The story behind the story: Inside Tom Boonen’s first Paris-Roubaix victory
It was pandemonium.
Tom Boonen, the handsome 24-year-old Belgian, had just won his first Paris-Roubaix, out-sprinting George Hincapie and Juan Antonio Flecha — and he’d done it one week after winning the Ronde van Vlaanderen, becoming the ninth rider to accomplish the Flanders-Roubaix double.
He had become, in the span of a week, a superstar.
Inside the infield of the Parc Municipal de Sports velodrome in Roubaix, people lost their minds. I saw a sprinting camera crew, joined by microphone cables, trip over their own wires, and sprawl across the grass, thousands of dollars of equipment flying through the air.
Inside the Quick-Step–Innergetic camp, grown men were hugging and crying. Outside of that camp, there was yelling as cameramen and event security officials pushed, shoved, and pleaded. At one point, I felt compelled to physically shepherd Hincapie’s wife, Melanie, who was carrying their five-month-old daughter, out of harm’s way.
I was there for VeloNews, on my first trip to the Spring Classics, and I’d never seen anything like it.
One week earlier, at the Tour of Flanders, the scene had been even more berserk, although perhaps better contained.
In the build-up to Flanders, Boonen, who had won E3 Harelbeke a week earlier, had quickly slotted into the void left behind when Belgian veteran and Quick-Step teammate Johan Museeuw retired after the 2004 season. Although a crash at Three Days of De Panne forced Boonen to abandon the mid-week stage race with a bruised pelvis and stitches to his hand, he came to Flanders the overwhelming pre-race favorite.
Boonen’s smiling, everyman attitude was a welcome contrast to that of Museeuw, who was admired by fans but loathed by a Belgian press that found the former world champion snide and deceitful. The poor treatment Museeuw received in the Belgian media was a consequence of years of tense relations with the same journalists that covered his accomplishments — and subsequent drug scandal — and Boonen had taken notice of his predecessor’s errors.
A roar could be heard from a quarter-mile away as Boonen rolled down a densely populated, fenced-off street towards the sign-in at the historic market square in the medieval start city of Brugge. More so than those for Lance Armstrong or two-time Flanders winner Peter Van Petegem, Boonen was the rider everyone wanted to see — and to win.
And win he did. Boonen launched an audacious solo attack out of a six-man breakaway with 9km remaining, not just maintaining his lead but increasing it to win by 35 seconds ahead of German Andreas Klier (see video below). Van Petegem took third out of a four-man sprint for the final podium spot.
“Without any question, the strongest rider won,” Van Petegem said. “The way Boonen won here today, it needs no further explanation.”
At the finish line in Ninove, I was positioned inside a pen, close to Quick-Step team owner Patrick Lefèvre and the Sporza broadcast team. On the other side of the chain-link fence was a group of teenage Belgian girls, and when Boonen came in to give Lefèvre a hug, the group of girls screamed and cried in a way that I had only seen in videos of Beatlemania from the early 1960s.
Boonen did his best to try and pretend it wasn’t happening, but I’m convinced if he’d walked over and given the girls a handshake, or a peck on the cheek, they would have fainted straight away. “Boonenmania” was upon us.
After the race, I saw an older Belgian gentleman walking Boonen’s bike to the press conference, holding the bike with reverence as though it was a sacred ancient artifact. Tears were in his eyes, and he was shaking; it looked as though he was willing to die to protect that bike.
The following day the homegrown hero’s monumental victory at the Ronde Van Vlaanderen was given equal billing on the front page with news of the death of Pope John Paul II. While soccer games had been cancelled all across Italy that Sunday morning, De Ronde had gone on as planned.
I asked Boonen if his win at Flanders changed the dynamic for the upcoming Roubaix. “I think I’m in the same position I was in before the Tour of Flanders. I think I was the favorite anyway. It doesn’t change a lot. At Roubaix there will be the same riders as Flanders, and they will all do the same as they tried to do there — they will try to beat me. When you are strong, it’s easy to stay at the front, but it’s very difficult to win. Paris-Roubaix never lies.”
At Roubaix, with just 16km remaining, a group of five entered the demanding Carrefour de l’Arbre section — Boonen, Hincapie, Flecha, Lars Michaelson, and 2004 winner Magnus Bäckstedt. As it often does, the rough and tumble 2km stretch served as the decisive pavé sector in the race. As Boonen took to the front and forced the pace, first Michaelson and then Bäckstedt dropped off. With three sectors of cobbles remaining, the final selection had been made.
Coming into the velodrome for a lap and a half around the 500-meter track, the inevitable cat and mouse games began, to the roar of a packed crowd. On the final stretch, Hincapie, again in the lead, eased off and Flecha moved to the front going into the penultimate turn. Boonen rode up high on the banking and shot out of the back on the final turn, easily taking the race to the line, more than a bike length in front of Hincapie, his former teammate at U.S. Postal Service.
Paris-Roubaix never lies.
In just his fourth year as a professional, Boonen had pulled off the Flanders-Roubaix double. Of the eight men before Boonen to accomplish this feat, seven had also been Belgians. Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara would become the 10th to achieve it, in 2010. Boonen and Cancellara would both achieve it again, in 2012 and 2013, respectively.
Upon receiving the Roubaix pavé trophy, Boonen was asked where he’d place it. “I don’t know, on a table, next to the Flanders trophy,” Boonen smiled. “I’m not sure where they will end up, but I know I plan on keeping them together.”
Later that year, Boonen would win two stages at the Tour de France, and then go on to win the world road championship in Madrid. The following year, he would win Flanders in the rainbow jersey.
For the next decade, he would remain the biggest star in Belgian cycling. Through scandals and injuries — he twice tested positive for cocaine use, and hit the ground, hard, on countless occasions — the likable giant from Mol persevered, in his performances and in his relationship with the public.
That was perhaps never more apparent than when he returned from a fractured skull at the 2015 Abu Dhabi Tour to come within inches of breaking the record of all-time Roubaix victories — which he shares with Belgian Roger De Vlaeminck — at the 2016 edition, where he was out-sprinted in the velodrome by Australian journeyman Mathew Hayman.
Though he’d come agonizingly close to sealing the record, in the twilight of his career, Boonen was gracious in defeat, saying, “If someone out of the other guys had to win it, it was Mathew. 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.”
And that was quintessential Boonen, the same affable rider who had said to me, 11 years earlier, after his first Flanders victory, that he wouldn’t let fame go to his head — that he wouldn’t be caught up in a doping scandal, that he wouldn’t sour on the press, as Museeuw had.
“I am doing the same things I did four years ago when I became a professional, and people seem to like it,” he said back in 2005. “I think for me, it’s best to keep doing what I do best, to be personable. I think people like it that you’re not fake. I think that was missing a little bit [in cycling] the last few years. Everything was a little bit fake. I don’t like it that way, I prefer to be myself, and I think it’s the best way for a long career and a happy ending.”
This Sunday in Roubaix, Boonen is hoping for that happy ending — for one last, glorious day across the cobblestones of northern France. And if he wins, breaking the all-time Roubaix record in his final race, there will, once again, be pandemonium.