Does Tom Boonen believe Fabian Cancellara used a motor to beat him in the 2010 Tour of Flanders? Let’s put it this way — for the first time, when asked point blank, he’s not saying no.
The 2010 Ronde van Vlaanderen had all the makings of a classic edition of one of the sport’s most hallowed events.
Pre-race favorites Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara arrived healthy and at the top of their respective games. Boonen had won the Tour of Flanders twice before, though it had been four years since his last Ronde title. Though he had won Paris-Roubaix and Milan-San Remo, Cancellara had never won, and dearly wanted to add another Monument to his palmares. He’d beaten Boonen at the E3 Harelbeke one week earlier, by just three seconds. Both men wore the national champion’s jersey of their respective homelands, Belgium and Switzerland, and when they went clear with on the Molenberg with 45km to go, cycling fans believed they were witnessing the ultimate scenario — two heavyweights, kings of the classics, draped in national colors on Easter Sunday, trading blows across the cobblestones.
The crux moment of the race occured on the most iconic of climbs, the decisive Muur van Geraardsbergen, or Kapelmuur, with 16km to go. What followed has remained one of the biggest sources of speculation — and derision — in the history of professional cycling.
Without leaving the saddle, Cancellara upped the pace and opened a gap. Boonen struggled to keep contact, and was forced to stand. And then sprint. It made no difference. Cancellara opened up a 15-second gap over the top of the Kapelmuur, and with one climb remaining, the world time-trial champion power away, alone, to the finish. His lead over Boonen stretched out from 28 seconds with 13km to go to 75 seconds at the finish.
Video: Cancellara attacks Boonen on Muur to win the 2010 Tour Of Flanders
“If I could have stayed with him, then I think I could have beaten him in the sprint, and I think he must have known that,” Boonen said at the time. “He was never planning on going to the finish with me. The only place where he could attack me is where he attacked me, and he put me into difficulty. I was racing after him at 55 km/h, and he took a minute off me. What can I say? He was the strongest.”
Cancellara went on to win Paris-Roubaix a week later, also alone after a monstrous acceleration, two minutes ahead of Thor Hushovd. Like Boonen had done in 2005, Cancellara had pulled off the Flanders-Roubaix double.
“To attack on the Muur and leave Boonen behind is amazing,” Cancellara said back in April 2010. “When I get old, to be able to say to young riders, ‘At the Ronde I attacked on the Muur, left Boonen behind and won alone…’ not in a sprint, or dropped and came back, but alone. It was the perfect scenario. The gladiator won the battle.”
In the years that have followed, Cancellara has not been able to savor that victory, and he is no longer able to tell young riders about the 2010 Ronde van Vlaanderen without a tinge of suspicion clouding the tale.
In May 2010, a video titled “Bike with engine (doped bike) and Cancellara (Roubaix-Vlaanderen)” was posted to YouTube by Italian Michele Bufalino. Featuring former pro cyclist Davide Cassani, the video speculated that Cancellara had used a motor at the 2010 Flanders and Roubaix races, showing “unnatural accelerations” while seated, preceded by curious hand movements near his shift lever. To date, that video has more than five million views.
Cancellara has steadfastly denied the accusations. “It’s so stupid, I’m speechless,” he said when first confronted with the accusation. “I’ve never had batteries on my bike. It’s quite funny, but it’s become a bigger story and is no longer so funny. It’s a sad and really outrageous story. Believe me, my feats are the result of hard work.”
Video: “Bike with engine (doped bike) and Cancellara (Roubaix-Vlaanderen)”
A Specialized Bicycles video, posted on April 8, 2010 — the day after Cancellara won Flanders — displays his Saxo Bank team-issued Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL3 race bike, still unwashed, with the race number attached. Power data from his SRM head unit reveals a maximum power output of 1,450 watts — presumably from his attack on the Kapelmuur. Shots featuring his right SRAM Red shift lever, while fleeting, do not reveal anything resembling a button that might trigger a motor.
