ANTWERP, Belgium — Around this time last year, Belgian Tom Boonen could do no wrong.
His legs were as good as ever, his tactics were flawless. He had won E3 Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgem, and the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders). Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) would go on to win Paris-Roubaix for a fourth time after a brash, 55-kilometer solo effort, the capstone of a surreal spring — even for a man with the results sheet of Tommeke.
At the same time, Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) was nursing a broken collarbone he suffered in the Flanders feed zone thanks to a stray bidon.
The big Swiss rider’s cobbled classics campaign was in shambles. He watched as his rival Boonen won his most-cherished races. Spartacus, if only for a while, was broken.
What a difference a year makes.
It’s now Cancellara who finds himself in stunning form, his surges strong enough to dispatch his rivals, his solo rides to the finish long enough to look back, forward, and raise his hands to the sky. On Sunday, he could have walked across the finish line.
It’s now Boonen whose classics campaign is shot after a string of unlucky crashes. First there was a mountain bike crash over the winter, which resulted in an elbow infection that nearly cost the Belgian national champion his left arm in January. Then there was a hard tumble at Ghent-Wevelgem after which he abandoned. Sunday’s fall at Flanders — which occurred just 19km into the race — was the final blow.
In both crashes this spring, Boonen suffered injuries to his right knee, which, coupled with heavy contusions along his left side, knocked him out of the race Sunday.
Boonen abandoned his Flanders defense on the ground, and said he also wouldn’t defend his Roubaix crown. Cancellara, meanwhile, enters Roubaix week as an overwhelming favorite, taking the place of Boonen last year — his counterpart and much-respected rival.
“It’s tough to have to pull out of a big race like this, but I just cannot cycle,” the 32-year Belgian champion said. “The pain is very strong and it is unlikely to get better in the next few days.”
Boonen said it wasn’t even an “option” to ride Roubaix. He took that hard, not being able to race the monument he dominated just a year prior.
“It’s hard to renounce a race like that, but I really can’t ride. I have a lot of pain and in the next days for sure it won’t be better,” Boonen said. “Unfortunately, 2013 is not really my year, not my number. I had too much trouble this year and then this. Now I really have to be careful with my physical problems. The elbow and the hip are really swollen and painful, all the left parts of my body [are] sore.”
Even with his troubles, Boonen offered praise for Cancellara. “It was a nice race and the strongest won,” he said. Congratulations to Cancellara. Concerning me, I have time to come back and for sure I will try again next year.”
“I was almost next to him,” Cancellara said of Boonen’s crash. “It was really, really sad when I saw him crashing. Of course, it’s always sad to see generally, but of course, with the respect I have toward him. I know what’s happened with me last year. Tom’s last few weeks and months, he had a really tough period. This, especially today, he does not deserve it at all.”
Cancellara lamented the fact that Boonen wasn’t in his best shape throughout his cobbled campaign, wanting to win races only when his rivals were in top form as well. But it wasn’t meant to be, at least this year.
“Tom is a rider that should be up there to battle with the best ones because he’s also one of the best riders we have in these races,” Cancellara said. “I think for his supporters, the Belgian people, the whole Flanders country, it was not maybe this Easter day that was expected. But I hope, still, with my win, Belgium is happy with that.”
Belgium will have to wait for a chance to be any happier until next year.