Will 2014 see the last epic battle in the Cancellara-Boonen rivalry?

With Boonen and Cancellara fit and motivated for a monumental win, will 2014 mark the final full-steam showdown in a decade-old rivalry?

Photo: Tim De Waele

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GENT, Belgium (VN) — Fabian Cancellara embraced Tom Boonen on the sign-in podium ahead of Friday’s E3 Harelbeke in a private moment that revealed much about their decade-long rivalry in the cobblestone classics.

Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) whispered into Boonen’s (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) ear condolences over the Belgian’s woes involving his partner’s miscarriage, wishing him the best ahead of their upcoming clashes on the cobblestones.

It was a genuine gesture between the two superstars whose epic battles across the cobblestones have forged a deep mutual respect and admiration, and have lit up the northern classics for a decade.

This year’s looming battle over the pavé and bergs at the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) and Paris-Roubaix promises a watershed moment in the northern classics. Boonen and Cancellara remain the unrivaled kings of the cobbles, but there is a sense that the earth is shifting under their wheels.

While this year might not mark the end of their dominance, there are signs of a looming change in the pecking order. A rising generation of younger rivals is nipping at their heels, with the likes of Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and Sep Vanmarcke (Belkin) ready to usurp the throne.

Boonen and Cancellara, both 33, return to the spring classics intent on re-imposing their rule. Both are driven by the desire not only to stay on top, but also to cement their respective reputations as history’s best classics riders.

With second at Milano-Sanremo and his impressive comeback at Harelbeke on Friday proving he’s hitting form ahead of the holy week on the cobbles, Cancellara looks to have the legs to fend off all challengers.

“The new generation is already there,” Cancellara said. “It’s a new inspiration. I don’t want to get my butt kicked by young riders.”

Despite his stellar beginning to the 2014 season, in contrast, Boonen stumbles into the classics with something to prove following his disastrous 2013 campaign. A family crisis forced him to skip Milano-Sanremo and a crash at E3 Harelbeke left him with a painful right thumb injury, but he has vowed to push on into Flanders and Roubaix.

“I am looking forward to racing against Fabian, Sagan, and the other strong riders,” Boonen said. “This is the biggest week of the season. Despite some problems, I hope to be ready.”

The stage is set for a knockdown, drag-out fight across the cobbles of western Belgium and northern France.

Boonen and Cancellara are at the top of their game — artists on wheels who have bashed their way through a long list of injuries, personal obstacles, and frustrating crashes. And this spring could see the last time the pair hits the holy week of pain and pavé at the peak of their powers.

Tomeke, Spartacus show

Going into Friday’s edition, Boonen and Cancellara had won eight out of the past 10 Harelbeke trophies.

“Tomeke” barnstormed to third in his Paris-Roubaix debut in 2002, earning the title as heir apparent to Belgian classics hero Johan Museeuw. “Spartacus” took a few more years to find his classics rhythm, winning his first of three Paris-Roubaix titles in 2006.

With seven, Boonen owns more monuments — four Roubaixs and three Flanders titles — to Cancellara’s six, but the Swiss rider has one race Boonen never won, Milano-Sanremo, with his two Flanders and three Roubaixs.

Their dominance is unrivaled. Since 2005, Boonen or Cancellara has won at least Flanders or Roubaix each year, other than 2007 and 2011.

Boonen has the upper hand when the resume is expanded to include the other Belgian cobbled classics: Dwars door Vlaanderen, E3 Harelbeke, and Gent-Wevelgem. Boonen has 12 victories to Cancellara’s eight.

Cancellara matches that with uncanny consistency. In the past 10 monuments he’s finished (at Sanremo, Ronde, and Roubaix), he’s either won or reached the final podium.

For many, Cancellara and Boonen have not only dominated a generation, they’ve helped bolster the prestige and rekindle interest in the classics over the past decade.

