LEON, Spain -- Fabian Cancellara's victory Sunday in Paris-Roubaix proved yet again he is not going to give up his throne as king of the cobbles without a fight.
After his injury-plagued 2012 season, Cancellara's win last week at the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) reconfirmed his place at the top of the peloton's pecking order. His third Roubaix trophy Sunday came against another upstart rival looking to usurp his crown, this time Sep Vanmarcke (Blanco), a week after Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) took on Peter Sagan (Cannondale) at the Tour of Flanders.
Sunday's action was tighter than a piano string and the only element missing was Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), who was at home licking his wounds after crashing out of Flanders.
While the buzz is centered on the arrival of the likes of Sagan and Vanmarcke, it's Boonen and Cancellara who remain the center of gravity each spring. Both have endured their share of hiccups the past few years, but Cancellara and Boonen still stand head and shoulders above the pack.
On Sunday, Cancellara completed the Flanders-Roubaix double for the second time in his career. Cancellara and Boonen are the only two riders who have accomplished the Flanders-Roubaix double twice in their careers, a stat that pushes them into elite company.
Over the better part of the past decade, since Boonen's arrival with his 2005 season, "Spartacus" and "Tomeke" have squared off in dramatic fashion to establish themselves as the classics riders of reference of their generation. Their rivalry ranks as one of the best in cycling history and their clashes across the cobbles have delivered some sensational drama.
It's only been over the past two years that injuries and bad luck have knocked them back. Last year, Cancellara's spring was ruined when he broke his clavicle in Flanders, opening the door for Boonen's second Flanders-Roubaix double. This year it was Boonen's turn, with an offseason illness derailing his preparation before he crashed in the opening kilometers of Flanders. His absence paved the way for Cancellara's second double.
It's almost impossible to say who is the better of the two. Both are big, brawny cobble-eaters of the old school, with an insatiable appetite for the pave. By his own admission, Cancellara said Boonen is the better sprinter while he suggested he's the better rouleur.
With his victory Sunday, Cancellara boasts six 'monuments," with three Roubaix wins, two Flanders and one Milano-Sanremo, with six other podiums in those same races.
The monuments are the long, punishing and historical one-day classics. Along with Flanders, Roubaix and Sanremo, the others include Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Giro di Lombardia.
Boonen, meanwhile, has seven wins on his palmares, with four from Roubaix and three from Flanders, plus five other podiums. Boonen has something that Cancellara craves -- the rainbow jersey of the road cycling world champion, which the Belgian won in 2005 when Boonen still brought a fast finishing sprint to the game. Cancellara, meanwhile, has something that Boonen will almost certainly never own: an Olympic gold medal. Cancellara is also one up on Boonen thanks to his 2008 win in Sanremo, a race that so far has eluded the man from Mol despite two podium finishes.
At 32, both riders still have more than a few good years left in their legs. As punishing as they are, the distances and the stress of the northern classics favor the experienced.
The arrival of new riders, such as Sagan and Vanmarcke, will push these two classics dominators to the limit.
Boonen and Cancellara are without question the best of their generation, but they still have some ground to cover when compared to the greats of the history books.
It's no surprise that the irrepressible Eddy Merckx leads the stats chart when it comes to the career haul of monuments, with no less than 19. That number will surely be safe for a long, long time. What's even more astonishing is that Merckx's history-making run came during an 11-year span, from his first of seven Sanremos in 1966 to his last in 1976.
Roger De Vlaeminck, the other great Belgium classics man, won 11 monuments in a 10-year span, a stat that's even more impressive because he was a rival and contemporary of Merckx.
Constante Giradengo, the first Italian "clasico-mano" who raced in post-War War I, won nine, a number matched by Sean Kelly and Fausto Coppi.
Merckx, De Vlaeminck and Rik Van Looy, the Belgian superstar who was eclipsed by the arrival of the young Merckx, are the only three riders to have won all five monuments.
Boonen and Cancellara are the only active riders coming anywhere close to those historic figures. Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) has won three monuments -- one Liege and two Lombardia trophies -- while Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Merida) has won Lombardia three times.
Comparing the champions of different generations is always a slippery slope, however. The peloton of the 1960s and 1970s was a very different animal compared to today's polished, more professional squads.
In Merckx's day, there were a handful of major stars who raced across the entire season, fighting for not only the monuments, but also the grand tours and world championships before hitting the six-day circuits in the offseason. Today's peloton is better paid, meaning that riders simply do not have to race as often or as long to bring home the bacon.
The contemporary peloton is also much deeper and much more specialized than even two decades ago. Bernard Hinault, who stubbornly raced Roubaix once to prove he could win it, is the last grand tour champion to seriously take on the northern classics because they're simply too dangerous.
Riders like Boonen and Cancellara almost have no hope of winning a race like Liege, a race now dominated by sleeker climbers.
Changes in the calendar, especially the decision to slot Liege two weeks after Roubaix instead of its traditional place in the weekend immediately after, have made it more difficult for riders to be able to perform at a high level across the entire spring classics campaign.
Hitting peak form to have any hope of winning any race is more important than ever. Gilbert, for example, pulled out of Flanders this year because he needed to sharpen his form ahead of the Ardennes, and he opted to race the Vuelta al Pais Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country) in a late-hour attempt to gain an edge before the most important week of his season.
Roubaix winners almost always pull the plug on the classics season as soon as they hit the showers at the velodrome, preferring to go on vacation and recover rather than face the hills of the Ardennes. It's the iconoclastic character of Bradley Wiggins (Sky) who might break the mold. Already satisfied with one yellow jersey, Wiggins is taking on the challenge of the Giro d’Italia this season. The Olympic champion, who certainly has the climbing chops to challenge for Liege and Lombardia if he wanted to, has suggested that a run at Roubaix will certainly be on his radar in the coming years.
What remains eternal across all generations is the suffering inflicted by the pave. On Sunday, Cancellara collapsed on the center grass after his win, while Vanmarcke broke down in tears after the victory slipped from his grasp. The morning-after reactions revealed the depth of pain and suffering. Taylor Phinney (BMC) posted on his Twitter page that putting on his compression socks was "almost as hard as the entire race," while Zdenek Stybar (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), the cyclocross star who made a quantum leap Sunday with a sixth-place result, wrote he couldn't fall asleep and walking down stairs was his "biggest effort."
Cancellara, meanwhile, said this was the first Roubaix when his hands didn't hurt. When you're floating on air, the pave seems just a little less painful.