The clouds of ‘Cross season have parted and it’s time for me to finally make my entry into the 2018 Road season. So naturally I want to talk about the Cobbled Classics.
The damp squib that has been my last lap in the Editors’ chair is a reflection of my annual prejudice against the winter racing season (defined as everything before the Omloop) and I even couldn’t be bothered to repeat my love of the lyrics to La Marseillaise. Cross is partly to blame, along with the ever-increasing demands of home life, but all that is behind me. Cross is over and I’ve said goodbye to my family until after Paris-Roubaix. I’m going in.
There are two reasons I wanted to start by writing about the Classics. One is that the Omloop is coming up, and for that reason the Classics represent the portion of the season that will start taking shape next, unless you want to focus on Valverde Winter Points Dump Season. The other reason is that it’s maybe the one topic that Froome can’t ruin right now.
So, with that I am going to rank the top ten Cobbles seasons of the 2000s.
How? Arbitrarily, and subjectively, and you can scream your own subjective feelings right back at me in the comments. But I will try to adhere to a system. What makes a Cobbles campaign great? The following:
Breadth of Challengers. Not that the Boonen-Cancellara years weren’t cool in their own way, but in some of those years it felt more like there just weren’t many guys worth talking about. Intrigue is good. Depth among the top teams is good. Quality riding is good.
Competitive and/or Suspenseful Outcomes. The opposite of this would be Boonen launching from 60km and winning solo in Roubaix. But these are two different subcategories. A competitive race is one that might end with a solo winner, but was fought gallantly along the way. A suspenseful outcome might be more like last year’s Velodrome sprint. Both at the same time is even better.
Iconic Riders or Moments. Pretty self-explanatory. The point we are trying to get at is whether we will remember much about a particular campaign, which definitely isn’t always the case. Even from not that long ago. I suppose the first two categories are answering the same question from a more conventional approach to what we find memorable, so this last factor is more along the lines of, was there anything else unforgettable about that season?
OK, let’s get started.
Off the list: 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2007, 2009, 2014, 2015. There were some memorable moments in here, to be sure. In 2000 we got Museeuw pointing at his no-longer-gangrenous knee in the Roubaix velodrome, and the 2002 Roubaix was when we all met Tom Boonen. There were worthy winners along the way in each season, such as Andrea Tafi or Stuart O’Grady or Magnus Backstedt, and memorable moments like Thor Hushovd crashing in 2009 in France or Steffen Wesemann’s escape from the bumbling Belgians in 2002 Flanders, but there just wasn’t enough in these years to make the list. 2007 comes close but that was mostly about Boonen winning everything in sight until the Monuments. And while Flanders was shocking, Ballan’s later years took off some of the shine. Basically, you can’t have a top ten with 15 items so someone had to go.
10. Anno 2003
Omloop: Johan Museeuw; Dwars: Robbie McEwen; E3: Steven de Jongh; Gent-Wevelgem: Andreas Klier; Flanders: Peter Van Petegem; Roubaix: Peter Van Petegem.
Breadth of Challengers: Pretty good. The winners reflect a Lion of Flanders, a couple Cobbles warriors from central casting (PVP, Klier), the beloved Franck Vandenbroucke, young Tom Boonen and Stijn Devolder (who each took a podium that spring), sorta young Paolo Bettini, and the sprinting star McEwen. Klier doesn’t generate a lot of nostalgia but he’s all over this list for the earlier entries.
Competitive/Suspenseful Outcomes: Flanders and Roubaix were both super-tight nailbiters. Not that one would want to process that too much, given the sport’s problems back then. But for the two Monuments to be a three-up sprint in Roubaix and the top ten in Flanders all finishing in sight of one another, with Van Petegem winning over VDB by a mere two seconds — this was a great battle.
Iconic Moments/Riders: Van Petegem and Vandenbroucke summiting the Kapelmuur together was a mix of triumph and tragedy for Belgian fans, as one beloved son took step one of the Double and another had his last moment of showing what might have been. I don’t really remember these races but I guarantee you everyone in Belgium does.
