Friday Feature: Clash of the Titans – Boonen v Cancellara

Ahead of Paris-Roubaix and Sunday’s Tour of Flanders (Ronde van Vlaanderen), Kitty and Jack take a look at the prospects of the two hot favourites for both races, Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara. If anyone’s keeping score, the current score so far this Classics season is Tom 2 Fabian 0 …

They’re big, they’re powerful, they love the Classics and the Classics, more often than not, love them.

Tom Boonen has emerged from the wilderness he’s been wandering in for the past few years – and won both E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem with displays of power, style and teamwork. Fabian Cancellara has shown he’s on form and possesses astonishing strength but he needs his team to work for him so he isn’t in danger of just pulling the eventual winner to the finish line.

What does that mean? It means that this year’s Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix should be real rip-roarers. Kitty and Jack pick up the argument …

What has the past few years been like for these two?

Jack: Tom hasn’t quite been at his imperious best over the past couple of years, culminating in a miserable Paris–Roubaix last season in which he withdrew after puncturing on the Arenberg and twice crashing. However, it’s a mark of his ability as a rider that finishing in the top five of Paris-Roubaix, Milan-San Remo and the Ronde van Vlaanderen, as well as winning Gent-Wevelgem over the last two seasons, can be considered disappointing. However, having amassed such an impressive palmares in the spring Classics, he wants to be back on the top step of the podium.

Kitty: Boonen’s definitely got the desire but he’s going to have to get through the man they call Spartacus. Cancellara has been rampant over the last few years, winning the E3, Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix in 2010, winning E3 again in 2011 in an amazing chase-back (see the video in our E3 preview here), and standing on the second step of the podium at Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix, and third for Ronde. This year, he rode away with Strade Bianche and just got pipped to the post (again!) at Milan-San Remo. There’s no doubt that Cancellara is a juggernaut.

What has been the key to their success in these races, particularly against each other?

Jack: Tom’s obvious strength is his sprinting ability, and he’s easily much quicker than Fabian in a sprint. However, his main problem is making sure that Cancellara isn’t going to ride off the front and create an unassailable gap. We’ve seen in recent years that Cancellara has ridden away in quite incredible fashion (cueing ridiculous motorised bike rumours!), and in order for Boonen to have a chance there needs to be a combination of good teamwork and excellent form. If he can stick on the wheel of one of the most powerful cyclists on the planet, he should be able to beat him to the line.

Kitty: I totally agree with you, Jack. If Boonen can stick with him and get it to a sprint finish, you’d want your money on Tom for the win. He’s a powerful rider so, although he might not be as strong as Cancellara, on a good day, he can hold his own until he can make his move. And he’s willing to work with Fabian to break away from everyone else and set up his chance.

Cancellara’s key to success – and almost equally the reason for his defeats – has been his legendary power. When he’s going strong, it’s almost impossible to hold his wheel and if he gets about two bike lengths clear of the field, he’s off and the others are racing for second. But teams know this and, in the past year and a half, have used it as a weapon against him, by just letting him drag them to the finish line before pipping him at the post.

Velo magazine thinks Cancellara can take back his Flanders and Roubaix titles

Can they still surprise each other?

Kitty: They’ve been racing against each other for so long and they’ve been the two dominant men in the Classics for years so they know each other’s games. That said, I think after Cancellara’s defeat at Milan-San Remo, he would surely be looking at these races thinking, “I need to mix it up and keep people guessing.” Whether he can or not is another thing.

Jack: I think that we can all predict how the race will unfold, with Cancellara almost certain to try to attack and ride away alone. In tactical terms, there can’t be much of a surprise element. But Tom can still surprise Fabian by demonstrating that he is still a very capable cyclist, as too often in recent years the Belgian has been easily beaten by the Swiss.

What about their teams? Cancellara was left alone a lot last year, Boonen was stuck in the Arenberg Forest after a mechanical with no help – how are the teams this year going to help (or hinder)?

Jack: Unfortunately there are still stronger classics teams than Omega Pharma-Quick Step, with BMC and Garmin-Barracuda instantly springing to mind. But there are still riders who are very capable in the Classics, such as Sylvain Chavanel and Boonen’s famous right-hand man (and very successful sprinter in his own right) Gert Steegmans, who won the 2008 Champs-Elysees stage of the Tour de France. In races such as Paris-Roubaix, a strong team can be the difference between winning and losing.

Kitty: Of the two, Boonen has the stronger team. OPQS may not be the strongest team on paper, but they are working so well together as a unit, that’s a huge advantage. As for Cancellara, I long for the days when he was with Bjarne Riis – he was a nurturing figure who Fabian obviously responded to. Going to a brand new team (not founded under the most gracious of circumstances) and then the merger with RadioShack hasn’t been helpful. Fabian is always saying he needs things to be just so, everything in the right place, for him to perform at his best. Even if it had been a seamless transition, the change would have given him a little shake. The fact that it wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination has been reflected in his frustrating losses over the past year or so. But it seems that he and Daniele Bennati are working well together and RadioShack say they’ve built a strong Classics team for him. I hope for his sake he does have some sustained help in April. He’s proved he can win on his own. How much more could he win with a strong team around him?

If we’re talking about the Classics, we have to figure in Philippe Gilbert. How are our boys going to deal with the King of Belgium in the Classics?

Kitty: He’s been a bit off the boil this season so I don’t think he’ll be too much of a threat at Paris-Roubaix and Ronde – he’ll be focussing at defending his triple title of Ardennes classics later in April (and I wouldn’t bet against him). That said, in the next few weeks teams might not be watching him that closely and he’s one of the smartest riders around, who sees an opportunity and goes for it.

Jack: I agree. I think that he’s yet to prove his true cobbled credentials on the toughest races of Paris-Roubaix and Ronde, and Cancellara and Boonen should have too much for the Belgian champion in those races. As for the Ardennes triple, I wouldn’t bet against him becoming the first ever rider to win all three in a single year more than once.

What do they have to prove – to themselves, their teams, their fans? Anything?

Jack: I think Tom has to prove that he’s still one of the strongest riders in the Classics. After commenting “I have rediscovered my strength” and his good start to 2012, he should be able to demonstrate his very best by the time the Classics come round. He’s one of the few riders who has become a hero in his own country, who has transfixed a nation. Let’s hope the Belgian crowds aren’t cheering in vain this year.

Kitty: Cancellara needs to prove that he can mix it up and win any number of ways in a race, not just attack, ride with the power of a rocket ship and hope that’s going to shake that annoying person behind him off his wheel and blast to the finish line. I love it when he does that – it’s a sight to see – but it makes it that much more heartbreaking when he gets pipped. He needs to keep them guessing a bit more – and then the rocket ship can take off!

What are our predictions for Flanders and Paris-Roubaix?

Jack: Tom will win them both, of course!

Kitty: No way. Cancellara will work with Boonen to drop everyone else and then he’ll drop Tom. In both races. Champagne on the top step, thank you very much, and a warm handshake to the Belgian below him. All will be right with the world again.

Ronde van Vlaanderen is on Sunday 1st April. You can find out more on the official website here. Paris-Roubaix is on Easter Sunday, 8th April – the official website is here. Kitty will be on Live Tweet Duty™ for both races – so gird your loins for a lot of “Go, Fabian, Go!” or “Tom! Tom! Look behind you! Oops, he’s just gone past you …”

3 thoughts on “Friday Feature: Clash of the Titans – Boonen v Cancellara

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