Tom Boonen’s fairytale

Tommeke entered his final week as a professional cyclist with seismic pressure on his shoulders. There would be no final victory, yet Boonen will forever be a cycling champion who transcended his sport.

Zdenek Stybar is signing Tom Boonen’s face. A flat-tipped Sharpie in his right hand whisks from chiseled cheek to bald head to toothy smile, from one Boonen to the next. There are a couple thousand of them in this old Belgian square, handsome faces printed on thick paper and held up with cheap elastic bands. The eyeholes are removable so that lucky fans able to snatch one can wear it as a mask. So, on this grey Belgian morning in early April, Tom Boonen is everywhere. He’s standing in line for frites and for a 10 a.m. beer. He’s standing at the barriers in the hundreds, chanting “Tom! Tom! Tom!” He’s filling rooftops and climbing light poles to get a better view of himself.

It’s the morning of Scheldeprijs, the Wednesday semi-classic nestled between the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. It’s a school day, and a workday, but that doesn’t seem to matter here in cycling-mad Flanders. Thousands have come out. For the first time the race is starting in Mol, Boonen’s sleepy hometown. Don’t think for a second that’s a coincidence. “I’ve never seen anything like it before,” Boonen will say the following day. “It was like a Tour de France stage. It was something special.”

The cycling world is nearing the tail end of its extended, months-long Boonen goodbye. It’s an emotional sendoff that stretches back to the earliest Belgian semi-classics and will come to an abrupt halt in the Paris-Roubaix velodrome in half a week’s time. Like all goodbyes, it’s only begun to feel concrete in its final moments.

Tom Boonen
Photo: BrakeThrough Media | brakethroughmedia.com

For Boonen’s fans, this final week has been a mix of celebration and mourning, rejoicing in a career that is all but unparalleled while grieving for their impending loss and lamenting the lack of an obvious Belgian successor. For Boonen, it has been and will continue to be an exercise in emotional compartmentalization. Sentiments and memories built over nearly two decades in the peloton have no place in the heart of a man who is a bike racer for just a few more days. Feelings just get in the way.

Half an hour before the start, the flock of Boonens turns in unison toward a commotion just outside Mol’s central square, where the team buses are lined up in a dutiful row. The commotion turns into a roar when the real Tom Boonen steps off his Quick-Step Floors team bus. He raises an arm to the crowd and hops on his bike, bound for sign-in. The roar follows him, just as it’s done all week, just as it will continue to do until the velodrome of Roubaix, where this tiny northern nation’s most beloved rider will wave goodbye for the final time.

That’s the plan, anyway.

DOZENS OF REPORTERS GATHER for one final press conference with Boonen just ahead of Roubaix. Boonen’s longtime bike sponsor, Specialized, produced a farewell video, which is shown before the questions. Boonen sits on the edge of a table and watches the video play.

The video is short, at one minute and thirteen seconds, darkly lit, shot in the Roubaix velodrome. A hooded Boonen (actually, a body double) walks past his four cobblestone trophies, one for each Roubaix victory, and picks up a fifth, loose stone. Cue the “Rocky” sequence. The body double does sit-ups and stair runs, and punches a heavy bag. A sad tune plays in the background, while scenes of Boonen racing flash onscreen. And at the end, a script reads: “The only thing harder than winning is saying goodbye.”

Tom Boonen
Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

Tom Boonen
Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

Boonen has appeared mostly emotionless all week. It’s a coping mechanism, surely. There’s so much hype, so much pressure in his final week. If he lets anything in he’ll accidentally let it all in. This video, though, breaks through the barrier. A new reaction shows on Boonen’s face moments after the video finishes: a little twang of emotion, a watery eye. It’s gone in a blink.

Is saying goodbye the only thing harder than winning?

“Winning is not that difficult, eh?” Boonen says, with a little laugh. A joke, again. It’s how he dealt with his final press conference, too. Jokes for the hard questions, the ones that look forward. Questions about how he feels have been deflected in this way all week. It seems he can’t afford to feel, or even think about feeling. Not this week.

