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Cancellara and Boonen: One Last Battle?

It's a rite of spring, the two best Flandriens hammering it out, head to head. And it may be the last time we see them do so.

Chris Fontecchio

As we ramp up for Omloop Week here at the Podium Cafe, it's time to take stock of the single biggest meta-story there is anywhere. Tom and Fabian... maybe one last time.

cobbled classics

Trek Factory Racing's Fabian Cancellara, owner of three Ronde van Vlaanderen victories and three more strikes in Paris-Roubaix, has suggested he might be ready to retire as soon as the next time he wins a race, if he feels like that would be his crowning glory. Etixx-Quick Step's Tom Boonen, winningest cobbled classics rider in history, has said far less but with two newborn twin girls, and having done everything even a Flemish classics rider could think of doing, it's not clear how much longer we can expect to see him in the saddle.

In the new millennium, no two riders have dominated a men's road cycling discipline for anywhere near as long as these two have. They are joined together by palmares, by direct competition, and even by some bonds of respect and friendliness, as so often happens in the lonely world of sports greatness.

Yup. When it comes to cycling careers, they complete each other. Let's run through their classics clashes briefly. I know I've done this before, but if it's wrong to keep looking back at the classics, then I have no intention of ever being right.

2002: Boonen announces his presence with authority, leaving fallen US Postal captain George Hincapie behind and scoring third at Paris-Roubaix. You don't score third in P-R at age 22 by default. Along with taking 7th in Gent-Wevelgem and in Driedaagse de Panne, this run of results means only one thing: Boonen is not long for an American team's roster.

2003: Sure enough, Boonen has made his first and probably last team transfer to Quick Step. His fifth in the Omloop Het Volk is remarkable mostly because he was fourth among his own teammates. Third in Gent-Wevelgem is more of a team service (back when it was sandwiched between the two monuments and not a target for the Bigs), though he is third of the three-rider breakaway sprint, for probably the last time ever. Cancellara makes his Cobbles debut with eleventh in Gent-Wevelgem and seventh in Driedaagse de Panne.

2004: Boonen wins E3 Prijs, Gent-Wevelgem and the Scheldeprijs. Cancellara's best results are 4th places, in Driedaagse de Panne and... Paris-Roubaix, ahead of Boonen. Game on.

2005: Or not: Boonen wins the Double, plus E3 and second in Het Volk. Cancellara musters 4th in Gent-Wevelgem and 8th in Roubaix, nearly 4' back.

2006: Now it's a fight. Boonen wins Flanders, Cancellara Roubaix. Officially Boonen is second in P-R but only after Hoste, Gusev and Van Petegem are kicked out for going under a train crossing gate (which Boonen kinda did too). Boonen also won E3, for what it's worth. Cancellara was 6th in de Ronde.

2007: Boonen wins Dwars and E3 (over Cancellara in a sprint). Cancellara wins nothing, while his teammate O'Grady does the honors in France instead.

2008: Boonen outsprints Cancellara to win Paris-Roubaix from a threesome including Ballan. Neither rider escapes the peloton in Flanders, which was spellbound by Stijn Devolder.

2009: More of the same, except Cancellara was unfit and fighting back from injury. Boonen won K-B-K also, and got pipped by Pippo in E3.

2010: Greatest of the Great Battles. Cancellara prevails three consecutive weekends in a row: E3, Flanders and Roubaix. Boonen finishes second in the first two, fifth in the latter.

2011: Cancellara wins E3, which Boonen skipped in favor of winning Gent-Wevelgem the next day, but then strange things start happening. Both riders watched Nick Nuyens steal the prize in Flanders and Johan Van Summeren in Roubaix (which Boonen eventually crashed out of).

2012: Boonen goes on the ultimate rampage, keeping Cancellara in check and winning sprints at E3 and G-W, while the Swiss Bear crashes out of Flanders and leaves the two monuments to Tommeke. Statistically speaking, Boonen's run is the best ever, and matches records for victories in Flanders and Roubaix.

2013: Now it's Boonen's turn to be unfit, and Cancellara does the Double, plus E3.

2014: Boonen just isn't spectacular, and the quirky weather (too nice) results in quirky results. Nobody can stop Cancellara in Flanders, where he equals Boonen and others with his third win. But he's relegated to third in Roubaix.

[Aside: Boonen is remarkable in many ways, and one more of them is that his CQRanking page is the only one which seems to be perpetually reloading when I open it. It's like their service is forever expecting new results to come in at any moment. And not for nuthin.]

2015: ?? Both are on decent form, as Douglas, our Cobbled Classics lead, will further examine. Cancellara won a Cancellara-esque power-sprint in Oman, and Boonen was looking win-worthy in Qatar, despite coming up short. Saturday you can expect both to be in the mix, along with plenty of others. I guess we could speculate that Boonen may find it harder to get a good night's sleep at home than in the Middle East, but he's a pro, he'll make Lore get up when the kids start shouting at 3am.

This history is really unmatched in the current era. I'm sure you guys can offer some comparisons for head-to-head greatness battles from cycling history, but I'd have to go back quite a ways, to the classics, for a true comparison. The Tour de France would be the other place to look, but usually we have a clear winner. I suppose Fignon and LeMond had a nice battle, but for too few years. Basically, any time you can identify a great champion, you can also identify someone who was close, but a cut below. Rarely can you say you watched two great champions of equal stature battling head to head for a long period of time, sharing the spoils in roughly equal ways.

Which is to say, we have been living through something very special, from day one of this site's history (January 2006). We will live through that again in the next six weeks, if everyone stays upright. And unless we're very lucky, we may never see such a battle again.