The chaos of a cobbled classic generates dozens of stories in the space of five or six hours. For every well-documented key moment like Fabian Cancellara’s Oude Kwaremont attacks at E3 Harelbeke or De Ronde, or Stijn Vandenbergh’s spectator run-in at Paris-Roubaix, there are countless others witnessed only by participants, told around team dinner tables and at off-season get togethers rather than in newspapers. But even in the sensory assault that is the cobbled classics season, from the snow clouds of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad to the dust of Paris-Roubaix, a few things stand out above the din.
Fabian Cancellara’s 2012 season included a prologue win and a week in the yellow jersey at the Tour de France. For most cyclists, that’s a career’s worth of results on its own. But for Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard), who dominated the 2010 cobbled classics, it was a trying year. After a frustrating, heavily marked classics season in 2011, he looked ready for northern glory again in early 2012, taking his second victory in Italy’s Strade Bianche and a close second in Milano-Sanremo. But a crash in the feedzone at the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) meant that he’d miss another chance at recapturing his 2010 magic on the stones.
On the heels of his Tour de France rebound, another crash in the road race at the London Olympics ended his hopes of defending his 2008 Olympic title in his specialty, the time trial. After days of doubt, he started the race against the clock but could only muster seventh. He called an end to his season in August, choosing to have the hardware removed from his collarbone and reload for 2013.
It was the right decision. With his performance this year, winning the E3 Harelbeke and the Ronde with overwhelming solo performances, and then riding a savvy Roubaix to overcome a favored sprinter in youngster Sep Vanmarcke (Blanco), Cancellara proved he belongs in the pantheon of cobbled greats. With two Ronde trophies and three Roubaix cobblestones on the mantel, it simply can’t be argued.
But it will be. Some will cite the fact that Tom Boonen’s (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) plagued season robbed Cancellara of his competitive foil, just as some argued that Boonen’s storming 2012 wouldn’t have been possible if Cancellara hadn’t crossed paths with that rolling water bottle in the Ronde’s second feedzone. We’ll never know.
What is certain is that the cobbled classics are enjoying a boom time headlined by two bona fide titans, Cancellara and Boonen. For the past several seasons, it seemed they were riding opposite ends of fate’s seesaw. This year, Cancellara was riding high while Boonen bottomed out with a thud. Next year, fans will hope to finally get the toe-to-toe rematch they’ve been waiting for since Cancellara took round two in 2010.
It is also certain that Cancellara can write his own ticket for next year. RadioShack is pulling out of cycling sponsorship at the end of the season, and Cancellara’s contract with the team’s Leopard management company will expire as well, leaving him free to entertain what will surely be numerous lucrative offers. Whether he goes to an established powerhouse or a new or emerging team, his choice of destination can shift the balance of power for the 2014 classics season in an instant.