9. Anno 2008
Omloop: Philippe Gilbert; Dwars: Sylvain Chavanel; E3: Kurt-Asle Arvesen; Gent-Wevelgem: Oscar Freire; Flanders: Stijn Devolder; Roubaix: Tom Boonen.
Breadth of Challengers: Kind of a mixed bag. Cancellara was sick leading up to Flanders and didn’t offer much resistance, so the monuments seemed limited to whoever dared to mess with Quick Step. But in hindsight you also had Gilbert and Chavanel elevating their promising careers, a win from the classy ex-Rainbow Freire, and the first big Devolder moment.
Competitive/Suspenseful Outcomes: Gent-Wevelgem was a bunch finish, nothing too unusual. Really, the best was Paris-Roubaix, where three Flanders champions Boonen, Cancellara and Ballan, duked it out all the way to the line.
Iconic Moments/Riders: Flanders... but not the iconic moment people expected. This was the year the entire peloton glued itself to the wheel of Tom Boonen and watched a fit and frisky Belgian champion Stijn Devolder saunter away to victory. That’s not entirely fair; Devolder was out setting a high pace in a break that included Hincapie and Gilbert, but as they were reeled in by the peloton on the Eikenmolen he attacked again and held a slim lead all the way to Meerbeke. This touched off two years’ worth of delicate discussion about who at Quick Step was working for whom, and Devolder flirting with immortality via a run at a third consecutive win. Really, 2008 would not have been very memorable had it not contained the decade’s most improbable subplot.
8. Anno 2005
Omloop: Nick Nuyens; Dwars: Nico Eeckhout; E3: Tom Boonen; Gent-Wevelgem: Nico Mattan; Flanders: Tom Boonen; Roubaix: Tom Boonen.
Breadth of Challengers: Not great, but not zero either. Quick Step were a dominant team so “challengers” is muted a bit by the fact that several of them were on the same team, and a lot of times it was just Boonen versus Andreas Klier. Van Petegem was still viable, Eeckhout was a regular protagonist, and Nuyens was embarking on a sort of storied career of his own.
Competitive/Suspenseful Outcomes: The sprint in the Roubaix Velodrome? I mean, in theory Boonen could have lost that to Hincapie or Flecha, I guess. Both of the monuments were solidly competitive, with Van Petegem threatening Boonen until the final few km of Flanders. But Boonen’s sprint left little doubt in our minds who would win.
Iconic Moments/Riders: This was the Coronation of Tornado Tom. Boonen won on Boonensberg (E3), scampered away from Andreas Klier (again) in the final km of Flanders, and dusted Hincapie in the Roubaix Velodrome. He’d end the year in Rainbow stripes and permanently enter Belgian Nirvana. We saw it coming before, and really saw it coming all winter when he was but this is the moment it became real.
Venerable Gent-Wevelgem, then occurring on the Wednesday between the Monuments, was won by Mattan when he tracked down Juan Antonio Flecha in the final km, in part by catching the odd slipstream here and there of all the press vehicles following the soloing Flecha.
If you ever wondered why races tend to pull the vehicles out of the gap between the race leader(s) and the chase comfortably ahead of the actual catch rather than at the very last second, well, here’s what happens when you don’t. The best/worst part of this is that the victim was Flecha, who has a black belt in cobbles, but who is also memorable as a guy who is really good at bemoaning injustice.
7. Anno 2013
Omloop: Luca Paolini; Dwars: Oscar Gatto; E3: Fabian Cancellara; Gent-Wevelgem: Peter Sagan; Flanders: Fabian Cancellara; Roubaix: Fabian Cancellara.
Breadth of Challengers: Maybe a little better with the benefit of hindsight than we thought at the time. Then, the big story was Cancellara’s return along with Boonen’s untimely exit (he doodsmak’d his collarbone in Flanders), which made us view the competition as Cancellara versus the world. But in reality the road was full of guys who were gearing up for big things in the near future. Sagan in particular was being groomed for cobbles success, on top of all the other success he’d had, which was pretty much everything.