The implausibility of an elite-level rider using a motor became a stark reality, however, when Belgian Femke Van den Driessche was charged with mechanical doping after an incident at the 2016 U23 World Cyclocross Championships. Though Van den Driessche was not caught racing on a motorized bicycle, a spare bike with a motor was found in her pit area. Van den Driessche said the bike belonged to a friend, and was used for motorpacing; in April 2016, the UCI suspended her for six years.
The topic resurfaced late last year in a book, Draft Animals, written by retired WorldTour rider Phil Gaimon. Discussing Cancellara’s dominant victories at the 2010 Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, Gaimon wrote, “I dismissed it until I heard his former teammates talk about certain events where Cancellara had his own mechanic, his bike was kept separate from everyone else’s, and he rode away from a ‘who’s who’ of dopers. When you watch the footage, his accelerations don’t look natural at all, like he’s having trouble staying on the top of the pedals. That fucker probably did have a motor.”
That passage prompted the threat of a lawsuit from Cancellara, though no legal action ever took place. Instead, Cancellara challenged Gaimon to attend one of his “Chasing Cancellara” gran fondo events in 2018, so that the Swiss rider could convince him he was able to produce the power needed to accelerate away from Boonen on the Muur in 2010.
In the wake of the controversy resurfacing, former Saxo Bank mechanic Rune Kristensen, who now works for Quick-Step Floors, told Danish website Ekstrabladet in November 2017 that it was impossible Cancellara could have hidden a motor in his bike during the cobblestone classics.
“In 2010, I was a mechanic at the two races with Cancellara’s permanent mechanic, Roger Theel, and we jointly assembled all the team’s bikes for the Spring Classics,” Kristensen said. “Had there been a motor stored in a bike, I would have discovered it. It would not be possible to avoid it. Fabian’s bikes were handled like all other bikes, so it’s impossible that something could be hidden.”
And though the topic of Cancellara using a motor has floated about for years, Boonen had never publicly addressed it head on, instead only offering vague answers. Privately, it was rumored, Boonen and Quick-Step manager Patrick Lefevre were convinced Cancellara had cheated, believing his attack on the Muur was impossible without a motor.
During an April 2017 press conference, just before his final Ronde van Vlaanderen, Boonen was asked if it was always the strongest rider who wins the Tour of Flanders.
“Yes, most of the time,” he said. “In every race like that, it is not always the strongest that wins, but most of the time it is. In Flanders, I can’t really recall one year… Well, I can recall one year…”
And which year was that? Boonen simply replied, with a smile, “No comment.” His silence spoke volumes.
On April 6, two days before the 2018 Paris-Roubaix, Boonen was asked if he believed Cancellara had used a motor to beat him in 2010.
“Did Cancellara steal the 2010 Flanders due to a motor? Is there any doubt?”
The question was posed by Samuël Grulois of Radio Télévision Belge Francophone (RTBF). The four-time Roubaix champion was more candid in his answer than he’d ever been.
“Yes,” Boonen said, in response to being asked if he had lingering doubts about Cancellara’s performance. “But it’s not for me to say. I finished second, and it’s not the one in second who has to say the situation is not normal. It’s very difficult to prove because we do not have the bike to check. It’s too late.”
And on that point, there is little gray area. It is too late. If there was evidence of wrongdoing, it would have surfaced by now. Examining Cancellara’s race bike is no longer an option; nothing short of an admission from Cancellara or his longtime personal mechanic, Roger Theel, could amount to evidence that the Swiss star used a motor in 2010.
So what are cycling fans to believe? Rather than lasting memories of an epic battle between two heavyweights of the cobblestones, when it comes to the 2010 Tour of Flanders, it seems the sport’s faithful are instead left to sort through a controversy without resolution.
Boonen's quotes on Cancellara and motors look a lot worse when transcribed, translated and not given their proper context. It was actually a pretty non-committal response to a leading question. https://t.co/nsZI7Bzn1O
— Daniel Friebe (@friebos) April 7, 2018