Tom Boonen on respect, life in the public eye, and the greatest riders he’s ever seen

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During his 15-year career, Belgian Tom Boonen, more than most riders, has experienced the highest of highs, and the lowest of lows, in professional racing.

The list of Boonen’s accomplishments is long and varied; he has seven Monument victories on his palmares (four wins at Paris-Roubaix, three at the Tour of Flanders), as well as a world road championship (in 2005), a green jersey at the Tour de France (in 2007), and six Tour stage wins.

Handsome and charismatic, Boonen is a national celebrity in his home country, and has been one of the biggest names in pro cycling since his first Flanders win, in 2005, at the age of 24.

However the list of mishaps and disappointments that has plagued Boonen’s career is also long; he was banned from the Tour de France and suspended by his team, for cocaine use, in 2008 and 2009, respectively. He’s had several serious injuries, including a concussion at the Tour de France (in 2011), a staph infection that nearly cost him his left arm (in 2013), and a fractured skull at the Abu Dhabi Tour, in October.

The skull fracture prevented Boonen from flying home for two weeks, and left him with permanent damage to his hearing. Doctors initially suggested that he could be out of action for as long as six months. However he returned to racing in February, and after a lackluster classics season, he nearly won a fifth Paris-Roubaix in April, narrowly out-sprinted at the line by Australian Mathew Hayman (Orica-GreenEdge).

Given the severity of the injury, and how close he came to wining a fifth Roubaix, Boonen said it was the career result he is proudest of, during an interview with CyclingTips at the Amgen Tour of California last month.

Boonen has stated he intends to return to the pro peloton in 2017, which will almost certainly be his last, and it’s not guaranteed it will be with Etixx-QuickStep. As he enters the twilight of his career, “Tornado Tom” also addressed topics such as respect in the peloton, perception versus reality in the court of public opinion, and the greatest riders he’s seen during his career. The interview is presented, in its entirety, here.

CyclingTips: What is the greatest accomplishment of your entire career?
Tom Boonen: The greatest one? I think this year, Roubaix.

CT: This year? Because of the comeback?
TB: Yeah, it was the hardest one.

Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep), after finishing a close second to Mathew Hayman (Orica-GreenEdge) at 2016 Paris-Roubaix, narrowly missing a record for Roubaix victories. Photo: Cor Vos.
Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep), after finishing a close second to Mathew Hayman (Orica-GreenEdge) at 2016 Paris-Roubaix, narrowly missing a record for Roubaix victories. Photo: Cor Vos.

CT: What is the biggest regret of your career?
TB: That’s hard because I don’t really have any regrets. I always think the hard days and the things you do wrong, they turn you into the person that you are right now and they make it easier in the future. So, I don’t think I have any regrets about anything in my career.

CT: What was the most fun day of racing in your career? Is there one day that stands out?
TB: There’s a few, I mean there’s a lot of days I enjoyed being a bike rider. Again, the one that pops up in my mind was also the last Roubaix because it’s so [recent], it was not so long ago. I really enjoyed myself, I had a fun day on the bike. But the most fun you have is when you’re really dominating. The best possible level you ever had and you’re really like… for example, Tour of Flanders, when I was world champion. I could almost do whatever I wanted that day. So that’s one of the most fun days I’ve had.

Tom Boonen took his second Tour of Flanders victory in 2006, wearing the rainbow jersey of world champion. Photo: Cor Vos.

CT: It’s interesting that you say Roubaix this year, considering you were so agonizingly close to setting the record. Yet it was also clear that you didn’t seem overly upset about it. You were smiling on the podium, congratulating Mathew Hayman, almost enjoying it.
TB: Yeah, but in the end winning and losing is one thing. The objective, of course, is trying to win a fifth Roubaix. That has been the objective since I won my fourth. But if I look back at what I’ve done the last few months to get on that level, I was really happy — I was really, really happy. And also, if someone out of the other guys had to win it, it was Matthew. The guy deserves it. He has been such a good helper all of his career and for him it’s a life changer, and if I win a fifth, what would it change? I would have been happy, a little bit happier, but for the rest would’ve changed nothing. For him it changes his life. It was nice to see him win.