Competitive/Suspenseful Outcomes: Paris-Roubaix was (and so often is) the biggest hoot of a race, coming down to Sep vs. Fab in the Velodrome. E3 was more of a true slugfest, with Boonen on hand for Quick Step, and Sagan the closest combatant for the Swiss Bear. Not a ton here.
Iconic Moments/Riders: Cancellara’s final Double is the real reason to remember 2013. If you consider him the best of his generation (and there are only two possible answers to that question), then his work in 2013 was his last masterpiece.
6. Anno 2016
Omloop: Greg Van Avermaet; Dwars: Jens Debusschere; E3: Michal Kwiatkowski; Gent-Wevelgem: Peter Sagan; Flanders: Peter Sagan; Roubaix: Mathew Hayman.
Breadth of Challengers: A transitional year, as Cancellara raced his last cobbles and Boonen was struggling to come back from a nasty injury, amid speculation that he’d be done soon too. But the End of the Era was of course the start of the next one, and Van Avermaet’s win over Sagan and young stud Benoot in the Omloop set the tone for the new wave of champions. Hayman added even more color to it, and Kwiatkowski’s inclusion speaks well of the competition that year, since it’s hard to do anything besides speak well of Kwiatkowski. Jasper Stuyven won KBK too. Solid fields here.
Competitive/Suspenseful Outcomes: Flanders and Roubaix were both bloody thumping. I know I wrote about this at some point and maybe 2016 isn’t the precise moment when De Ronde got its new course really sorted out, but suffice to say it was in great shape by then, and it put on a race that was grueling, suspenseful and climactic all at once. Roubaix was a four-man sprint, so you can do the math there too. Same for Gent-Wevelgem. E3 was a Rainbow duel between Sagan and Kwiato. I don’t know if any of these were jaw-droppers but it was a consistently good season.
Iconic Moments/Riders: Cancellara getting dropped by Sagan on the Paterberg was a final chapter in the former’s best-selling book. [Lizzie Deignan’s win in the Ronde voor Vrrrrouwen earlier in the day meant that the Rainbow Jersey won both events. A double rainbow! What does it mean?] Even crazier was Boonen in Roubaix, finding himself with two Anglo riders, and then actually losing the Velodrome sprint to one of them. This is almost identical to Tom Brady fumbling the ball away with two minutes left in the Super Bowl. Not a miracle or a defiance of gravity or whatever, but a very conspicuous change in the script.
5. Anno 2017
Omloop: Greg Van Avermaet; Dwars: Yves Lampaert; E3: Greg Van Avermaet; Gent-Wevelgem: Greg Van Avermaet; Flanders: Philippe Gilbert; Roubaix: Greg Van Avermaet.
Breadth of Challengers: It’s 2016, minus Cancellara, but with a few riders on the rise like Lampaert, Oliver Naesen, Dylan van Baarle and Sonny Colbrelli. With the Cance-Boonen thing expired, the new bigs are a more thoroughly confirmed Van Avermaet, a resurgent Gilbert, the ever-awesome Sagan and the bit-too-quiet Kristoff. Niki Terpstra, Seb Langeveld, Vanmarcke, Zdenek Stybar and others served notice that they should still be taken quite seriously too.
Competitive/Suspenseful Outcomes: Both of the monuments were ultra-suspenseful, one with a solo attack and an elite chase group, the other a bunch sprint to the line. Gent-Wevelgem was another fantastic cat-and-mouse game to the final bit of road. Sagan and Van Avermaet duked it out directly in the Omloop and E3. Fun races all over the place.
Iconic Moments/Riders: Van Avermaet and Gilbert both achieved something special. The former made it to the very top of the sport, a process that began in earnest in 2016, then arguably reached that point at the Rio Olympics, and finally confirmed beyond all discussion in the Roubaix Velodrome, as so many legends are. For his part, Gilbert added a very shiny jewel to his heavy crown, while wearing the Driekleur — Flemish nirvana for the Walloon. But he also had a loosely-placed spectator’s jacket to maybe thank for the win. Although we will never really know, and people in Flemish pubs will argue about this for years to come, which is exactly what you want from your Cobbles season.
