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Boonen Week: Fabian and Tom Made History Together

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The Rivalry that defined a generation of cycling

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Greatness came early for Tom Boonen, a monument winner in 2005 at the age of 24. Truly remarkable achievement. But do you know who nearly beat him by a year? Fabian Cancellara.

This is one of the more entertaining editions of Paris-Roubaix. with highlights including a devastating puncture by Johan Museeuw in his last cobbled classic, and of course the utterly prophetic spectacle of Leif Hoste on the attack, only to be felled by a Lion of Flanders flag getting wrapped in his wheel. Anyway, the end result was that four riders got free of Museeuw, Tom Boonen and George Hincapie, and sprinted it out in the velodrome. Cancellara was one, and finished last of the four, after pretty much leading out the sprint for an entire velodrome lap. That bit of inexperience prevented his story from getting off the ground before even Boonen's.

Backstedt wins Paris Roubaix Lars Ronbog, Getty

That's Fabs in Fassa Bortolo colors. Forgotten years to all but his die-hard fans.

A year later, with Museeuw's torch being passed in front of our eyes, Cancellara missed the winning move and got eighth, enough to serve future notice to those paying close attention. But by 2006, we all knew him. By then the stop-Boonen movement was in full force, and Cancellara was the guy who stopped him.

Cancellara wins 2006 P-R Franck Fife, AFP/Getty

From that day forward, Cancellara and Boonen were spoken of as more or less equals, at least in the classics. They will always be different riders in important ways, but more than that, they will be linked together in cycling history for all time. They battled each other, not in a coincidental way but in a way that the Red Sox and Yankees do battle (or did in their peak years) -- deliberately, openly, and in ways which made both riders stronger, and all of us fans happier. You simply can't celebrate Boonen Week without talking about Cancellara.

Tale of the Tape!

Height and weight:

  • Boonen -- 6'4" (1.92m), 181 lbs (82kg)
  • Cancellara -- 6'1" (1.82m), 181 lbs (82kg)

Comment: Boonen possesses those most prized assets, long thighbones. Cancellara isn't de tank de tank de pletwals for nothing.

Age:

  • Boonen -- Born 15 October, 1980
  • Cancellara -- Born 18 March, 1981 [Hey! Happy birthday big guy!]

Comment: No meaningful difference.

Team Progression:

  • Boonen -- US Postal, Quick Step
  • Cancellara -- Mapei, Fassa Bortolo, CSC, Leopard, Trek Factory Racing

Comment: Both have had pretty stable situations for a cyclist. Boonen especially so, starting with a full pro year abroad on a glamour team and then coming home. Cancellara had two early years on glamorous winners, then a stable situation at CSC, which broke off to become Leopard, the Guercilena project, which changed names and absorbed the remnants of the imploded Radio Shack post-Postal legacy squad.

First Pro Win:

  • Boonen -- UNIQA classic, stage 2, July 7, 2002
  • Cancellara -- Tour of Rhodes, prologue, Feb 21, 2001

Comment: Cancellara gets in the win column while Boonen is still racing U23 (though he was winning in 2001). Fittingly enough, Boonen's first pro win was a stage sprint, while Cancellara's was a time trial. For all their similarities, this is their primary difference.

Career Victories (per Pro Cycling Stats):

  • Boonen -- 109 wins, including 36 classics, 14 Grand Tour stages, 1 World Championship (RR)
  • Cancellara -- 72 wins, including 32 classics, 19 Grand Tour stages, 4 World Championships (all ITTs)

Comment: Hm, those GT numbers must include jerseys and/or TTTs, because Boonen, while a lot of things, is not a prolific grand tour stage winner. Cancellara's stats in the GTs consists largely of time trial successes, which is an entirely separate chapter in his book. As good as he got in the classics, he was/is the best stage race time triallist I ever saw.

Monuments:

  • Boonen -- 3x Ronde van Vlaanderen, 4x Paris-Roubaix
  • Cancellara -- 3x Ronde van Vlaanderen, 3x Paris-Roubaix, 1x Milano-Sanremo

Comment: It's weird, I always thought of Cancellara as the perfect engine for Paris-Roubaix, where you don't need to do anything dramatic but be strong as a goddam ox all day long. Pre-2012, de Ronde seemed more likely to encourage sprint winners. And yet, in their era, Boonen has sprinted to three victories in Roubaix, while Cancellara has sprinted four times in the velodrome, with one win and three defeats.

Other Classic Wins:

  • Boonen -- 5x E3 Prijs, 3x Gent-Wevelgem, 2x Scheldeprijs, 3x K-B-K, 1x Paris-Brussels, 1x Dwars door Vlaanderen
  • Cancellara -- 3x E3 Prijs, 3x Strade Bianche

Comment: Nationality counts for a lot in how their respective careers have panned out. Part of Boonen's greatness and importance to Belgian fans is the overwhelming number of wins he's scored in Belgium, or just over the border (Roubaix). Cancellara isn't Belgian. He's an honorary Belgian, but even that doesn't hone his focus on the classics the way national identity does for Boonen.