Boonen’s answer sounds rehearsed: “I’m at peace with the decision I have made,” he says. But then, a little more depth: “I think next year will be the most difficult part. For the first time, realizing you’re not going to be there anymore. But there’s other stuff in life than being a professional bike rider. I’ve been one for 16 years now. It’s a long, long, hard part of my life and I’m completely satisfied with everything I’ve accomplished in my career.”

“But there’s other stuff in life than being a professional bike rider. I’ve been one for 16 years now. It’s a long, long, hard part of my life and I’m completely satisfied with everything I’ve accomplished in my career.”
– Tom Boonen

He keeps saying that, “I’m completely satisfied.” It’s been part of his answer a few times now. But he’s not. VeloNews learned that Boonen was set to retire last season, had he won Paris-Roubaix. It would have been his fifth win, a new record. Add that to the three Tour of Flanders victories, six stages of the Tour de France, a world title. Five Roubaix wins would have made him untouchable. The decade-long rivalry between Boonen and Cancellara? It would end distinctly in Boonen’s favor. He was so very close last year, second behind Mathew Hayman. Of course he came back this season. He won’t admit it now, but the only thing that would leave him completely satisfied is a fifth cobblestone trophy.

Boonen attempted to avoid the hype and hubbub he now pretends not to feel. Just like last year, he had intended to keep a potential retirement a secret. “You know, announcing the retirement was not my idea,” he told Sporza. “I’d rather not say anything until after the arrival. But that was not feasible.”

His Quick-Step team certainly feels the weight of this week. The team proclaims an unusual and astounding dedication to a Boonen victory within this Roubaix squad. While Boonen and team owner Patrick Lefevere sit before a dozen TV cameras and a hundred microphones in the Quick-Step factory, the other riders lounge outside. They don’t bother to hide their strategy. “We’ll pull harder than we ever have for Tom,” says the tall, lanky Tim Declerq. Yves Lampaert, sitting next to him, nods. “We think we owe him this, after such a career.”

This dedication will play itself out quite visibly during Roubaix. His teammate Stybar, off the front with Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) and Sebastian Langeveld (Cannondale-Drapac), won’t consider riding for the win until four kilometers to go. He will consider going back for Boonen multiple times, leaving a podium finish on the table. Such is the devotion to Boonen that within a team with at least four potential Roubaix winners, only a Boonen victory is considered a viable scenario.

Tom Boonen
Photo: BrakeThrough Media | brakethroughmedia.com

IN BELGIUM, TOM BOONEN attained the status of sports hero, sex symbol, and national icon that a pro cyclist rarely sees in other corners of the globe. It’s a difficult concept to grasp for American cycling fans. Is there an appropriate mainstream American sports comparison for Tom Boonen?

Imagine if Massachusetts was its own small country, and every year the Super Bowl takes place in downtown Boston. Before the game, Tom Brady walks from a bus to the sideline through an open parking lot filled with screaming fans. That’s what it’s like every year at the Tour of Flanders, when Tom Boonen rides to sign in.

The Tom Brady analogy may be useful for those outside cycling, but even Brady barely captures Boonen’s level of national fame in Belgium. At Boonen’s final races it’s a palpable devotion. There are 10-foot-tall paintings of his face atop the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg. There are the thousands of Boonen masks at every start and finish. He’s on the radio and television; the ratings for his final Flanders were even higher than the usual (but still mind-blowing), 75 percent of the Belgian market.

Alessandro Tegner has been with Quick-Step as long as Boonen, since 2003. He’s the team’s communications officer, an easygoing Italian whose winks make you feel like you’re on the inside of something. His job is easy with Boonen, he says. Or it was until this year, when the requests came so thick and fast that the team had to completely re-think its media strategy. “If Tom took every media request, he wouldn’t be here today,” Tegner says. “He wouldn’t have had time to ride his bike. Not at all.”

