I don't know enough about cycling to know the intricacies between all the different races and seasons within the sporting year, but I know that the "Cobbles" events take place in the spring, as distinct from the "Grand Tour" events (Spain, Italy, and the Tour de France) that take place in the summer, but I'm not sure if all spring events in northern Europe are considered Cobbles or not. Long story short, Fabian Cancellara just won the two biggest Cobbles events back-to-back, and although Liege-Bastogne-Liege awaits (won last year by his teammate Andy Schleck), I don't think that's strictly a Cobbles event, so the Cobbles season may be over. And Cancellara (aka "Tony Spartacus") just kicked ass and took names all over the place. On consecutive Sundays, Cance won the Tour of Flanders and the legendary Paris-Roubaix one-day races, in absolutely dominating fashion. A week earlier he'd won another, more minor race, so that's three weeks in a row that Cancellara has beaten the world of cycling. Only Tom Boonen has been remotely close, but he hasn't been good enough, as Fabulous Fabian (he has a lot of nicknames) has lived up to the hype this year as the fastest cyclist in the sport (when they are not riding up huge mountains).
The Tour of Flanders was the first major of the Cobbles season, and thanks to Comcast's long-delayed deal to get Versus back on DirecTV (fuck everyone involved in that disaster), I got to actually watch coverage of the event. Cancellara actually had to change bikes on the fly in the middle of a long stretch of cobbles (streets in northern Europe made of cobblestones and therefore very difficult to bike over) in an absolutely impressive exchange, and then flew to the front of the pack on a famous climb that I forget the name of. Fabian basically went from last to first (at least in the peloton) and then shot off the front and only one man -- fellow favorite Boonen -- could stay with him. Boonen and Fabian took a dominant lead within 5K on the strength of their amazing strength on the cobbled roads and one of them was going to win the day. With about 20 km to go, though, on another climb, Cancellara hit Boonen again (although he claimed he wasn't trying to make a move), and the erstwhile Belgian hero could not keep up with the Swiss champion. Fabian road away to win on his own at Boonen's home tour. Fabian of course is the world's greatest time trialer, so once he had a lead on Boonen, he wasn't going to get caught. And he was very emotional to have won his first ever Tour of Flanders.
This past Sunday saw the two riders again as favorites for the exciting Paris-Roubaix race, a one-day marathon that featured less climbs (or none) but 26 "rated" cobbled sections, including the amazingly cool (on camera) trip through the Aremberg Forest. Boonen was the pace-setter for much of the day, and his efforts had whittled the peloton down to a very select group of a dozen or so riders, including all of the day's favorites - Cancellara, Thor Hushovd, Juan Antonio Flecha, Leif Hoste, Pippo Pozzato, and the fourth-place rider during the Tour of Flanders, Bjorn Leukemanns. Leukemanns, Hoste, and Sebastian Hinault had a 10 second lead on the group, still led by Boonen, with about 50 km to go, when Boonen drifted to the back of the chasing pack during a lull in the action in between cobbles. Cancellara seized upon the opportunity and jumped up from his mid-pack spot and just raced forward, with shocking ease, breaking away from the chase pack and racing right by the three leaders up the road. Boonen reacted too late, buried behind a bunch of other riders, who admitted (at least Hushovd did) that once they saw Fabian go, they realized the race was on for second. Boonen was pretty pissed at the other riders' reaction -- they'd marked him all day but didn't mark Fabian on the move of the day -- and I don't blame him. I mean Thor is one of my favorite riders but that's pretty sad that within 10 seconds of Fabian's move, he gave up on 1st place. But Fabian is probably my favorite rider outside of Andy Schleck so I was pretty damn excited by the move nonetheless.
Boonen was finally able to regroup and lead the chase pack to rejoin the 3 other riders up the road and that group, under Boonen's relentless push, dwindled down to a group of 4 elite riders -- Boonen, Hushovd, Flecha, and Hushovd's teammate Roger Hammond. But Hushovd did prove correct -- by the time they finally started chasing they were 30+ seconds behind Cancellara, the best time trialer in the world, and they weren't going to catch him. The race was on for second. Fabian cruised home some 40K later in a rather anti-climactic finish with a near 2-minute lead (that he had at one point stretched to 4 minutes). I remember the 2009 Paris-Roubaix as a 6-man fight between most of the same riders (sans Fabian, who did not ride well in the cobbles last year, maybe he was hurt?) and it was Boonen in that case who rode away toward the end to victory. This year, Fabian took first and Boonen, demoralized, let Hushovd and Flecha break away toward the end in their "dramatic" fight for 2nd best on the day, won easily in a sprint inside the Roubaix stadium by sprinter Hushovd. Roger Hammond took fourth over Boonen in an uncontested sprint (or lightly contested, Boonen didn't give a shit at that point), while Leukemanns got his second straight top 6 cobbles finish.
So next (in 2 weeks) is both the Fleche Wallone and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, where Andy Schleck (who I've yet to see race this year) will try to defend his title and, presumably, Cancellara will be riding in support of him. But one does have to wonder what else Spartacus will be able to do this year, with the dominant form he's showing right now. No one can keep up with him, much like Alberto Contador in the mountains. We shall see. The Giro is not too far away, and that's the start of the Grand Tour season, and then we have the grandaddy of all cycling events, the Tour de France in July. Contador remains the heavy favorite (he won Paris-Nice in dominant fashion this March) but Schleck will be a top contender and there's another little-known contender called Lance Armstrong who may try to make a name for himself this summer. Actually, Armstrong has raced a little bit this spring and looked bad -- he says he's fine, he just had a stomach virus that's kept him from training hard enough, but I'd be stunned if he can come close to Contador and Schleck. As for the other contenders, well right now, I don't really see any that can compete at that level but that's for a future post to figure out. For now, this is Spartacus's time, and the rest of us are just living in his world. And maybe, just maybe, if he decides to ride the mountains the way he rides these cobbles, he'll be used in the Tour for more than mere support for Andy Schleck. Maybe he'll go out and win the whole thing. No chance really, but with the way Cance is riding right now, I wouldn't put anything past him.