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by Shane Stokes
April 8, 2017
Photography by Shane Stokes and Kristof Ramon
Win or lose on Sunday, Tom Boonen’s retirement will leave the peloton without one of its most well-known champions. He’s been a ferocious and successful competitor, but also an athlete with some very human qualities. CyclingTips spoke to some of his teammates and rivals to get a picture of what the Belgian is really like.
Lille, France (CT) – In the minutes after last year’s Paris-Roubaix, you might have expected Tom Boonen to be utterly crushed by the outcome.
He had come back from a bad crash to ride the race, working hard to be in the necessary shape to challenge for the win. On the day itself he had been a marked rider, particularly when in the select lead group in the finale, and had been left to do much of the chasing when others attacked.
In the end, he came up fractionally short. A rider who few had tipped beforehand, Mat Hayman, pulled off a surprise win. The Australian launched his sprint and when Boonen tried to react, he was momentarily hemmed in by Sep Vanmarcke.
“I had to wait 30 or 40 metres, and that cost me the victory,” Boonen said at the post-race press conference. “Or, at least it cost me the chance to really sprint against him. Then I was already too far behind.”
Still, he was utterly gracious in defeat. He was also generous in his praise of Hayman.
“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.
“Like in the past, sometimes riders like him can win Paris-Roubaix. I think that is not a bad thing. We all tried our best and we have to be happy with the results we get.”
The reaction spoke volumes about Boonen. He may be one of the best Classic riders of all time, but the warmth of his words about Hayman seemed completely genuine. So too his smiles for his rival on the podium.
He would have loved to have won, but was able to look outside his own tunnel vision, see the bigger picture and to congratulate the rider who had pulled off a dream win.
That approach is perhaps why he is so feted by others as his career draws to a close.
American rider Tyler Farrar says he has one clear picture of Boonen from the early days. The anecdote speaks volumes about the Belgian rider.
“For me, Tom has always been one of the classiest guys of the real big champions,” he told CyclingTips this week. “The memory that always sticks with me is from my first year on Cofidis. I was this young kid, I was a nobody. He was the world champion that year. It was at some small race in France. He just came up and started talking to me during the race.
“He was super-friendly. It kind of blew my mind. In that time period, if you were a young guy, a lot of the bigger riders treated you like nobody. It made an impression that he was so friendly. I always thought that was really classy of him.”
“I was a nobody. He was the world champion that year…”
It’s fair to say that Farrar is impressed by his character.
“Tom is a super-friendly guy. He treats everybody respectfully. Obviously in a race he races hard – that’s normal, we all do. But he is just a cool guy.”
Another rival, Andre Greipel, says something very similar about Boonen.
“He has this character that he treats everybody the same,” he told CyclingTips. “For every rider it is the same. He is good with everyone.”
Interestingly, Greipel describes Boonen as someone who has given him inspiration. “I still remember when he did his first Paris-Roubaix, I was actually super-impressed by him. The way he was riding, so attentive and aggressive.
“He is just an idol for all of us – he was, and still is when you ride next to him.”
Greg Van Avermaet will be one of Boonen’s main rivals when the flag drops for Paris-Roubaix. He is also Belgian, but is five years younger. The 31-year-old is still attempting to take his first Roubaix, something that puts Boonen’s four wins into context.
“For me Tom is one of the biggest riders in cycling history,” he told CyclingTips. “I was always looking up to him because he was a world champion when I was not even in professional cycling. It is a strange feeling and now he is just one of us. He is a really down to earth guy and it is really nice to talk with him.
“I have a lot of respect for his career. If you see the races he won, they are so many and so big that you have to have a lot of respect for him.”
Greg Van Avermaet: “For me Tom is one of the biggest riders in cycling history.”
Team Dimension Data rider Mark Renshaw echoes this.
“Any of his wins in Roubaix are standout memories,” he said, talking just before the Scheldeprijs race started in Boonen’s hometown of Mol. “It was probably most impressive when was on the pave there. His world title was also impressive. He did a really nice sprint there.
“He has got so many victories, there is not really one that stands out.”
Renshaw competed alongside Boonen at Omega Pharma-QuickStep in 2014 and 2015 and said that time gave him an insight into the personality behind the rider.
“I was lucky enough to ride in a team for two years with him, so I know him quite well,” he said. “A good guy, always committed to the team when I was there with him.