Fabian Cancellara’s finale wasn’t like that. (Perhaps it was his choice of final race — the Olympics in Rio, where he won a gold medal but was far, literally and figuratively, from cycling’s heartland.) But throughout the pair’s deep rivalry, Boonen has always been more of a media darling. Cancellara’s press conferences were winding, circuitous, occasionally absurd affairs. Boonen’s have been, and remain, pithy. He knows what fans want and what reporters need. For example: At his final press conference he’s asked how he will feel the Monday after Paris-Roubaix. “I’m sure I will have the biggest hangover,” he says, to a room of laughter. A reporter follows up: Happy or sad? “I’m always sad when I have a hangover,” Boonen says, grinning, generating more laughter and a pile of headlines.

“He’s the only guy who has a kind of empathy with everybody,” Tegner says. Indeed, there is an authenticity to Boonen’s interactions with fans and press, one that is often lacking in media-trained professional sports. Why does he feel more authentic in interviews than others? “No idea. I have always been who I am,” Boonen says.

“He’s talking with you, with the media, with the fans, with everybody in the same way, because it’s not fake,” Tegner says. “What you see is what Tom is. That’s probably the most important thing.” The communications officer goes on to describe a natural talent — one might call it charm — drawing a comparison to the singular talent Boonen has for riding cobbles. “He’s unique in the way he rides the cobblestones and he’s unique in the way he talks to the fans and media,” he says.

“What you see is what Tom is. That’s probably the most important thing.”
– Alessandro Tegner

Being handsome doesn’t hurt. As cycling moved definitively into the television age, and then the Internet age, good looks surely worked in Boonen’s favor. Even hair loss couldn’t slow him down, as he simply embraced the dome. “Tom Boonen made cycling sexy, and for the people. He was one of those riders who could make the difference both on the bike and next to it,” says Tristan Hoffman, a former competitor at the classics and then a sport director of rival Cancellara.

That’s been vital as the media landscape has changed. “In my day we had a couple of newspapers and a couple of television stations,” says Johan Museeuw, the man who was the darling of Belgian racing before Boonen entered the picture. “Now there are magazines, websites, and it is so different for a rider. At my first victory in the Tour de France, there were 100 journalists. Now there are 1,000. That is good for cycling and that is really good for Flemish cycling. We are a small piece of the world but we have something special to say about the world of cycling.”

There are plenty of funny, media-savvy riders, of course. But Tiesj Benoot could dish out one-liners all day and never be Tom Boonen. There’s something different about Tommeke — off the bike and on it. That much has always been clear.

PARIS-ROUBAIX, 2002. The rain came, again, drizzling down on the start in Compiègne, France. Boonen was 22 years old, a neo-pro on the U.S. Postal Service team, riding his first professional Roubaix in the service of George Hincapie.

The rain didn’t last all day, though it lasted long enough. The first few sectors were a muddy mess, quickly whittling down the front group. Museeuw, the Lion of Flanders, made a late bid and rode alone into a sunny velodrome covered in quickly drying mud, pointing at the leg he almost lost from an Arenberg-induced infection. Behind, a two-up sprint between Stefan Wesemann and young Boonen. Boonen lost. But he stood on the podium at his first Roubaix.

It couldn’t be called a turning point in a career that had barely begun to roll. But the ride and the furor that followed was certainly a defining moment in Boonen’s young professional life. Museeuw, who would retire two years later, pointed at the young man and anointed him as his successor, the cobblestone prince who would be king. Recall the Tom Brady analogy and imagine, for a moment, the pressure on this 22-year-old.

“Nobody is prepared for it. There’s no manual,” Boonen says of those early days. “You finish on the podium in your first year as a pro, then somebody who has won 10 World Cups, he says ‘Yeah, he’s going to be the next guy.’ There’s no manual for it. You have to experience it, and try to do it your own way. Experience things, make mistakes, do things right, and the ball keeps rolling.”

And this is why that first podium was a defining moment. Not because it set him on a path to four Roubaix wins, three Flanders wins, “Today was a day without,” he says. Un jour sans. Without perfect legs, without perfect circumstances. The tailwind was not in his favor; the tactics were beyond his control. 13th.

He squeezes his brakes shortly after the line and darts inward, through the crowd. A quick glance through shielded eyes at Greg Van Avermaet, still hugging his teammate Daniel Oss. It’s a media melee on the infield of the Roubaix velodrome. It always is, but it’s even more chaotic this year. Everyone’s here for Tom, it seems.

