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Tom Boonen vs. Fabian Cancellara: Rivalry for the ages

The world champion and the Olympic champion battled at the classics.

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During the 2008 edition of Paris-Roubaix, Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen powered toward the velodrome together, with Alessandro Ballan in tow. Boonen and Cancellara might never have admitted it at the time, but each man desperately wanted to beat the other to the line. The modern era’s best classics specialists coolly coexisted in the same peloton, their respective careers almost a mirror of each other’s. One was a world champion and faster finisher, the other an Olympic champion and a finisseur of pure brawn. The classics were where they clashed.

The two matched each other’s surges across 20 kilometers of cobblestones, while Ballan simply hung on. Once at the velodrome, Boonen sprinted past Cancellara to take his second Roubaix win. The victory simply added more fuel to pro cycling’s most engaging rivalry, which was still in its early days. And it made Boonen extremely happy.

“I wouldn’t say Tom wanted to beat Cancellara in every race. You cannot race that way, because you will lose,” said Stijn Vandenbergh, Boonen’s longtime lieutenant. “And everyone knows you cannot win every time, but I think he was a little less happy when it was Cancellara who beat him.”

Merckx and De Vlaeminck ride surrounded by follow motorcycles
Merckx and De Vlaeminck enthralled fans in the 1970s. Photo: Getty Images

The power of rivalry

Cycling legends are built on rivalries. Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali propelled Italian cycling into the mainstream in the 1950s; a decade later it was Jacques Anquetil vs. Raymond Poulidor at the Tour de France. Then, 20 years later, Bernard Hinault vs. Greg LeMond became must-see TV. Without a nemesis or legitimate opponent, a rider’s legacy can almost seem diminished. Miguel Induráin was the first rider to win five straight yellow jerseys, but he made it look too easy against an overwhelmed field. In the modern era Chris Froome and Team Sky/Ineos have steamrolled the Tour de France without a serious challenge from anyone else.

Some of cycling’s most emotional rivalries played out over the pavé, made all the more intense and visceral due to the near-naked brutality of the one-day races. The great Eddy Merckx saw two bitter fights on the pavé, first against Rik Van Looy, and then against Roger De Vlaeminck, considered by some the best classics specialist ever. In the 1990s, Peter Van Petegem and Johan Museeuw revived the memories of the great De Vlaeminck-Merckx battles. But it wasn’t until the arrival of Boonen and Cancellara that cycling had its first true rivalry for a new century. “Tom wanted to win, I wanted to win, and we were always fighting all those years,” Cancellara said. “There have always been big rivalries in cycling. I think it pushes everyone to be better, because you want to win.”

Both men stood above the crowd, led their respective teams, and gobbled up trophies and victories apparently with ease. Yet it was their epic battles across the cobblestones of northern France and Flanders that everyone will remember.

Their real and sometimes bitter rivalry would coincide with the classics exploding in popularity, growing to rival the Tour de France on the media’s radar screen.

Two paths, one destiny

Quality riders always reveal their class early. Lauded as a top junior, Boonen turned the hype into hyperbole at age 21 by finishing third at Roubaix in 2004, his first attempt. The winner, the revered Lion of Flanders Johan Museeuw, declared Boonen his heir apparent.

“Tom was one of those riders everyone knew could do great things,” said former director Dirk Demol, a Roubaix winner in 1988. “Of course, you have to back it up. Tom did.”

Cancellara also seemed wired for success, being part of Mapei’s famous 1990’s development squad alongside Mick Rogers, Bernard Eisel, and Filippo Pozzato. Cancellara, whose father was Italian and mother Swiss, grew up in a rowdy household in Bern, Switzerland, where he still resides.

“He was always very self-assured, even as a neo-pro,” says Scott Sunderland, a retired rider and now head of Flanders Classics. “He didn’t know how far he would go, but you could see that flamboyant and strong character in him that makes a champion.”

Boonen rocketed straight to the top, winning stages at the 2004 and 2005 editions of the Tour de France, as well as the 2005 world road title. “Tomeke” fever was born, and Boonen was soon just as much a fixture in the gossip columns as he was in the sports pages.