“I like the way they race their bikes,” former pro and Garmin-Sharp sport director Andreas Klier told VeloNews. “They are very good for the sport. I hope they keep going on a few more years. Their battles are among the best in the sport.”

The 38-year-old Klier knows what it’s like to race against Boonen and Cancellara. A pro from 1996 to 2013, Klier had a career-long love affair with the classics, winning Gent-Wevelgem in 2003, and riding to second in the 2005 Flanders, behind Boonen.

As recently as 15 years ago, the classics were the domain of a handful of Belgian and Dutch hard men. A few solo fliers would parachute in, like Andrei Tchmil or Michele Bartoli, but the classics were almost completely controlled by the riders who trained and lived around the steep bergs and cobblestoned roads.

Klier said that started to change more than a decade ago, as teams started to pay more attention to the classics. And he said part of that uptick in interest comes thanks to riders like Cancellara and Boonen, who helped usher the classics into the modern era.

“This fight between them has helped the whole sport, and has helped lift up to where the classics are now,” Klier continued. “You see how the teams take it so serious, with the right tires, with the equipment, and they have helped a lot to create that. The magic of the classics got projected into the world via those two riders.”

Rivalry without rancor

Belgian journalist Guy Vermeiren, of Gazzetta Antwerpen, said the Cancellara-Boonen rivalry ranks among one of the greats in cycling history, comparing it to the battles between Eddy Merckx and Rick Van Looy, or Museeuw and Peter Van Petegem.

“It’s one of the greatest rivals in cycling, absolutely,” Vermeiren told VeloNews. “But there is a big difference to other rivalries. There is no hatred involved. There is mutual respect. Of course, during the race they fight to win, but there is a camaraderie there that is real.”

Current Trek sport director Dirk Demol has worked with both riders and echoed that sentiment. Boonen and Cancellara race to win, but they don’t race negatively against each other.

“They get along very well. They are friends off the bike. On the bike, in the heat of the battle, they’re fighting, that’s normal,” Demol told VeloNews. “They have a lot of mutual respect. You can it see when Fabian is talking about Tom. There is deep respect there.”

Despite their dominance, it’s perhaps ironic that Boonen and Cancellara have truly squared off only a few times during the past decade.

Invariably, it seemed one or the other fell victim to crashes or injuries that prevented the pair from going head-to-head in the real meaty part of one of the monuments. If Boonen was running great one year, it coincided with a bad run of luck for Cancellara. And vice-versa.

Boonen pulled off his second Flanders-Roubaix double in 2012, the year Cancellara suffered a broken collarbone in the former. Boonen flamed out a year later, crashing out in the first 20 kilometers of last year’s Flanders to open the door for Cancellara.

Yet the results have been spectacular when they have gone head-to-head. In 2008, then-teammate Stijn Devolder attacked early to win Ronde that year, forcing Boonen to cool his jets. He countered the next week at Roubaix, with a doubly motivated Boonen dropping everyone.

Another example was the 2010 Ronde, when Cancellara dropped Boonen so hard on the Muur-Kapelmuur that a rumor went viral that he had a motor hidden inside his frame.

The following year, Cancellara gapped the pack early at Flanders, but suffered a bonk, and none of the Belgian fans would pass him a water bottle, allowing Boonen and others to reel him in. Nick Nuyens won that edition, with Cancellara third and Boonen fourth. That was the last time that Boonen and Cancellara went mano-a-mano at full strength in a major classic.

“Everyone wants to see a big fight between Tom and Fabian,” Demol said. “But there are many other riders who are strong. Anything can happen in race. We saw that with Tom injuring his thumb in Harelbeke. All it takes is one crash.”

New rivals waiting in wings

As Boonen and Cancellara fight to defend their cobblestone crowns, there are plenty of young, ambitious riders ready to snatch them away.

