KORTRIJK, Belgium (VN) — “How will you feel on Monday?” a reporter asks. You know, the Monday after. After Boonen. After a 16-year career and three wins at Flanders and six stages of the Tour de France. After bike racing.
“I’m sure I will have the biggest hangover,” Tom Boonen says. Was that a wink? We all laugh, because it’s true.
On Sunday, “Tommeke” Boonen will line up for his final Paris-Roubaix, and it might just be the first race in recent history in which all of his competitors would be both happy to win and happy to lose, just to see him win. The press corps feels the same. The objectivity we pretend to have, well, that’s gone. Deep down, everyone wants Tom to win. Everyone.
It would be his fifth Roubaix victory, a new record. If he’s not untouchable already, it would make him so.
Boonen sits on a leather couch for his final press conference facing a bristle of microphones pointed at his every word. The couch is placed atop fake tile cobblestones made by sponsor Quick-Step, in a corner of the Quick-Step headquarters outside Waregem, Belgium, down the hall from a room full of Boonen jerseys. Worlds stripes, a maglia rosa, a maillot jaune, the Belgian tricolor. Around the corner is a Roubaix-themed cake that Boonen will later cut, #ThxTom etched in icing on its face. Crammed into the room are a couple dozen reporters — Belgian, Dutch, French, British, American, Italian. We ask questions in English, and only English, as Boonen prefers. It’s cycling’s language, now, to a Frenchman’s chagrin. And Boonen is a rider for everyone.
The back of his neck is striped. They’re tan lines created by skin folds as he cranes his head back and up from the long, low position he’s held for two decades. His head is shaved and it, too, gives away how many hours he’s spent on a bike. Thin white lines like helmet straps drop below his ears and darker patches on top show where the sun came through.
What tremendous pressure it must put on a man, to finish with a real shot at making history. He wants victory on Sunday and everyone else wants it for him. And yet Boonen doesn’t seem to feel it. “There’s no point in being all emotional about it,” he says. “As a rider you start your career, and end it. My day is coming soon.”
No point? Or perhaps he can’t afford to feel, not yet, not if he wants the fifth. Hence the jokes about hangovers, and the insistence that this will be a race just like any other even though it’s not. Hence the face of stone and answers that are succinct but not cold. He’s lean, his form is good. He won’t allow distractions.
“I won’t lose my focus. I’m as focused as last year but my form is better than last year,” he says. “Then, I was in a race against time to be in shape. This time I’ve had more time to prepare myself, and everything has gone well. All the things are there but we need things to go right on the day.”
Perhaps after 16 years Boonen truly doesn’t feel the pressure, or can compartmentalize it. But his team feels it. You can see it in their eyes. Tim Declercq and Yves Lampaert, stalwart domestiques on the Roubaix roster, sit in another Quick-Step showroom next door. They’ll pull harder than they ever have, they say. “I still think we owe him this, after such a career,” says Declercq. “We will do the maximal effort that we can.”
The rest of the field knows this, of course. Quick-Step’s usual multi-pronged attack — it will line up with no fewer than five riders who could potentially earn victory — is more like a spear this year. But that makes it no different from every other team in the race, really. Everyone is expecting Bora-Hansgrohe and Trek-Segafredo to ride exclusively for Peter Sagan and John Degenkolb. Quick-Step will be no different.
“I just hope we have a hard race,” Boonen says. “It’ll be a fast race because dry roads always give a fast, hard race. The speed will be high all day long.”
What if his rivals force him to close gap after gap, knowing he wants victory even more badly than they do? “There are guys who have never won,” Boonen reminds us. “If they don’t close the gap, they’ll never win.” Hard is good when you think you’re the strongest.
“It’s the same as ever,” he says. “I’m in the situation like in previous races. You can’t focus your race on one rider, it usually doesn’t work out for anyone.
“I feel pretty good. I’m happy that we’re almost there. I think we have a strong team and a chance of success, so let’s hope for the best. It’ll only [feel] different after the finish line this year.”
It will be different after the finish this year. So really, Tom, how will you feel on Monday? Will you feel happy? Will you feel sad? With four or maybe five Paris-Roubaix victories, with millions of Belgians for whom you are a hero, with a couple Ferraris and that very nice Porsche you arrived in, with the designation of, maybe, the best classics rider in classics riding history, how will you feel?
“I’m always sad when I have a hangover,” he says, dry as the desert. Then he cracks a smile. And we laugh again, because it’s true. Oh, is it true.