Roubaix - France - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - Tom Boonen (Belgium / Team Etixx - Quick Step) shakes hands with Mathew Hayman (Australia / Team Orica Greenedge) - Ian Stannard (GBR / Team Sky) pictured during Paris - Roubaix 2016 World Tour Cycling race - photo PN/Cor Vos © 2016
Tom Boonen shakes hands with Mathew Hayman immediately after the finish of 2016 Paris-Roubaix. Photo: Cor Vos.

CT: How has parenthood affected your career?
TB: A lot has changed because there is less rest at home, but the love you get back from it is worth it every second. I miss them more when I am away, and leaving home is getting a lot harder than it used to be. I think I am still able to do it maybe a year or two. It’s nice to go back home as well.

CT: Bradley Wiggins recently said that there’s a “lack of respect” in the peloton  Do you agree? Has respect in the peloton changed over the course of your career?
TB: Yeah, but it’s not only in cycling, eh? I think in the entire world has lost a lot of respect for each other and nobody cares about anyone else anymore, always really selfish. So yeah, it’s also changed in cycling, a lot. You can just tell when you talk to these kids they really have a different approach in cycling. They don’t care about who you are anymore, which for me is not a problem because I don’t think you have to get respect for free. I think it is who you are that makes it work for them to show you some respect. I don’t care if they do it. It is up to everybody for themselves to show how much respect to give for someone else, but in the end I think you get what you give. So, if you are a good guy that lets everyone by every once in a while, you also get some space and some extra room.

CT: What’s the hardest part of being a professional that people may not recognize?
TB: The hardest part… I think I’ve been doing it so long that even the hard things have become a bit easier. I would say being away from home so much, but being away from home also makes it fun to go back. I was home for eight weeks sitting on a couch after my crash, and sitting at home eight weeks is also something that I do not like. So the change makes it nice.

CT: The training is hard, the crashes are hard, the travel is hard…
TB: Yeah, but it toughens you up, and makes you a better person I think. If you suffer a little bit in life, you appreciate more what you get. I think it’s a good thing to tell young people as well. If you do sport and you are willing to go all the way and suffer for it, then if you do something else afterwards then you are also willing to go all the way. I think a lot of athletes are very good after what they do in their sports just because they have this mentality. It’s a different mindset. People who never do anything, they are always complaining and saying that everything is hard.

CT: What is the biggest misconception, or misunderstanding, about you?
TB: There’s a lot. I think there’s always an image that… There is the real person, the person who you are. And then there’s the person who people think you are. And then there’s the person, a little bit in-between, people who know you a little bit… I never really made any efforts to try to show everybody who I am. If somebody knows me, and they appreciate who I am, that’s fine, but if the media puts up an image of you, and it’s not the right image, I am not going to try to tell them, “Hey, this is not true, I am a different guy.” People can make up their own minds.

Calpe - Spain - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - Tom Boonen (Belgium / Team Omega Pharma - Quickstep) pictured during the media presentation of the Omega Pharma - Quickstep cycling team 2014 on January 19, 2014 in Calpe, Spain - photo NV/PN/Cor Vos © 2014
Tom Boonen, during the media presentation of the 2014 Omega Pharma -QuickStep team in Calpe, Spain. Photo: Cor Vos.

CT: Is that difficult?
TB: No, not at all. It evolves. It is not always the same. I remember when I was a kid, and I was going good, and I was better, and I was world champion, and they create an image of you that is not true. Then you become a half-God and they create an image and that’s not the real person. You’re just a good bike rider and you’re on the flow when you win a lot of races, and then when they see it’s not true that is when they start hitting on you. And then you get this wave of… and that creates something, I don’t know… Some people react differently on it, and they really start hating you, and the other people look through it and keep liking you. In Belgium, I have people that really hate me.

CT: A lot of people who hate you?
TB: No, but there are. Even if you are authentic, people will hate you for that.