4. Anno 2011
Omloop: Sebastian Langeveld; Dwars: Nick Nuyens; E3: Fabian Cancellara; Gent-Wevelgem: Tom Boonen; Flanders: Nick Nuyens; Roubaix: Johan Van Summeren.
Breadth of Challengers: Solid, as it represents the Usual Suspects getting their comeuppance on the Big Stars. Not sure that translates to breadth in and of itself, but generally speaking you had peak Nuyens and Chavanel animating Flanders ahead of Tom and Fab, Van Summeren taking Roubaix off Rast, Tjallingii and some other regular characters, and a somewhat memorable win for Boonen in Gent-Wevelgem. And it wouldn’t be right if I didn’t mention Tyler Farrar’s best run at the Cobbles, with podiums in both Dwars and G-W.
Competitive/Suspenseful Outcomes: The two monuments were cRaZy stuff. Cancellara was at his most dominant, but he blew de Ronde by attacking with Chavanel a bit on the early side, and the pair were caught just before Geraardsbergen. That led to a dozen riders being in contention until nearly the end, and a pretty large sprint to the line won by Nuyens, who we should have been more curious about after his Dwars performance. Van Summeren’s P-R win was straight from the cheeky decoy files, with Cancellara expected to reel him in until reality hit us in the final five minutes of the race.
Iconic Moments/Riders: Definitely Paris-Roubaix, where good-guy Van Summeren was rewarded for a lifetime of hardman pursuits with a cobble and a new fiancée. Cancellara, meanwhile, stopped to squabble with Van Summeren’s team car about why people were being so mean and not helping him. If you want to pinpoint exactly when the word “diva” was fastened to his prominent posterior, this was it.
3. Anno 2012
Omloop: Sep Vanmarcke; Dwars: Niki Terpstra; E3: Tom Boonen; Gent-Wevelgem: Tom Boonen; Flanders: Tom Boonen; Roubaix: Tom Boonen.
Breadth of Challengers: Well Cancellara bit the dust early on, and the story of the year was one guy going on an unprecedented rampage. But before we get to that, I suppose we could mention some of the usuals who, ever so briefly, threatened to slow down that freight train. Sep was still pretty young, even for an Omloop winner, so anyone thinking he’d follow up with a Flanders victory was fooling themselves (cough). Flecha, Chava, Terpstra, Pozzato, Freire, even an early cameo by Sagan as a sign of things to come. But no, not quite the strongest year for this factor.
Competitive/Suspenseful Outcomes: It all seems too inevitable now, but at the time we didn’t think of Boonen as an unstoppable force. On the contrary, he looked beatable on several occasions, with Pozzato coming half a wheel (and maybe just a few more meters of road) from winning Flanders off Tommeke. E3 and Gent-Wevelgem were tight sprints too.
Iconic Moments/Riders: Boonen’s record-smashing performance, where he did the unprecedented E3-GW-Flanders-Roubaix Quadruple. Sure, GW used to be a midweek race and not really winnable as part of the group, so in one sense Boonen just did something that had only been possible for a couple years. But all of the four biggest events in succession is incredible, even before you start adding up his career totals (more records), and even before you revisit his Paris-Roubaix solo attack, where he stuck it to his last few detractors by launching from further out (some 60km) than even Cancellara had ever done.
2. Anno 2010
Omloop: Juan Antonio Flecha; Dwars: Matti Breschel; E3: Fabian Cancellara; Gent-Wevelgem: Bernhard Eisel; Flanders: Fabian Cancellara; Roubaix: Fabian Cancellara.
