It’s the one that got away, and Tom Boonen may not want to catch it.
Fourteen times Boonen has tried to win Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the race formerly (but also forever) known as Het Volk. He’s come close: four trips to the podium since his debut in 2002; twice second, twice third, once fifth, once tenth. But never first. Through four wins at Roubaix, three at Flanders, three at Gent-Wevelgem, five at E3, Omloop remains the glaring omission.
It’s not for lack of trying. Boonen does not disparage this early season semi-classic. Omloop is something special for a Flandrien. If Roubaix is hell then this is hell’s gateway. It is the first taste of cobbles, the first race on Belgian roads, the first roar of Belgian crowds and smell of frites and spilled beer. The weather, even if good, won’t be that good. This is Boonen’s final spring. His last Omloop, Kuurne, Ronde, Roubaix. Tom has one final chance to make sure Omloop doesn’t go down as his interminable Jerry, never to be caught.
Perhaps you recall the Great Belgian Embarrassment of 2015. The final group was four-strong: Boonen and teammates Niki Terpstra and Stijn Vandenbergh plus Sky’s Ian Stannard, the man they call Yogi. Boonen had the best sprint of the four. But he made the first move, at 4.5km to go, swinging right and forward as Stannard sat on the front riding tempo. In doing so Boonen made the finale a test of strength and not speed against a man named after a bear. Who knows why?
Or look to 2012. Juan Antonio Flecha and Sep Vanmarcke were there. A three-man move turned from paceline to chess in the final kilometers. Boonen opened the sprint. But, early! Fifty meters early, at least. And so Vanmarcke sat and sat and when he sprinted it was past a Boonen already aware of his fate: Second.
It was raining lightly in 2003 when Boonen got his first taste. The new kid on Quick-Step — Davitamon was just a domestique, and crossed the line in fifth behind three of his teammates, including winner Johan Museeuw. Still, his class was evident. “Certainly a future great,” the commentator said over a profile shot of Boonen’s rolled-shoulder style and he bridged between groups with Frank Vandenbroucke on his wheel.
Two years later and the cobbles were once again slick with rain. Boonen showed the form that would give him his first Flanders/Roubaix double, but teammate Nick Nuyens escaped off the front alone and stayed there. Boonen sprinted to second. He could not know, then, it was as close as he’d ever come.
Boonen wants to fill the hole on his palmares, he says. But there is a problem. He can’t win Omloop. Not this year, and so not ever.
The time for him to win Omloop was early in his career, when, let’s be honest, he was more likely to win with his legwarmers still on. Situated a full month before Flanders and five weeks before Roubaix, Omloop is simply too early. We trot this little factoid out every year, but that’s because it is quite telling: No rider has ever won Omloop and Flanders in the same season. The last to win Omloop and Roubaix, which Boonen wants to win for a fifth time, was Johan Museeuw in 2000. Doesn’t seem that long ago, right? That’s 17 years.
No, if history is any guide then Boonen should not win Omloop, though he should try. He’d be best off landing somewhere between second and tenth. The last two times he was second at Omloop (2005 and 2012) he went on to win Roubaix. Every Roubaix win, barring one, has seen him inside the top 10 at Omloop.
Second, third, eighth, tenth. Any such result would all say the same thing: Boonen’s fitness is emergent, not arrived. That’s critical in a final spring that must be timed to perfection.