Fabian Cancellara has described Tom Boonen (Quick-Step Floors) as his biggest rival during his career, praising him for his ability to win the biggest cobbled Classics and also for the way he overcame difficult moments in his career.
Cancellara retired in 2016 after a final Classics campaign that saw him finish second to Peter Sagan in the Tour of Flanders. Cancellara won the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix three times each during his long career, often clashing with Boonen, who has won Paris-Roubaix four times, the Tour of Flanders three times and a host of other Classics.
Boonen will retire after this year's Paris-Roubaix and then celebrate with a special event in his home town of Mol. Cancellara plans to be there to celebrate with his former rival. He will also be watching Sunday's Tour of Flanders and next weekend's Paris-Roubaix.
"Tom, along with Filippo (Pozzato) is the rider I've raced with the longest. We competed from when we were juniors until last year. That's cycling. We've both been passionate about the Classics," Cancellara said in an interview with Sporza television in Belgium.
"I figured out over the years that it was either him or me or Stijn Devolder who won all those races. There were no others who lasted so long, they just came and went. Nothing against the other riders, they won, but then they won nothing more. Me and Tom came from another decade. Now they talk about Sagan and Van Avermaet as the new duel but it's still not the same as me and Tom."
Despite being rivals for many years, Cancellara has huge respect for Boonen due to his ability to win the cobbled Classics but also to handle life problems. Boonen admitted he had a drinking problem in 2009 and tested positive for cocaine in out of competition test. It was a low point of his long career but he recovered to duel with Cancellara in the spring of 2010.
"A lot of people forget what he went through," Cancellara said. "For me, the period when he had hard times is more impressive that what he won. When he won, it was like 'Wow!' But the moments when he had tough times are harder than building up to a big race."
"Tom never gave up. He had some tough moments that he went through but he never gave up and was always there."
The 2010 Tour of Flanders is remembered as one of the biggest battles between Boonen and Cancellara.
"I think the race from 2010 had that kind of affect that it stayed with us," Cancellara said.
"I have many moments (during my career) but for sure this race stands out most with Tom because he was in the Belgian national jersey and I had my national jersey. This day has history. He was the favourite and the whole country was looking at the one day but I was there, did a move and won. That's bike racing. I wanted to win and he wanted to win."
Not just waiting for Paris-Roubaix
Boonen is trying to enjoy the final races of his career and remains serene despite the growing attention in Belgium. However, his swansong has not been easy with a nasty crash in Oman hampering his training and racing. He was eighth at E3 Harelbeke and then sixth at Gent-Wevelgem. He is on form but is only part of Quick-Step Floor's strong squad and has often obliged to play a team role. Boonen will only be the outright captain for his favourite and farewell race: Paris-Roubaix.
"I don't think he's just waiting for Roubaix. He'll do the maximum he can do in all the races but there are tactics and situations that go beyond tactics from the team," Cancellara pointed out.
"I think he's got a chance to win one of his final races; it's not only about Sagan and Van Avermaet. There are heaps of riders and other possibilities. It depends on the tactics too. As we saw in Milan-San Remo, it's not that the strongest is going to win. I learnt that lesson too. Sport has certain rules and its good to have them.
"But I know that from Flanders to Roubaix you can change things. You can change mentally, and Flanders can give you a boost, maybe the last little thing you need for Roubaix. Tom can win like others. What we haven't seen from Tom is one shot, a full hammer down attack. Maybe in Paris-Roubaix."