“I think he got used to being in the spotlight pretty early,” Vandenbergh says. “He never read what the papers said about him. For him, the only thing that really mattered was racing.”

By contrast, Cancellara took a few years to hit his stride. With massive power, he made an early name for himself as a prologue specialist. His breakthrough ride came when he won yellow ahead of Lance Armstrong to open the 2004 Tour de France. At that point nobody expected Cancellara to develop into a classics superstar to rival the ever-improving Boonen. Almost no one, except Bjarne Riis.

From Tomeke to Spartacus

By 2006 Boonen had become pro cycling’s most famous man. His era of cobblestone greatness began the previous spring when he won the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix for the first of his two career Flanders-Roubaix doubles.

And where was Cancellara? He was relegated to spectator status at the 2005 Flanders, finishing 62nd at 10:21 back, but a promising eighth at Roubaix, as well as fourth at Gent-Wevelgem, provided the first hint of bigger things to come. For 2006 Cancellara made a fateful move from Fassa Bortolo to Riis’s CSC team, and the move saw him transition into a self-styled gladiator. It also planted the seeds for the Boonen-Cancellara rivalry.

“Bjarne wanted to build a classics team around Fabian,” Sunderland said. “With his power and time trialing ability, Riis could see the classics potential in Cancellara. We built up a team for him over the winter, and we came into the 2006 season knowing Fabian was going to be our leader. He went to Roubaix that year, and just smashed it.”

Boonen won the 2006 Flanders in the rainbow jersey, and then, Cancellara got his chance to shine a week later. At a dry and dusty Roubaix the following week, Cancellara powered clear on the Arenberg, forcing Quick-Step to chase en masse.

Cancellara attacked again, this time on the Camphinen-Pévèle, and he showed how his time trial power was an advantage in the northern classics. The Swiss rider rode the final 17 kilometers to the line by himself, with Boonen winning the sprint for second.

From that moment onward, Cancellara vs. Boonen became pro cycling’s most compelling storyline for a decade.

“That’s when Fabian arrived, and after that, Tom and Fabian were the favorites every time they threw their leg over the bike,” Sunderland said. “They were like gladiators going to battle. It was a fight to the death in those classics. You leave it all on the road.”

The rivalry grows

Having superstar teammates helps grow any rivalry. Boonen’s presence meant everyone was watching him, a tactic that helped teammate Stijn Devolder win Flanders in 2008 and 2009. Cancellara’s presence opened the door for Stuart O’Grady to win the 2007 Paris-Roubaix, a first by an Australian.

“With Tom we had a guarantee,” said Belgian Tom Steels, a former teammate and director at Quick-Step. “We knew if we did the right things, he would always be there.” Boonen got his revenge at the 2008 Roubaix, matching Cancellara with his surges on the decisive cobbles at Carrefour de l’Arbre, and then using his sprint to win a second rock trophy.

Off the bike, the two lived very different lives. Boonen was under intense media scrutiny, and twice tested positive for cocaine, controversies that threatened to derail his career. Cancellara could return largely anonymous to Switzerland, where cycling was a second-tier sport. As Boonen battled headlines, Cancellara emerged as the world’s best time trialist, winning four world titles from 2006-2010.

The pair was never personally close, and the media hyped up the growing rivalry each spring. Boonen reeled off another Roubaix in 2009, while Cancellara pulled off a victory Boonen could never snatch: Milano-Sanremo.

“The press made it like a big battle between Tom and Cancellara. They spoke very little in the races. They were not the best of friends,” Vandenbergh said. “Tom always raced to win. He wasn’t racing off Cancellara. But of course, when one moved, the other did, too.”

The stage was set for a major battle to drive the rivalry to even greater heights.

Boonen and Cancellara ride up a narrow road with fans cheering on either side
The rivalry hit its peak at the 2010 Tour of Flanders, where Boonen and Cancellara broke away together. Photo: Tim de Waele / Getty Images

The question of power

That moment came in 2010, when both men were at the peak of their respective powers. Boonen wore the Belgian national jersey and Cancellara seemed poised for a big spring.