CT: Are you referring more to the press, or the fans?
TB: No, I don’t complain about the press in Belgium, because Belgium is still a good country to live in. We don’t have these crazy circumstances what you have in Holland, or England, there are no tabloids and there’s no people with cameras in my garden. It is still pretty calm to live in Belgium as an athlete. I am not complaining about that. But if you do good in life, there will always be people that hate you.

CT: How have you noticed that people hate you? What do they do?
TB: Oh, they shout insults at me in the race sometimes, or in training. If there a thousand people, there is one that hates you. They throw stuff at me, sometimes. Every week, every month, every year, there’s always someone. I’ve never understood why. It’s always been like that, even when I was 21, 22 years old. There’s always been someone like that. Everyone who does well in life, everyone who is in the media, they have fans, and they have haters.

CT: Was this because when you were younger, you were a bit cocky?
TB: Ah, but it’s also image. I think everyone who has known me all my life, talk to them. I’ve never changed. Sometimes, the image they put up of you, it lasts a long time. Forever. So it’s useless to try to change it.

CT: Which riders have most impressed you during your career?
TB: [Alberto] Contador. [Alejandro] Valverde. [Bradley] Wiggins. [Johan] Museeuw on a good day, but I was just a little bit too late. I never really witnessed his best days. [Paolo] Bettini, he showed me sometimes, some good races.

CT :What about on your terrain, in the Spring Classics?
TB: On my own terrain… guys who have really impressed me? I mean, impressing is doing something you didn’t expect, eh? Everything that happened in the Classics was what I expected.

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CT: Which young riders of today, 25 and under, are most impressive, or most interesting?
TB: That’s hard. I’m not that involved anymore, that’s hard. I always say when you turn pro, you race against your heroes, and those are the people where, if you beat them, it is life-changing. I remember the first time I beat Cipollini in the sprint, or when I beat Petacchi in the sprint for the first time, I was a king for the weekend. It is different when you beat… For example when I beat Cavendish in the past, it is different. It’s the guys that came later, and they didn’t have a name yet. It’s really different.

Now with the kids these days, there’s some guys in Belgium now, Benoot, I think he has a good future, but he still has to find his way a little bit. I don’t think he’s really fit for the Flemish classics. He will be able to do Flanders, because the race has changed, it’s harder now. But I think he will be more of a guy for the other classics. And for the rest, there isn’t really that much anymore.

CT: What about Jasper Stuyven? He had a strong ride at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, to solo to victory. 
TB: Yeah, he did a really good… He really impressed me, because everybody let him go cause they thought “oh that’s perfect, one guy left for the final.” He was one guy missing from the final. He did a really good race there. We waited too long to try to get him back, and then nobody was helping anybody anymore and he did a really good race. We’ll see how he does next year.

CT: And what about Peter Sagan? He’s an interesting character. What can you tell us about Peter Sagan that we don’t already know?
TB: He changed a lot I think. If you look back where he was a kid and if you look at him now, he’s a completely different person. He’s really flourished. But as a bike rider, he is a pure talent, you can’t say anything else about him. He’s just a pure talent. He’s able to do anything, well not anything, but he’s able to win 80% of the races on the WorldTour calendar. That is a lot. That is a lot.

Peter Sagan gets a high-five from Tom Boonen after winning the 2015 world road championship in Richmond, Virginia.
Peter Sagan gets a high-five from Tom Boonen after winning the 2015 world road championship in Richmond, Virginia. Photo: Kristof Ramon.

CT: Is Sagan the most naturally talented rider you have ever seen? If not, who is?
TB: No, he’s good, but not that good. I think Valverde or Contador. Valverde is a guy that nobody ever… I mean everybody knows him, but if you look at what Valverde has accomplished in his career, it’s unbelievable. He’s won one-day Classics over and over again, he has podium finishes in Grand Tours, and winning 25 races a year. He wins races in sprints and breakaways and on climbs and that’s true talent in my eyes.

Sagan is fast, he’s really good, and he can do the Classics and everything, but he’s still just a sprinter who can do a little bit more. And he’s not winning that much either. If he wins five or 10 races a year that’s a lot, but it’s not a lot. That’s a good rider, but it’s not that impressive.

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