Is Boonen v Cancellara a rivalry that never was?

I’m sure you’ve read all the 2014 preview pieces this year, all telling you pretty much the same thing: The Tour de France is going to be Chris Froome versus Vincenzo Nibali, with a side helping of Mark Cavendish versus Marcel Kittel, the Giro will become an Aussie battle ground with Cadel Evans and Richie Porte trying to unseat Nairo Quintana, and that we are due a resumption of the rivalry between Belgium’s favourite son, Tom Boonen, and the Swiss gladiator Fabian Cancellara. These two men, with their combined seven Paris-Roubaix cobblestones and five Tour of Flanders bicycle trophies, are set to take up the battle once more, we are told, on the hellingen and pave of Northern Europe.

Yet the last time the two have truly dueled on the cobbles was in 2011, when neither man triumphed, and the last time both have raced each other at top form was 2010. Even before then, the two haven’t actually featured together in the races that often. Since 2005, the year when Tom Boonen began the period of Tomeke/Spartacus domination by winning the Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix, the pair have featured on the podium together just twice in the eight subsequent Paris-Roubaix editions (and one of those is contentious, given Boonen was elevated to 2nd from 5th in 2006 when the three men ahead of him (Leif Hoste, Peter Van Petegem and Vladimir Gusev) were disqualified for going under a train level crossing, despite Boonen doing the same thing as the barriers were rising) and only once in the eight editions of the Tour of Flanders. The two have never been on the podium at Milan San Remo together either, so the question is simple – why are the two seemingly inseparable in the cycling press?

The easy answer is simply that the two are the two men who have dominated the cobbled classics for the last ten years, even if, as the above suggests, they have rarely actually clashed. They have won twelve of the last eighteen cobbled Monuments between them, and have been on the podium seventeen times in that period as well (Boonen had also been third in 2002). They have also managed to do the cobbled classics double, something attained by only eight other riders, twice each. For this reason the media is always keen to try and make them be compared to one another, even though their goals are somewhat divergent aside from the ‘Holy Week’ in Northern France/Belgium – Cancellara is a time triallist whilst Boonen is a part-time sprinter. We have actually only had five real duels between the two: the 2006 Paris-Roubaix, 2008 Paris-Roubaix, the 2010 Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, the 2011 Tour of Flanders.

2006 Paris-Roubaix

Cyling - Paris-Roubaix - Fabian Cancelara
At Paris-Roubaix 2006, Tom Boonen was at arguably the peak of his career – his 2005 had seen him win Roubaix and Flanders, two stages of the Tour de France and then the Worlds in Madrid, following on from which he had won his home event, the Tour of Flanders, in the rainbow jersey – a feat that perhaps could only have been improved by winning it in the Belgian national champions jersey. At Paris-Roubaix, he looked like he would be repeating his triumphs, and the controversy was mainly over the hybrid jersey he had been made to wear in the duel between the ProTour (remember that?) and the race organisers, where the UCI wanted him to wear the all white ProTour leader’s jersey whilst the race organisers, the team and indeed everyone but the UCI wanted him to wear the rainbow jersey. He certainly gave it a good airing, as he first whittled down the group on Arenberg before letting the luck of Paris-Roubaix break George Hincapie’s steerer tube and cause Vladimir Gusev to knock off Alessandro Ballan. Gusev got back in time to see Cancellara, who had previously been known mainly for his prologue win against Lance Armstrong in the 2004 Tour de France, accelerate away, and whilst Gusev held him for a while, by Carrefour de l’Arbe Cancellara was off to a solo victory.

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This wasn’t really a duel between the two then, as Boonen only became second after the three riders ahead of him were DQed for ducking under a barrier – something Boonen himself also did, although he had waited behind the barriers and let the train go past. However suspicion was rife that the disqualifications had been made to get Boonen on the podium for some added publicity. Cancellara had won the race without really racing Boonen, who refused to stand on the podium after the DQs, and so a ‘rivalry’ was spawned – Boonen would have to regain his title from the pretender Cancellara.

2008 Paris-Roubaix

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The fact everyone had to wait three years for this to happen should suggest something about this ‘rivalry’ however – it simply didn’t happen. Boonen spent 2008 being the diligent team mate at Flanders by letting Devolder waltz off into the distance, whilst Paris Roubaix had been absurdly hot in 2007 meaning a breakaway lead by Stuart O’Grady won. Finally though, they actually raced one another at Paris Roubaix, with a cameo from Alessandro Ballan, the previous years Tour of Flanders winner. Cancellara made his moves, but couldn’t get away from Boonen, which meant that Boonen got to outsprint everyone in the velodrome for the second time in his career.  This set up the tactical problem the two would have to overcome against one another – Boonen simply had to stay with Cancellara, knowing he could beat him in the sprint, but then Boonen also had to stay with Cancellara, which meant he would have to keep up with the Swiss maestro’s lung wrenching high speed assaults as he simply rode riders off his wheel. An intriguingly tense situation wouldthus be created – Boonen simply had to stay within a few metres of Cancellara’s wheel, or it was all over.

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2010 Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix

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Typically, we didn’t get to see thus happen for another two years. Coming into the Tour of Flanders, the two were on a high – both were national champions of their respective countries, with Boonen having won stages of the Tours of Qatar, Oman and Tirreno-Adriatico, before taking a second place at Milan San Remo behind Oscar Freire. Cancellara had looked to have the upper hand though – he had won the Tour of Oman, and had also beaten Boonen at E3. Despite the best efforts of the like of Phillipe Gilbert and Juan Antonio Flecha, the pair were soon on there own as the Muur van Geraardsbergen approached, where, in the space of 10 seconds, a seated Cancellara simply rode off, leaving a flailing Boonen pedalling squares. By the top of the climb, the gapwas already impregnable, and with an a slightly downhill time trial on wide flat roads to the finish the only remaining obstacle, Cancellara was never in doubt. Boonen did make some complaints about cramp at crucial moments, but in reality, he was well beaten by the sheer power on Cancellara.