Breadth of Challengers: Remembered for two guys, but in fact it was a very spicy lineup. Devolder had to be taken seriously for Flanders, being a two-time defending winner, even though he seemed off his game beforehand. Breschel looked ready to bite the ass off a bear, as they say, and to this day there are people who think he was deliberately sabotaged by his team in Flanders. By Paris-Roubaix, Breschel’s head had exploded and he went on a three-nation killing spree, subsequently missing the time cut for the race. You also had peak Philippe Gilbert, late-career/still strong George Hincapie, Flecha, Heinrich Haussler, Bernie Eisel, Terpstra, Boom, Pozzato, Langeveld and a strong Bjorn Leukemans. Oh, and before you give me shit for adding Tyler Farrar to this list, let me remind you that he was taken pretty seriously in Gent-Wevelgem, won the Scheldeprijs, got a podium in the Omloop, and took fifth in de Ronde. So fuck you.
Competitive/Suspenseful Outcomes: E3 was a total barn-burner, I’ll never get tired of watching this finale. Gent-Wevelgem was an equally suspenseful ending with bony kid Sep stunning everyone but Eisel. But it was Flanders we remember as one of history’s great two-man duels between Cancellara and Boonen. Do you need me to go on? Do you want me to? Just say the word.
Iconic Moments/Riders: The image of Boonen and Cancellara on the Muur, each in their beautiful national colors, neck and neck... I’m not sure what to say that I haven’t said a million times, but this was cycling at its best. [I may have written a book about all this.] Add to that the performance of Cancellara in E3 and Paris-Roubaix (the long solo attack) and, uh, I need to stop writing about 2010 before I talk myself into moving it to #1.
1. Anno 2006
Omloop: Philippe Gilbert; Dwars: Frederic Veuchelen; E3: Tom Boonen; Gent-Wevelgem: Thor Hushovd; Flanders: Tom Boonen; Roubaix: Fabian Cancellara.
Breadth of Challengers: Boonen the World Champion, of course, but we were soon to discover the qualities of Ballan, Cancellara, Gilbert, Hushovd, Flecha, Gusev and Pozzato. In their primes were Bettini, Hincapie, Hoste, and Klier, while hanging on to relevance were guys like Wesemann, Guesdon the P-R specialist, Van Petegem, and others.
Competitive/Suspenseful Outcomes: Gilbert’s Omloop win was cheeky and fun, while Nuyens delivered something similar in K-B-K. Boonen barely held off Ballan in E3 and G-W ended in a bunch sprint. Flanders came down to Boonen vs. Hoste on the line, after a suspenseful breakup of the pack on the Valkenberg. And then there was Paris-Roubaix, which I’ll get to in a moment.
Iconic Moments/Riders: Two truly unforgettable ones, in the two biggest races, made this a year that will live on like few others in our memories. Flanders might not seem like a big deal, but it was a somewhat tense affair that ended in a Flemish world champion raising his arms in victory. And then Paris-Roubaix happened.
For the odd person who may not have watched, this entire race was completely off the chain. The heads of state were grouped together in a tense battle when Hincapie suddenly sat up on the Mons-en Pévèle stones with his dislocated handlebars in his hands. Hincapie wasn’t a guy who would never win Paris-Roubaix back then; he looked more like a guy who was destined to get one.
From there the race blew apart when an as-yet-not very well-known Cancellara hit the gas and put Boonen under the kind of pressure he hadn’t experienced in a while. Cancellara sought to reel in Vlad Gusev, then left him behind with an attacking Hoste and Van Petegem, who had ditched the Boonen group as well. Cancellara’s lead wasn’t insurmountable when the race came to a rail crossing, and suddenly the gates came down. The Guev/Belgians group was already passing through and slithered under the gate to continue. The next chase group of Boonen, Ballan and Flecha who came to their senses before going under the gates themselves and getting killed by a speeding freight train that was almost instantly upon them. They sat there, looking around, for maybe 20 seconds as Cancellara’s lead went out beyond the point of return. Gusev, Hoste and Van Petegem were disqualified for going under the gate. Boonen came in second, at 1.48, his legend suddenly under challenge and Cancellara’s suddenly coming into existence. So much happened in this one day, but on top of a riveting season, to me, makes this the top Cobbled Classics campaign of the 2000s.
Want to offer your own details, memories or reordering? Fire away! In comments...