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A Special Rivalry On the Cobbles

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Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara might not crack the top ten of this Sunday's Ronde van Vlaanderen, but you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone writing about the race and not starting the conversation with one or both of these stars. For a few weeks a year Boonen vs. Cancellara has become one of the sport's great rivalries, something to appreciate if you look at cycling history. Sure, rivalries at the Tour de France are practically a given. Over 21 stages of the world's hardest event the cream always rises to the top (barring a spill), and the media if not the riders themselves will shape the outcome as a mano-a-mano thing. If there are just two prime contenders, all the better.

In the classics there are never just two contenders, two races never unfold the same way (whether you're talking consecutive Rondes or one season's Ronde and Roubaix), and from one year to the next the list of guys making it to the start in top form is forever in flux. It's rare for even the best rivalries to blossom in any consistent way. So let's take a peek inside Boonen vs. Cancellara, and then maybe hunt around a bit for some other Classics rivalries. Feel free to supplement here.

Tale of the Tape!

Op de Flip...

Tale of the Tape!

Vitals:

Boonen is five months older, but as of last week they are both 31. Boonen is just over 6'3", Cancellara is two inches shorter. Their weights are roughly equal.

Origins:

Both riders had illustrious beginnings, Boonen with the Postal juggernaut which nurtured him to prominence and Cancellara starting at Mapei and then Fassa Bortolo. The difference is that Boonen's orientation was always toward the cobbles, something Johan Bruyneel made a hobby of with his teams between grand tour obsessions. When teammate George Hincapie crashed in the 2002 Paris-Roubaix inside 25km, Boonen carried on the chase of winner Johan Museeuw and a star, all of 21, was born. Cancellara, on the other hand, rode some small races in Belgium (e.g. Nokere-Koerse) early on, but both Mapei and Fassa trained him toward the time trials and some targets in his native Switzerland. His crono skills were too good not to tap. But by 2004 so were his classics chops.

Flanders Threads:

Boonen made his debut in the 2002 Ronde, thanks to being the star cobbles pupil on a Tour de France team. It was his first full year in the big leagues, and he finished comfortably in the peloton, behind Andrea Tafi and the four chasers. Cancellara didn't start de Ronde for another year, when he finished 73rd, ten minutes back, in service of Michele Bartoli and a host of other veteran Fassa riders.

Boonen did not progress too dramatically in Flanders, moving to Quick Step where Museeuw was still in charge through 2004. But he was close by, and his Flanders win in 2005 confirmed him as the next big Belgian cobbles star. Cancellara didn't get anywhere for Fassa, but as soon as he jumped to CSC for the 2006 season he raced himself into contention, finishing sixth behind Boonen. After that, he never really threatened for the win until 2010. In 2007 he was targeting the race, but an overeager attack left him gassed when Lampre launched the Benna-Ballan assault on the Muur. Then Cancellara was among the spectators watching Devolder sneak away in 2008. The next year his day ended with a broken chain on the Koppenberg, though illness and injury had already ruined his spring form.

Roubaix Route: Boonen's dramatic debut on the bottom podium step of Paris-Roubaix in 2002 is one of the great breakthrough stories of the new millenium. It landed him a contract with Quick Step for 2003, and though he wasn't featured for two more seasons his ninth place in 2004, just behind teammate Museeuw and only 29" behind the winning quartet, showed he was on track. He won in 2005. Cancellara, meanwhile, was in that quartet in '04, making his the second-most-auspicious Hell debut of the millenium. He couldn't hold Boonen's wheel in '05 but turned the tables authoritatively in 2006, and has been a favorite ever since.

Monument Wins:

Boonen has won de Ronde twice, 2005 and 2006, plus Paris-Roubaix three times, '05, '08 and '09. Cancellara's hardware includes one Ronde in 2010, two Roubaixs in '06 and '10, and Milano-Sanremo in 2008.

Notable Head2Heads:

  • 2004: Cancellara speeds off from Boonen and almost everyone else in the Carrefour de l'Arbe, ending fourth in the sprint.
  • 2006: Boonen responds to Leif Hoste's attack on the Valkenberg and the two speed away from Cancellara and co. for the two-up sprint. A week later, Boonen is dropped by Cancellara who responds to a Vlad Gusev attack on the Carrefour de l'Arbe again.
  • 2007: Boonen outsprints his Swiss rival and a few others for the E3 win. The Roubaix Rubber Match got usurped by Stuart O'Grady's Devoldering of Boonen.
  • 2008: The first great monumental head-to-head (with Ballan) as the three enter the Roubaix Velodrome together following 35 km of trading blows. Boonen takes the sprinting honors of course, though it's hard to see any of the trio as less than equals.
  • 2010: In E3, Cancellara uses some nifty bike handling to ditch Boonen and Juan Flecha for a last-km win. The Ronde developed into the second great monumental head-to-head, one of the all time duels, as Cancellara drew out only Boonen on the Molenberg, 40km out from Ninove. The Muur saw Cancellara's winning move, of course. A week later, knowing all eyes were on him, Cancellara waits til Boonen is distracted and darts away from the head group, for good.
  • 2012: Sunny weather leads to big groups, so Cancellara is left fighting for opportunities to drop Boonen and others before a sprint develops -- in both E3 and Gent-Wevelgem. But Boonen's team and the man himself are too strong, and the results are what you'd expect.

Other Rivals

Briek Schotte -- Fiorenzo Magni

On the basis of results alone, this has to count. Schotte got his second win (in ten tries) the year before Magni rattled off three straight wins, including an epic 1950 mess when Schotte punctured, fell 8' behind Magni, and finished second to the White Wolf by a "mere" three minutes. But the two never did much in Roubaix.

Eddy Merckx -- Eric Leman

Again, history isn't overly accessible, but Leman rattled off three Ronde wins in four years, all in the heart of Merckx's career. The Cannibal, ever hungry for success, undoubtedly didn't like surrendering his 1969 title to Leman the next year, and then finishing third three times before finally winning his second Flanders in 1975. But Merckx got the last laugh in France, with three Roubaix titles while Leman could only muster a single third place.

After that, I'm not sure what you'd call a rivalry. Defo open to suggestions. PVP-VDB? Vanderaerden-Kelly? Nothing as clear as Boonen-Cancellara that I can see. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Photo by Patrick Verhoest for the Podium Cafe