WARNING: If you're not a pro bike racing fanatic/geek, you will most likely be bored by this post. You might be bored even if you are a fanatic, but at least you'll understand the subject matter.
Eleven years ago a chapter was closing in professional bike racing.
For the preceding twelve years, the one day classics-especially the cobbled classics in Belgium and northern France, had been dominated by two men-Johan Museew and Peter Van Petegem. Johan Museew was the more prolific winner of the two. A sprinter in his early years, he had come to understand, with the help of an adroit manager, that his talents would be best served in pursuit of glory on the hard roads of his native Belgium. He had at his service the riders of the legendary Mapei team, one of cycling's true dynasties. On his day he was close to unbeatable-he won Paris Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders three times apiece.
His foil was Peter Van Petegem. Not as dominant physically as Museew, Van Petegem had the gift of focus in the extreme. He had the ability to be at his absolute best when it mattered most: the seven days in spring that Belgians call Holy Week-the Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix. Similarly, he had the ability to almost magically appear at the front of the bunch at the moments when it mattered most-he'd be seen at the back of the peleton, in the cars, 10 K's before a crucial moment in the race-a seemingly massive mistake. Then, as the bunch gathered speed for the bottom of a berg or a turn into the wind, Van Petegem would appear in third or fourth wheel, ready for the crux.
By the mid-2000's these two great riders were long in the tooth. Museew rode his final Roubaix in 2004 and retired that year. Van Petegem, five years younger, had more time left in his legs, but it was understood that he was in the winter of his career. Approaching the 2005 Tour of Flanders, it seemed like that year might represent the last chance for the man that understood the northern classics better than anyone to make one last mark.
No one knew who might possibly replace these two giants, but there were hints at the 2004 Tour. A 24 year old Swiss named Fabian Cancellara had run riot in the opening prologue and worn the yellow jersey for several days. Another 24 year old, a Belgian named Tom Boonen, had won two sprint stages, most notably on the Tour's final day in Paris. These two young men showed obvious promise, but the prevailing wisdom was that success in the cobbled classics wasn't for young men; the races over the cobbles were so long and physically and mentally challenging that a mature, experienced racer was at a distinct advantage.
The 2005 edition of Flanders played out, initially, according to plan. On the old course(it was changed in 2011), the real selection was typically made on the Muur of Geraardsbergen-the final climb of the race. 2005 was no exception-six men made it over in the front group: Van Petegem, Boonen, Erik Zabel, Andreas Klier, Roberto Petito, and Alessandro Ballan. Zabel, having won the Tour's green jersey six times, was a feared sprinter and an obvious threat to win on the long straight drag to the finish, especially since he had a teammate, Klier, in the group with him. Ballan, having been in an earlier breakaway, was a spent force. Petito seemed out of his depth.
So it seemed that the real race would come down to three men-Van Petegem, Zabel, and Boonen. It seemed like there could be a storybook last victory for Van Petegem. Watching the race, I assumed that Van Petegem's problem would be getting rid of Zabel before the finish. I was proved wrong nine kilometers from the finish, and that was the moment when one chapter closed and another began in earnest.
Boonen was on the front of the group, and Van Petegem attacked. That Van Petegem would choose to attack Boonen and not Zabel showed that Van Petegem understood the real threat, and possibly that Van Petegem had seen the future. He knew that Boonen, not Zabel, was the rider that was the most dangerous. In that moment, Van Petegem showed one last time that he understood these races as well as anyone.
Boonen's response to that attack showed why Van Petegem was right to worry. As Van Petegem flew by to Boonen's left, Boonen seemingly effortlessly grabbed the wheel...and then countered, dropping not only Van Petegem but also the other riders in the group. It was an astonishing effort coming after 240 kilometers of racing. Boonen-who, in retrospect, would have likely won the sprint from the small group, simply looked back once, put his head down, and powered to the finish, winning alone.
That was it. That was the moment. The torch had been passed. Van Petegem would never again contend for the podium at a one day classic-in fact, the next year he'd sign as a lieutenant for Boonen. He had seen the future and resigned himself to it.
The rest, is well, history. Boonen would go on to win not only Roubaix but the World Championships in 2005. It seemed that he would be every bit as dominant as Museew, if not more. It wasn't a stretch to imagine a record five wins in Roubaix and more green jerseys.
But the next year Fabian Cancellara would win in Roubaix. His talent, slower to emerge, shone bright as Boonen was having mid-career difficulties with drugs and injuries. Regardless, the two would dominate the classics for the next ten years in a way that has never been seen, not even by Museew and Van Petegem. Every year since 2005, the conversations surrounding the important one day races have involved the two of them-either their current fitness, or their absence. They have been called once in a generation talents that happened to some along in the same generation. Between them they've won 14 monuments and multiple World Championships. They have defined their era.
Now, going into the 2016 Tour of Flanders, Boonen and Cancellara are the ones that are long in the tooth-they're now both 35. Cancellara will retire at the end of this year; Boonen is undecided. As we approach the end of their time in the sun, it's hard to imagine that he next chapter will be as thrilling as the last.
Then again, I'd probably have said that eleven years ago.