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by Shane Stokes
April 12, 2016
Photography by Kristof Ramon, Shane Stokes
Paris-Roubaix winner Mat Hayman was gracious in his praise of Tom Boonen on Sunday, saying that he wouldn’t have minded had the rider who finished second to him taken the victory.
“I would have liked to have seen him win and get the record. I will be honest. He is the king of the race,” he said, adding that he had a lot of respect for Boonen.
The Belgian rider was similarly praising in his assessment of the Australian, saying that he rode the perfect strategy and that his win was just desserts for a very good career.
Boonen’s sentiments will have earned him a lot of additional fans, given that he was personally disappointed to miss out on a record fifth career victory in the race, yet still generous with his words.
“In the last four or five kilometres, everybody was just looking [around] a little bit,” he said, explaining that there were several potential winners in the group and that people were wary.
“There were some attacks left and right. At a moment after about four or five attacks, I wasn’t really tired so I felt that maybe this was the good moment. I went myself. And when Mathew passed me, he was really going strong.
“He played it very well. In the end, I think a guy like him really deserves a victory like this after a career of helping people out and being in the final of Classics a lot but not really getting the big wins.”
Hayman was riding the race for the 15th time. He previously finished eighth and tenth and had worked hard after breaking his arm six weeks ago to be ready for the event.
Boonen recognised that the finale was a battle of legs and tactics, and that the results reflected that. And while the outcome was a surprising one, he saw value in it.
“Like in the past, sometimes riders like him can win Paris-Roubaix,” he said. “I think that is not a bad thing.
“We all tried our best and we have to be happy with the results we get.”
Previously a winner of the race in 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2012, Boonen was level with compatriot Roger de Vlaeminck in the all-time stakes. He missed out on the race last year due to an injury and resolved to return this season and try to become the first five-time winner in the event’s history.
That plan suffered a serious blow last autumn when he crashed hard in the Abu Dhabi Tour. He suffered a fractured skull and doctors initially told him he would be out for six months.
However the 35 year old made a speedy recovery and was able to knuckle down to training again before the end of the year. He referred to that initial prognosis after the race on Sunday.
“This morning I got a message from the doctor who treated me in Abu Dhabi last year after my crash,” he explained. “He was telling me that today was the day that he told me I could look at my bike again. So I am a little bit ahead of schedule.”
That’s certainly one way of putting it, and was said with a smile.
That recovery is the reason why Boonen had mixed feelings about the result. Getting back to the level he was at before is no mean feat, but going so close to victory is difficult.
“In the end I am not sure yet which emotion will be the top emotion for tomorrow,” he said. “But I am happy with my performance. I knew before when I started training after my injury that it was going to be hard to get on a good level again for the Classics. But in the last few weeks I started feeling better and better and better.
“I was really getting hopeful for today. I knew the last few weeks, during these races, that from experience that I get better after races like that. I needed some hard finals.”
That self knowledge gave him the confidence to tell CyclingTips last week that he was in the form necessary to win Paris Roubaix. He had been a minute off the winner in the Tour of Flanders and many forgot about him as a contender for the French Classic. However he said then that there were logical reasons why things hadn’t gone to plan in Flanders.
At the start in Compiège, Boonen was visibly relaxed. He felt good about his condition and was smiling broadly at the start, chatting to his fellow riders as the minutes and seconds counted down to the drop of the flag.
His demeanour contrasted with that of Fabian Cancellara, who was lost in his thoughts and appeared to have a greater weight on his shoulders.
Cancellara is set to retire at the end of the year and was riding Roubaix for the final time. Boonen, too, was potentially doing the race for the last time, although he said last week that he wasn’t at the point where he would make his feelings about the future known.
Instead, he and his team concentrated on trying to win the race.
“We made a nice plan before the race to try to make it as hard as possible. We missed out on those 16 guys [the early break – ed.]. We had no other chance than to make it hard race. Before that everything went fine; we were in the breakaway several times with two guys and the race just kept on going because everybody was just chasing up.
“In the end we had two hours a blok [flat out]. Then 16 guys went, so we needed to make the race even harder at that point. We did it like the last few weeks, actually, just now it turned out a little bit better. Paris-Roubaix is a race that really suits me well. I was happy with the performance of the team.”
He said he was particularly impressed with Tony Martin, who pulled on the front for a long, long time. “Tony did an incredible ride. I told him a few times, ‘listen, if you want to wait for the guys you just dropped, it is okay. We can work together.’ But he didn’t want to, he just wanted to keep on going.
“In the end it was a race the way I like it. A long final, nobody was really trying to profit from each other. Just hard racing, and that is what I like.”
Once clear in the final five man break, he said that everyone rode through and did their share of the work. Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) was the first to make a major move, and at one point it looked like he would go on to win.
“He went in full, full, full: 105 percent,” he said, talking about the Carrefour de l’Arbre surge. “I kind of missed the first corner when he came from the right. He took the race line and from that point I was on the bad part of the cobblestones for a few metres.”
However, although Vanmarcke was clearly very strong and got a decent gap, Boonen said he didn’t panic.
“I thought it was a little bit early with the wind,” he said. “If you can stay together with the riders that we did, it is always hard. With two or three guys it is a different story but with five guys…
“So I looked out a little bit, let the other guys to do the work as well. I think it was a good choice that we weren’t trying to close it full, full, full, because in the end keeping him out there wasn’t that bad.”
Once Vanmarcke was brought back, Boonen made his own attempts to break the elastic. He got gaps, but nothing was lasting.
“It is normal that it is hard for me to get away,” he accepted. “Everybody knew that I was really aiming for the victory. In the end I found a good moment when everybody was tired, and I tried my best chances.”
However at that point Hayman revealed his own strength, and this was the first hint that the final outcome would be an unexpected one. “When Mathew passed me, he was going so fast I almost killed myself trying to get back on the wheel,” said Boonen.
Things did come back together, but Hayman still had his final card to play.
“I think everybody was really tired. I was trying to do the sprint from the front, trying to take the last corner in the lead,” said Boonen. “He passed me there and I need to wait a little bit because Sep was on the right side, which is normal as there is only one side you can pass on the track.
“I had to wait 30 or 40 metres, and that cost me the victory. Or, at least it cost me the chance to really sprint against him. Then I was already too far behind.”
Taking a fifth Roubaix would have been the stuff of legend, but it was not to be. You’d forgive him for being gutted, but he was surprisingly level-headed after the race.
He could see the bigger picture, putting things in perspective.
“I was maybe not on my best level, but I was on a good level. In the end I think if you are there, I think you have to happy,” he said.
“If you try to win the race it is possible that you lose it. But we went all in. We did everything that we needed to do. Maybe being second today won’t be so bad for the future; maybe it will give me another year.”
Staying on for another season certainly has a logic to it: he reached the form he had on Sunday after a very tough few months, and that in itself is a huge achievement.
Building on that and working well over the next 12 months should arguably give him even better condition for Roubaix. This is a thought that could cause him to delay retirement.
If so, that is something his fans would jump at. He plans to give it serious consideration.
“I have a few days off now. I think I will need to time to really think about all the stuff that happened in the last four months,” he said. “I was really rushing myself into shape. But at this moment, I don’t really see a reason why I shouldn’t come back next year.”