But no matter where you come down, there is no denying that Rik van Looy was the Emperor of Cycling in April 1962.