The big clash at Flanders did not disappoint. The pair shredded the bunch early and then hit the Muur van Geraardsbergen together. As the pair picked away at the climb, a massive throng of fans cheered as Boonen swung to the front. Then suddenly, Cancellara suddenly upped the pace, and he simply rode Boonen off his wheel on the steepest ramp. Once over the top, Cancellara had opened up a massive gap of 500 meters in little more than a minute. It wasn’t as if Boonen had bonked or suffered a mechanical. Cancellara simply disappeared up the road, and there was no stopping the Swiss time machine once he hit an open road in time-trial mode.

The surge left everyone aghast. Days later, whispers of possible cheating began to circulate. A video soon went viral, suggesting that Cancellara had used a clandestine motor hidden inside his bicycle.

A week later, Cancellara’s power was put on display again at Paris-Roubaix. The big Swiss rider accelerated away from Boonen and others with 45 kilometers remaining, and then powered to the finish alone.

Cancellara has long denied the allegations of cheating, joking that the only motor that day was in his legs. Those close to Cancellara say it’s an insult to suggest a rider of his quality would do something so blatantly against the spirit of racing. Others say the technology was too risky or too impractical to use in a race like Flanders.

At first, Boonen didn’t seem to take the conspiracy theories seriously, but years later, even he has suggested he has his doubts. So do other riders.

“Maybe we will never know the truth about that,” Vandenbergh said. “Some guys were talking about it even then. We will never know. I remember Tom saying he was wondering if it was more than just the legs. I don’t know about that day, but I am certain it exists. That is why they are testing our bikes with scans and X-rays.”

Legacy of kings

After the 2010 season, the rivalry hit peaks and valleys as both men dealt with injuries and setbacks. Boonen scored another Flanders-Roubaix double in 2012, taking his third Flanders and a record-tying fourth Roubaix. Not to be outdone Cancellara scored twice more at Flanders and once more at Roubaix.

“Every era has its hierarchy, and these two were right at the top during the classics,” says Australian great Allan Peiper. “When they were racing, they were riders to beat.”

Excitement around the rivalry propelled the entire cobbled classics period to greater heights. In 2012 Flanders Classics moved Gent-Wevelgem to its own weekend and rearranged the course at Flanders in an effort to create a block of racing that rivaled the intensity of a grand tour. Whether this could have occurred without Cancellara vs. Boonen is open to debate.

The popularity of the cobbled classics attracted riders from different backgrounds to the front of the pack. Before the 1990s, the Belgian classics were largely contested among Belgian and Dutch riders. Wave after wave of international riders filled the classics peloton, and more teams have poured resources into developing a classics-style squad.

“Before, it was Tom and Cancellara at the top, and maybe one more,” Vandenbergh said. “Now at the start of the classics you have 15 riders who can win the race. There are more teams being serious about the classics.”

In the wake of their era, new stars like John Degenkolb, Peter Sagan, and Greg van Avermaet came to the fore, but no rivalry has come close to achieving the same height. Cancellara hung up his cleats after winning the 2016 Olympic time trial, while Boonen retired the following season as the franchise rider at Quick-Step, his head held high at the Roubaix velodrome.

Who was best? Each won seven monuments. Boonen won four Roubaix and three Flanders, while Cancellara won three apiece, plus one Milano-Sanremo. Cancellara was the better time trialist, winning four world TT crowns and two Olympic gold medals. Boonen was a better sprinter, winning 121 victories to Cancellara’s 88.

“On the cobbles, they were nearly exactly equal based on how many times they won,” Vandenbergh said. “I think Tom was more explosive, and Fabian was more powerful.”

Today’s peloton is too deep to imagine one or two riders utterly dominating. Even a rider with Sagan’s proclivities has only won one Flanders and one Roubaix at the top of his powers. Perhaps that more than anything else is the testimony of how good Cancellara vs. Boonen was at its peak.