Head to Head:

  • Total number of races: Boonen 1,093, Cancellara 1,062
  • Total distance traveled: Cancellara 190,384km, Boonen 181,282km
  • Finished first: Boonen 53%, Cancellara 47%
  • Classic wins: Boonen 11, Cancellara 7

Comment: Boonen's sprinting is again a factor, with Gent-Wevelgem and E3 basically the difference.

Lost Spring Campaigns:

  • Boonen -- 2013, 2015
  • Cancellara -- 2009, 2012

Comment: Arguably 2011 was half-lost for Boonen, suffering a mechanical in Paris-Roubaix. Cancellara was around in 2009 but not himself and DNF'd in Flanders after breaking his chain on the Koppenberg. Each rider scored one Double in the other's absence.

Cancellara stuck in 2009 Flanders Lars Ronbog, Getty

How Did They Affect Each Other?

On to some narratives. It's nice to think that they drove each other to higher heights, and if you read their interviews they'll say sure, but it's hard to know exactly what they believe. I guess we can wait for their autobiographies. They seem to be friendly rivals, insofar as they seem to be friendly people in general and are often spotted making casual conversation at the start line, but that's about it. On the other hand, we can make some educated guesses based on how sports work in general and conclude that they were both probably very, very good for each other's career.

What Fab did for Tom: This is pure speculation, but there are a few big items I'd list. No question, having Cancellara around makes it impossible to devalue a lot of what Boonen accomplished. But for Cancellara people might say "he just beat up on guys like Hoste and Hincapie," but instead we have Boonen winning each of his major classics directly from Cancellara on at least one occasion, except de Ronde. Onto squishier concepts... Boonen drifted a bit as Jens described earlier in the week, vis-a-vis his Monaco years. Cancellara rose to the top in that time and seized the crown in 2010. By 2012 Boonen was the better rider again. Before 2010, Boonen had barely known real defeat -- just that weird Paris-Roubaix and the 2007 races which were during his not-good years. Maybe they didn't wake him up enough, particularly as Boonen came back to score two more Paris-Roubaix wins. 2010 changed everything. But Boonen's response in 2012 was huge, and surely was driven by the challenge of Cancellara. He was as good as ever, one last time. Oh, and the 60km attack in Paris-Roubaix? Cancellara-esque. If Tom ever thought about his legacy vs. the Swiss Bear, that was the day he did something about it. [Albeit not head-to-head, alas.]

What Tom did for Fab: Not as clear, for one reason -- doesn't Cancellara strike you as a guy who was 100% motivated from day 1? You can't really make someone more motivated than "completely motivated." On the other hand, Cancellara is conscious of his legacy, he mentions it a lot and it sounds a little pompous at times, except that he has 100% earned the right to think about his legacy, because he has an amazing one. Well, Boonen is by far the biggest obstacle to his legacy, or was before 2013, and Cancellara has certainly been forced to reckon with that. The quality of Cancellara's 2010 rampage is through the roof, for one simple reason: Tom Boonen. Moreover, he has forced Cancellara to take risks not involving dragging Boonen to the line in a sprint (Cancellara is a pretty cagey sprinter in his own way). So tactically, Cancellara had to try stuff.

2010 Flanders Francois Lo Presti, AFP/Getty

Who Was Best?

The question is begged. The answer is for you to decide, and argue about til the Judgment Day. A few points.

Pro-Fabs: The entire 2010 trilogy, all taken directly out of Boonen's hide. There is no counterargument to this that quashes this point. There are counterarguments, but they aren't as strong as this single three-week statement. Nothing is. Fabs at his best beat Tom at what was maybe his best. Also, there is the style of wins. Cancellara never really beat Boonen in a sprint, he had to be stronger, and we all know the strongest guy is the awesomest.

Pro-Tom: The numbers. Also, what's wrong with sprinting to win? Also, who owns the longest solo attack for a monument victory, between the two? Boonen does. Is it Boonen's fault that in his very best year, 2012, when he beat Cancellara twice (E3, G-W), that Cancellara crashed out and wasn't there to contest Flanders and Roubaix? Given how those went it's hard to picture Cancellara having evened the score. Sadly we will never know, but how is that Boonen's fault?

The Real Winners: Us

This one I know you agree with. An era of Tom without Fab wouldn't have meant quite as much, and certainly wouldn't have been anywhere near as fun. Think of 2008-09 and spread that out over a decade. Just Boonen versus his teammates. Pass. Think of Fabs with no Tom. Who would have driven him to be so dramatic in his attacking? You can just picture him sauntering away from Flecha or Hushovd over and over again. Cool but nowhere near as fun.

Since 2006 we have gone into practically every season waiting for one or both of them to seize control. When one has done so over the other, it's been like witnessing history. And since the two combined were so effective, when they lost it felt like history too. The rising Boonen-Cancellara tide of awesomeness lifted all boats.