“It is pretty hard to not like Tom Boonen. He is nice in the bunch, nice off the bike. Loves cars, loves racing. There was always plenty to talk about on the bus.”
Minutes before Sunday’s start of the Tour of Flanders, someone approached Boonen holding one of the cardboard masks of the rider in front of his face. Boonen threw his arm around him with affection, grinning broadly, and two former teammates were reunited.
Paolo Bettini was a teammate of Tom Boonen for six years, with their time at the QuickStep team overlapping between 2003 and 2008.
During that time Bettini won a host of races, including two world championships and the 2004 Olympic road race title.
He was a big winner and recognises the same trait in Boonen. However their bond is more than just a competitive one: like the other riders who spoke to CyclingTips, he has also got deep respect for Boonen as a person.
“For me, Tom is a friend. The hero of the QuickStep,” he said, smiling. “It was fantastic in 2003, 2004, 2005. I think with me and Tom, the team won all the big Classics. I remember many fantastic moments with Tom.
“Tom is a big man. He is a leader of the team. But he is a simple guy. This is the power of Tom. He is normal, a very easy guy.”
Double world champion Paolo Bettini, a former teammate of Tom Boonen. ‘For me, Tom is a friend…’
Illo Keisse’s career has also overlapped with that of Boonen. He has been racing for and alongside him since 2010 and, like the other riders, has a high estimation of him.
“As a rider, I think he is fantastic. In the beginning he was my biggest example and for me it is big honour to ride with him in the team, to work for him.
“As a person, I think he really stayed calm in the circumstances he has been in. He really handles the pressure very well. He is a real leader on the bike, off the bike. I appreciate him a lot as a rider, but even more as just a normal person.
“We have a lot of memories. They are not all good for camera! We had good and bad times together. Crashes and other problems. But we fought for everything – he did it his way, I did it my way.”
More recently, Marcel Kittel has joined both riders as a member of the squad. Like Boonen was during his early career, Kittel is one of the fastest sprinters in the peloton. He hasn’t gone down the Classics route, but did say recently that he hoped to ride Paris-Roubaix in the future.
If that works out, perhaps in time he too will become a cobble specialist.
Right now, though, he has racked up successes elsewhere. He said that two of their victories in 2016 were connected and have a special resonance with him.
“I think my favourite moment with Tom Boonen was in 2016 when we did the Brussels Classics and the Grand Prix de Fourmies together,” he told the media after his Scheldeprijs win on Wednesday. “It was a moment where we both wanted to show ourselves for the world championships. We agreed that we would ride in the Brussels Classics for him and Fourmies for me.
“In the Brussels Classics I did the lead out for him and he won. And the next day we did it the other way around. He did the leadout for me in the final and I won. So that was very nice, to work with him together that way and to be able to split up the victories.”
Marcel Kittel congratulates teammate Tom Boonen after his win in the 2016 Brussels Cycling Classic
He said that being alongside Boonen on the team made an impression on him in terms of the example he set. According to Kittel, the Belgian’s attitude to hard work has encouraged others to also knuckle down.
“He is a very inspiring athlete,” he said. “Especially also when we trained in training camps in winter, he is very focussed.
“He knows where he has to be good. He also knows himself really well. And I think that’s something that also makes the difference between a very good and a great rider. He definitely is a role model for everyone in our team with that attitude.”
Looking back on the year and a half that they have been racing together, Kittel describes it as a time that he has enjoyed.
He’s also got a kick out of the buzz that has surrounded the Belgian – and, consequently, the team – in the past week.
“It is nice now to see how he is seen by his people at home,” he told CyclingTips. “When you race in Belgium, that is something that I didn’t really understand before I came into the team. If you see now here what is going on just for Tom, it is crazy. It is very nice to see that and also be part of his farewell.”
If everything goes to script, Boonen’s adieu to the peloton will end with victory in the velodrome on Sunday.
However, even if that doesn’t work out, Kittel says that his runner-up slot last year behind Hayman is already a triumph.
He may not have been first to the line then, but he believes the performance lives on its own merits.
“I think what absolutely stands out for me is his second place last year in Roubaix. It is maybe not his biggest success in a sporting way, but for sure as an athlete in your career, coming back from an injury like this is quite impressive.
“It should be a really good example for every athlete.”
So too his words about Hayman afterwards.
As a rider Boonen could win like the very top names in the sport. But, the manner of his losing also spoke volumes, and perhaps shows why he is being regarded with such affection as he prepares to race the cobbles one last time.