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They got a rematch a week later however, although it was arguably one of the dullest editions of Paris-Roubaix, and not only because the TV camera seemed to be filming in monochrome as the clouds hung grimly over Northern France. All the colour of the spectators on the Muur mixed with those vibrant National champions jerseys was washed away when Cancellara again simply rode off the front of the Elite group with some 50km to go at Mons-en-Pevele, perhaps slightly cheekily given  Boonen had just rotated to the back of the group for a bottle. Bjorn Leukmans had a go at following Cancellara, but was simply asphyxiated off the wheel, as everyone left it to Boonen to chase behind. Inevitably, this resulted in him getting pipped in the sprint for third, and the obituaries of his career began being written as quickly as they had been rejuvenated on the back of the Paris-Roubaix double the year before. Cancellara however would have the shine taken off his double triumph by allegations of ‘mechanical doping’ – essentially that he had  a motor in his bike. This was seemingly based on the fact that he could accelerate without getting out of the saddle, and that, horror of horrors, he pressed something (could it be, ooh, a gear?) before doing so. The allegations have never been supported by any evidence aside from fuzzy video footage.

2011 Tour of Flanders

Ronde van Vlaanderen 2011

By 2011, the careers of the two seemed to be quickly diverging quickly away from one another. Boonen had essentially missed the last three Tour de France races, with a positive test for cocaine barring him from the 2008 event, before the same thing in 2009 saw him only allowed in at the 11th hour, but nothing had come of it. Post Roubaix 2010, he had developed tendonitis and hadn’t raced after being involved in Mark Cavendish and Heinrich Haussler’s controversial crash at the Tour de Suisse. Cancellara was at the other end of the spectrum – he had won the prologue of the Tour de Suisse and the Tour de France, before, going on to win the Time Trial stage of the Tour as well. He had then added a fourth World Time Trial Champions to his palmares.

Boonen had resigned with Quick Step when many seemed to think a new atmosphere would have reinvigorated him, especially in a year when there was a lot of pressure to secure ranking points, whilst Cancellara was one of the marquee signings of the suave and modern looking Leopard-Trek goliath. Boonen arguably had the better results going into Flanders, having won Ghent Whevelghem, whilst Cancellara had begun what would turn out to be a trend by being pipped to the line at Milan San Remo. However, he had then made what looked in hindsight to be a grave error by frankly making a mockery of everyone at E3, jumping between groups, changing wheels for punctures and then sauntering off the front to win by a minute. In hindsight, this arguably just showed everyone that he was absurdly strong, and so the tactics were changed to suit.

So in what was probably the race of the decade, Cancellara counter attacked Boonen with 60 odd kilometres to go, making Boonen look rather tactically naive given his own teammate, Sylvain Chavanel, was already up the road. Presumably the plan was to bridge across, but never the less, Cancellara lost Boonen on the crowded slopes, perhaps aided by the motor bikes and tightly packed fans, before charging off to catch up to Chavanel. Across Europe, fans sighed,  went for a coffee, and began some arm chair whinging about how Cancellara was just too good.

However, the race wasn’t over. BMC, remembering that for all their riches they hadn’t really done anything in the classics, started to chase, and on the penultimate climb, ironically the Geraardsbergen where Cancellara had shown his authority the previous year, the Swiss simply ran out of gas, yet still hauled himself out of pride over the summit of the climb. However, the group was now all together, and his chances looked to be gone. Quick Step were expected to send Boonen on the attack, but when Cancellara dug deep to unleash hell once more, it was Chavanel who took up the chase along with Nick Nuyens.

And yet it was Boonen who would seemingly decide the race. In the last kilometre, perhaps angry at the criticism he had been afforded the last couple of years, he to had blasted off from the group, and was closing on the front three. Cancellara was evidently checking over his shoulder for his rival, and seeing the Belgian smashing the pedals with his familiar nodding style and agonizingly blasting his way towards them, he began his sprint too early, allowing both Chavanel, and with some shock, his SaxoBank replacement Nuyens, to come past for the win. Cancellara was third, Boonen fourth.

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Ultimately, the fact is that Boonen and Cancellara don’t actually race each other that much. There best duels have come in an event that cycling fans know about, the E3 Harelbeke, where they’ve won nine races since 2003 between them, but the reality is that when they come together, the result is often that someone else wins as they quench each others fire. It is telling that the last two years have seen each win everything with the other absent, but that when both are together, it is much more common neither win. Perhaps that’s why everyone is compelled by the tale of the two best cobble riders of their generation: simply because the rarity of their clashes has kept it vintage, and ensured that their story is a long burning show rather than a flash in the pan. As for 2014? Well, they’re both looking strong again, Boonen especially so, and we all dearly hope they’ll both get to Flanders in top form, back on a normalised course after the  unpopular experimental nonsense the organsiers created in 2012. As is said every year, this is the year where the two will finally get to have their showdown…

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One thought on “Is Boonen v Cancellara a rivalry that never was?

  1. Nice article! I agree about the rivalry being a bit idealized, but I really hope they’ll have a clash this year like we saw in 2010. IMO, 2010 Vlaanderen was their best 1v1 fight…

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