Clash of the titans: how Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara brought the cobbled classics into a new era

Ahead of their joint appearance at Rouleur Live 2022, their first ever on the same stage, we ask was Boonen v Cancellara the greatest ever cobbled classics rivalry?

See Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara and a host of other cycling stars, and the latest kit, at Rouleur Live on November 3-5. Buy your tickets here.

Champions are all well and good, but give me a rivalry over a champion any day. The Boomers always tell me about how great it was to see Eddy Merckx grinding everybody into the dirt back in the day, and I can kind of acknowledge the greatness of somebody who is so clearly better than his or her rivals. However, it’s also one-dimensional. I felt this during the Indurain, Armstrong and Froome years at the Tour. And there was an elemental impressiveness to Marianne Vos winning absolutely everything during her heyday. But the part of me which responds to close, emotionally engaging, surprising racing was unmoved through all these eras. I want to see head-to-heads, unpredictability, competitive tension and, preferably, at least some hint of difference in character and approach.

This is why the 2010 Tour of Flanders is an inflection point in my perspective on the sport in the last couple of decades. On a racing and tactical level, it wasn’t hugely tense or exciting - two riders attacked on the Molenberg with about an hour to go, and left everybody behind. Then one of the pair dropped the other on the Muur van Geraardsbergen (then the penultimate climb of the race and the crux of the route) and rode solo to the finish.

See Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara at Rouleur Live 2022

However, the race represented a lot more. The two riders were Fabian Cancellara, who would win that day, and Tom Boonen. Just on a visual level, it was compelling - each was wearing their respective national champion’s jersey, Cancellara in the bright red and white cross of Switzerland, Boonen in the black-yellow-red tricolour of Belgium. The image of riders in bright primary colours trading blows against the dull brown backdrop of a chilly Flemish spring day summed up an era. Boonen and Cancellara were two of the three or four best ever cobbled classics riders, and they’d both come along at the same time.

Tom Boonen at the 2010 Tour of Flanders (Image: Getty/Lars Ronbog)

The best rivalries involve interesting points of difference between the protagonists. Sebastian Coe versus Steve Ovett in athletics was all the better for the ‘toff versus tough’ narrative; Bernard Hinault versus Greg LeMond pitched the gruff, elemental, antisocial Hinault, from rainy, rural Brittany, against the blond, permasmiling Californian LeMond. Men’s tennis is lucky enough to have had a three-way rivalry in the last 20 years: Federer versus Nadal versus Djokovic, and it’s so easy to pick a favourite because each has a different character and each has a different style.

Boonen and Cancellara wasn’t a huge grudge match: they seemed to rub along okay at the time. However, they were very different cyclists with different skill sets, strengths and styles.

Boonen was a prodigy, coming third in the 2002 Paris-Roubaix as a 21-year-old neo-pro when such things were very unusual. He knew how to ride the cobbles and had the natural endurance that a classics contender must have. He also achieved a lot of success in bunch sprints, even though he wasn’t a natural sprinter with an explosive jump, he was just so strong that he could match the best sprinters at high speed. Cancellara’s superpower was time trialling - he was a multiple world champion in the discipline, though he was a late bloomer in the Ronde - though he won Paris-Roubaix in 2006, it wasn’t until 2010 and his eighth attempt at the age of 29 that he won it. Each was successful at the Tour de France - Boonen won six Tour stage wins, Cancellara seven; the Belgian won the green jersey, the Swiss rider wore yellow several times. Cancellara won Milan-San Remo, Boonen won the World road race championships.

See Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara at Rouleur Live 2022

It was in the cobbled classics where the two achieved their greatest successes. The bare stats tell part of the story: Boonen won Paris-Roubaix four times (the joint record), the Tour of Flanders three times (the joint record), E3 Prijs five times (the outright record) and Gent-Wevelgem three times (the joint record). Cancellara won Paris-Roubaix three times, the Tour of Flanders three times and E3 Prijs three times. In almost 100 years of Roubaix and Flanders up to 2005, eight individual riders won both in the same season. Boonen and Cancellara managed this feat twice each in just nine seasons between 2005 and 2013.

The podium at the 2010 Tour of Flanders (Image: Getty/Lars Ronbog)

Of course, like any great rivalry, there’s a great deal of debate over who was actually better. The irony of the Boonen-Cancellara rivalry is that despite both having long careers in which the cobbled classics were a central focus, if not the central focus of their seasons, they so rarely actually went head to head. Cancellara came out best in the 2010 Flanders; Boonen outsprinted Cancellara in the Roubaix velodrome in 2008. Many other years, injury or bad form got in the way of a proper head-to-head. Boonen was comparatively off colour in 2010 when Cancellara was so strong; however when Cancellara crashed out of the 2012 Tour of Flanders, Boonen took advantage and actually achieved the unmatched feat of winning all four of the major April cobbled classics: E3, Wevelgem, Flanders and Roubaix. 

See Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara at Rouleur Live 2022

To decide who was actually better is probably a matter of personal preference and prejudices. For my part, I can’t tell - I just enjoyed the fact that both came along at the same time, because life would have been a lot less interesting with only one of them in the peloton.