Prime among them is 24-year-old Sagan, who rose to the challenge in 2013, winning or finishing second in every spring classic he started. His victory Friday at Harelbeke and third place Sunday at Gent-Wevelgem put his rivals on notice.

“Sagan won at Harelbeke when he said he wasn’t that good, and he won quite easy,” Demol said. “I saw at [Tirreno-Adriatico] he was ready. For sure he will be there. It not just a battle between Tom and Fabian; there is a lot more to come.”

Despite his success, the pressure is mounting for Sagan to win a big one, either at De Ronde or Roubaix, which he will start for the first time since 2011.

“It’s important, yes, but I also have a future,” Sagan grunted when pressed by journalists. “Yes, I want to do well. It’s still good when I win, or when I finish second, the most important for me is to do the maximum in the race, then I am happy.”

The other rider right on their heels is Belkin’s Vanmarcke. Second last year to Cancellara at Roubaix, many observers have pegged the big Belgian as a top candidate for the next two showdowns on the cobbles.

Yet Vanmarcke also downplayed his own chances, saying Boonen and Cancellara remain on a higher plain.

“I don’t think I am on that level, or will I ever be at that level,” Vanmarcke told VeloNews. “They are so strong, and they have won so much. I think I am a little bit below them, but all I can do is try to work harder and beat them.”

Other hopefuls include Gent winner John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano), but he, too, said he’s a few years away from pushing the experienced veterans off the podium in the cobbled monuments.

“I’m going to go 100 percent on Sunday. It’s the Ronde, it’s one of the biggest races in the world. I’d love to make a good result there,” Degenkolb said. “I am not a favorite … yet.”

Experience counts for a lot in the classics. The distance, the punishing parcours, the weather and wind, all add up to a complex, intriguing Rubik’s Cube on two wheels that requires as strong a mind as motor.

“There is no doubt the young riders are coming up,” Demol said. “Sagan is an extra push for motivation. Fabian knows he has to stay super motivated all the time to see if he can still beat those guys. The big advantage Fabian has is his experience. That helps so much in these big races.”

Going down swinging

Cancellara and Boonen both know they have a limited shelf life. Both have endured injuries, setbacks, and other personal problems, yet have managed to discover the drive and motivation to remain at the top of the sport for a decade.

It’s not as if they’re going to retire tomorrow, but they’re both now 33, and realize that the number of chances they have to tackle the spring classics is diminishing with each passing season. That means both have taken a more reflective, yet perhaps more concentrated approach to this year’s classics season.

Boonen, for example, rolled into the 2014 looking sharper and fitter than he has in years. Part of that comes from the stark reality that there might not be many chances to add more monuments to his palmares. Last year, he ended his season in August to allow saddle sores to recover naturally without having to go under the knife, giving him plenty of time to ponder his future.

“Tom had a lot of time to think at home. He could do anything he wanted, except ride his bike,” Omega Pharma boss Patrick Lefevere told VeloNews. “He’s 33, he knows he won’t be racing in five years’ time. The years that are left, he wants to do the best he can. He likes his bike, he likes training. He can motivate himself for the big races. If you wake up one morning and do not want to train, then you know it’s over.”

Cancellara, too, realizes that he’s entering the final years of his career, and admitted earlier this month that he only finds motivation in the sport’s biggest races.

“This is already my 14th pro season, and one day the day will come when it’s ending,” Cancellara told journalists before Milano-Sanremo. “I want to race with ambitions. I want to stop on the highest level. When you start to win less, I don’t want to go out like that. One day the bike will be hanging on the wall.”

There is a sense of urgency to squeeze the most of what time remains. Each want to bolster his reputation with at least one more big win. One can almost pick up on a vibe that Boonen and Cancellara hope they can go down swinging against each other.

It would be a fitting tribute to the sport’s two best contemporary classics specialists, to see them locked in an epic duel down to the last pedal strokes, fighting over the final climb of the Paterberg at De Ronde, or hitting the Roubaix velodrome together.

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