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Rainbow of the Century: Sagan vs. Boonen!

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Peter Sagan has mounted a Rainbow Defense for the ages. The question is, how many ages?

Dirk Waem

First off, let me tell you how refreshing it is to come up for air after the Giro. Lord knows how much I love that race, but I'm not that into doing anything, non-stop, for close to four weeks. Thanks to all the contributors for making it an excellent time -- not wasted, as it happens, thanks to a great race. But it pleases me to no end seeing a Dauphine preview in the editorial cue. Next!

During the Giro, some of you may have noticed Cycling's Other May Race, the Amgen Tour of California, where Peter Sagan, your current World Champion, made his usual push to have the race renamed after him, winning two stages, and launching a goddam solo break on stage 7, where he got caught with 20km remaining and still kicked out a sprint where he lost by half a wheel to Alexander Kristoff. After winning the whole thing last year, and extending his record of ATOC stage wins this year, they should be writing songs about him by now in California. [And a topic for another day is why no American team is planning to break the bank for his signature this winter.]

These exploits only begin to make his Rainbow case. Backing up, the world championship is a special title -- it comes with the most recognizable year-long jersey distinction, and even if the WCs can be a little arbitrary at times, it's still a hard day and the winner is almost never someone who doesn't possess some real quality. Riders treasure the distinction as a lifetime palmare, and somewhere in Italy right now Paolo Bettini is writing up a grocery list using his five-color rainbow pen. But nowadays it's impossible to discuss the rights of the World Champion without discussing the responsibilities. I'm not sure if this was always a thing, but the early 2000s were marked by a string of disappearing Rainbows, from the bad luck cases (e.g. Oscar Freire) to the guys whose subsequent campaign undid whatever good the championship meant (Romans Vainsteins?).

Without unpacking all the bad news, let's flip the script back to Sagan and ask, is he the best World Champion (so far) in the new Millennium? So far, he is the top scoring rider in every points system this season -- he leads Kristoff in the Podium Cafe World Rankings by 1,956 points to 1,135; he has a slim lead over Alejandro Valverde at Cycling Quotient; and for what it's worth, he leads the UCI World Tour rankings healthily, 2,283 points to Valverde's 1,769. These are blowout numbers.

One person (plus his legions of fans) is clearing their throat rather pointedly right now: Tom Boonen. The Campionissimo of the Classics wore the Rainbow Jersey in 2006, following his sprint victory in Madrid that, based on the season he had, seemed almost pre-ordained. Boonen came out flying in the Rainbow kit and put up what til now was almost surely the best rainbow defense of the new age. So who's looking Rainbow-est so far? How does Sagan's campaign line up to date with the current standard-bearer? Let's dive in.

Wins

As of June 1, Sagan has won four races: two ATOC stages, Gent-Wevelgem and the Ronde van Vlaanderen.

As of June 1, 2006, Boonen had won 14 races. Five of those were on the Arabian Peninsula, two more at the Ronde van Belgie, one in Andalucia, three at Paris-Nice, and three classics: E3 Prijs, Flanders and the Scheldeprijs.

You want numbers? Those are some big numbers for Boonen.

Quality Wins

Let's get a bit more subjective here. Both riders won the Tour of Flanders and one of the warm-up races, so you can call that a draw. Boonen's two Paris-Nice wins were about on par with Sagan's ATOC wins, at least in terms of UCI ratings, so those cancel out as well.

That leaves a handful of Arabian and home-cooking wins in Boonen's favor, plus a Ruta del Sol sprint ahead of an aging and not-in-Italy Petacchi. The Qatar races were good fun, and Boonen wasn't exactly gifted the wins. I don't recall much about the Ronde van Belgie but my hunch is that people were not really allowed to beat him there. Not that they had a choice. The Scheldeprijs was practically a parade for Boonen.

So the quality wins is more of a draw.

Style

Here is where the real debate begins. Beyond basic numbers, you have to think hard about what each has accomplished. The knock on Sagan was his lack of wins, but he can point to the following:

  • Second in the Omloop, losing the sprint to Greg Van Avermaet but making the final selection.
  • Fourth in the Strade Bianche, again in the final selection but unable to match Cancellara and Stybar in the finale.
  • Second overall in Tirreno-Adriatico, by a single second, to Van Avermaet after a tightly-fought time trial.
  • Second in E3 Prijs, once again making the two-rider finale but unable to beat Kwiatkowski.
  • Joined the final selection in Gent-Wevelgem, and finished it off.
  • Rode away from the pack in Flanders, including legendary Flandrien Fabian Cancellara.
  • Won a hectic first stage and conventional fourth stage in Cali.
  • Went on a long solo break in stage 7, got absorbed, and sprinted for the win, barely missing out. I mean, who does that?

Did Boonen ride in style in 2006? Um, yeah sure. He was completely dominant in Flanders; his presence in Milano-Sanremo allowed Pippo Pozzato to snag his finest victory; he blasted Ballan in E3; euthanized a helpless Hoste in Flanders, and took second in Paris-Roubaix by going under a rail barrier in the rainbow jersey, which is an automatic non-expulsion. Up until June 1, our comparison cutoff date, Boonen was the king of cycling.

I'm calling this one a draw. Both riders exhibited far more panache and strength than anyone else in their respective events. Sagan's defeats were to great riders, and never to the same guy twice. If you force me to pick I might have to stay with Tornado Tom, but it's very, very close.

Competition

Now things get truly... arguable. Who did Boonen beat in the first half of 2006? His sprints were against Allan Davis and Alessandro Petacchi (the old version). He nudged Steven De Jongh for the Scheldeprijs and Max Van Heeswijk in Belgie stages. His victims in Qatar included Erik Zabel, Robbie Hunter, Paride Grillo and Matti Breschel. Even his Flanders win loses something for coming at the expense of Hoste.

Sagan, meanwhile, wins sprints against some decent competition sometimes, and has only been nudged by Van Avermaet, Kristoff and Cavendish. His classics campaign saw him defeat a legend in Cancellara and a host of strong, credible classics riders like Niki Terpstra, Sep Vanmarcke, Kristoff, Stybar, and an aging but still strong Boonen. Sagan's accomplishments in 2016 come at a peak era for both sprinting and classics-riding talent. Boonen's accomplishments ten years earlier came against a field that was peaking in EPO usage and mediocrity.

Verdict!

My winner is... Sagan! The difference for me is the competition and the fact that Sagan is actually producing his best campaign of his career.  Well, points-wise he's on pace to match his brilliant 2013 season but even that included no monumental wins and his main prize, the Tour de France's green jersey, is well within Sagan's grasp this year. So he is at or near his best with the most prestigious jersey on his shoulders. Boonen's 2006 campaign was brilliant by almost any measure, except maybe his 2005 campaign. At least the first half of it.

I dunno, it's razor-thin. But I just love how Sagan is riding now, more than ever, whereas Boonen just kept being Boonen in 2006. What say ye?

Sagan Wins 2015 Worlds