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Spring in Belgium is a particularly special time for cycling fans, but the next hundred days are reserved for the retiring Tom Boonen.
Boonen’s favorite restaurant in Gentbrugge has been rented, and the invitations sent out. Sporza and a host of other networks are knee-deep in documentaries covering his long career while preparing their annual, ample air-time for the cobbled Classics. This is all leading up to April 9, the day when the 36-year old from Mol, a woody town just minutes from the Dutch border, is preparing to charge north from Paris toward Roubaix along cobblestone roads that trace back to the Roman Empire, on what will be his last professional race ever.
The excitement is palpable. If Boonen wins Paris-Roubaix, he will the record he currently shared with Roger De Vlaeminck, becoming the first rider to win five times. According to Quick-Step team manager Patrick Lefevere, Boonen won’t be giving interviews or doing any promotion for his sponsors until the race is over. It’s strictly training camps and races. By having Boonen retire the night after Paris-Roubaix, Lefevre said in a recent Humo interview, his rider is relaxed and focused like never before.
But it will be hard for Boonen to ignore the hype surrounding him, beginning this weekend with the “season openers” for the Spring Classics, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. Surprisingly, Boonen has never won Omloop, having finished on the podium four times. He has won Kuurne on three occasions.
For over a decade — tracing back to his meteoric 2005 season — Boonen been a massive celebrity in Belgium and the Netherlands. And in his final season, it’s on another level. Studio Brussel has made a video that’s gone viral and is even being played in clubs. Jef Van Echelpoel has modified his hit, Ziet Em Duun (See Him Go) into a song and a hashtag #ZietDenTom. (See Tom Go).
Distinct in its impenetrable northern Belgium dialect, the area where Boonen and Echelpoel are from (Dutch fans were given a translation of the song, even though, technically, it is the same language), the hype around Boonen’s retirement has that exuberantly constrained breed of Belgium enthusiasm — a land where cheering wildly and thorough analysis become complementary.
“Tommeke” is already a national hero, and as with so many cyclists before him, the Belgians are already busy making him a legend. A retirement event titled “Tom Says Thanks” is planned in Mol on April 29, with 20,000 people expected to attend.
Boonen has been friends with Van Echelpoel for some time. The long-haired singer is responsible for the “My Ride, My Fight, My Life,” tattoo on Boonen’s chest. Their cozy relationship is probably why the Quick-Step leader, on national television, was so relaxed, even smirking when posed with a awkward offer: If Boonen wins a Spring Classic, he can put his choice of a tattoo anywhere on Van Echelpoel’s body.
Right now, Quick-Step has two campaigns going, one for Boonen and one for the next generation. Open any Belgian newspaper and you’ll see a photo of Quick-Step rookie Laurens de Plus eating a bowl of spaghetti with the text “A new generation goes for glory.” It’s an inspiring image, simple, the older celebrated while the young contemplate building their own legacy.
Recently, in De Telegraaf, Niki Terpstra called Boonen the kind of leader who, when focused the next level, inspires the team to do the same. Coal-baron millionaire owner Zdenek Bakala has promised that, unless he dies, the team will be carrying on through 2018, which means Boonen might very well be back in some team-management role. What happens after Paris-Roubaix is anyone’s guess. But for now, Belgians are excited to see if spring brings a Boonen bonanza. And they’re all dancing to Ziet Den Tom.
Lyrics to “Ziet Den Tom”
It’s Sunday and I’m looking forward to hanging on the couch, following the race without having to move
I was out with my buddies all night dancing, flirting and I was home way too late. We went on for way too long
I take a shower and comb my hair, pick an undershirt, grab a beer (Duvel) and some cheese and salami
I sit down and my wife is still in her robe. I am ready to go. My Sunday is just beginning
I start zapping through channels until I find the race
I am ready let it begin, but it’s still commercials
I take a vodka red bull my wife gives me a dirty look
But my wife’s also a bit dirty
On the television I look at Tom that fast monkey with his trimmed beard and that horny look in his eyes
Look at Tom, look at Tom that fast monkey
He’s a wolf, corralling the sheep and making kebab with samurai sauce.
He’s a pyromaniac – he sets the ride on fire, he’s fearless.
And when he wants – he goes like a rocket leaving the pack to bite his dust
He’s a conductor – guaranteed to make the peloton ring, ring
Let them think what they want, all those guys on the sidelines, studying his moves
They’re all thinking, ‘fuck, there he is again the king of the road, I wish I had his grooves’
I feel his rhythm real good, see him go on his pedals, knocking everybody off the road
The road is his, Tornado Tom, he is the man who beats everybody.