“You have to experience it, and try to do it your own way. Experience things, make mistakes, do things right, and the ball keeps rolling.”
– Tom Boonen

Cameras everywhere, microphones out, riders collapsed and dust-covered, staring with unfocused eyes at their hands or the ground or nothing at all. The riders seem geologic amidst frenetic movement, like dirt-covered rocks walking through a rushing stream. Except Boonen.

Boonen. Where’s Boonen? He’s outside the velodrome already, gone. His girlfriend, Lore, and twins, Jacqueline and Valentine, still stand by the finish. Boonen rides straight to a shower, but not to the showers. Not the old cement booths with pull-chain metal heads and his name on a plaque. No, he heads to his bus, a decidedly less romantic shower. The street in front of the Quick-Step bus is deserted but for a few mechanics; everyone is still inside the velodrome. There will be no lap of honor, no final wave to his loyal fans. It’s a Belgian’s Irish goodbye.

It only takes a few minutes for the collective fandom to realize he is gone. They begin to move: a trickle at first, and then a flood, to the team bus.

It takes half an hour for Boonen to stick his head out of the bus door. The pavement where a few mechanics stood before now holds hundreds. The Boonen masks are back. A banner in Quick-Step blue unfurls, “Merci Tom.” And the roar — the same roar that’s followed Boonen from Antwerp to Oudenaarde to Mol to Compiègne to Roubaix — the roar is back. “TOOOMMMMM,” they yell. “TOOOMMMMM!”

The stout bodies of Wilfried Peeters, Quick-Step’s Roubaix sport director, and Tom Steels, stand like bodyguards, holding the masses back. “I didn’t think it would be so bad,” Boonen says. The race? Or the feelings after? Unclear. Both. He’s still in a bit of a mood — he calls John Degenkolb’s ride “cowardly” — but the adrenaline is wearing off. The smile is creeping back. “It’s something, huh?” he says. Are his eyes glistening? Just a bit. The roar has died but the crowd still chants. “Toooommm, Toooommm, Tooommmm.”

It would seem to the outsider that Flanders would be the most important race of the final week for the King of Flanders. It’s his home race, one he’s conquered three times. But for Boonen, Roubaix is it. It’s Roubaix that put the most pressure on him in his final year. It’s Roubaix that he had to pretend wasn’t a source of pressure, that he had to joke about in the week prior. Roubaix is the final race, and the only one that really, truly, mattered.

“I spent the last weeks shielded as much as possible, but I could not get out of touch,” he admits. It wasn’t until Roubaix’s final kilometers — five to go, in fact — that the feeling of conclusion became inescapable. “I thought, ‘Damn, this is my last time passing here; I will probably not return to the racing bike,’” he says. “It was much more intense than last year. It was an experience. I raced with a clear head and I really enjoyed it. But it was an almost impossible task to win.”

Tom Boonen
Photo: BrakeThrough Media | brakethroughmedia.com

IT’S THE MONDAY AFTER Roubaix. Boonen is surely nursing the hangover he promised us. The party Sunday night was a private event, organized by the team owner Boonen has ridden for since 2003, Lefevere. Family, friends, and teammates were there. A hundred people, give or take. No media. Not even longtime Belgian reporters, writers who covered Boonen since before his life-altering Roubaix in 2002, were allowed in the door. Boonen arrived in a smart gray suit, trimly tailored, to a mass of flashbulbs. The photos are in today’s paper.

What will he do tomorrow, after the hangover? He’ll take his kids to school. Relax. “I’ve been so busy for the last few weeks that I want to take it easy,” he says. “Just sit down, read the newspaper, just let everything settle down, enjoy the moment a little bit.”

Then what? He doesn’t seem to know. “Give me a couple months,” he says. “You’re still a bike rider in your head.” He needs to stop being a bike racer in his head, first and foremost.

“I’ve been so busy for the last few weeks that I want to take it easy. Just sit down, read the newspaper.”
– Tom Boonen

Boonen is more than a bike racer in a place where bike racing is more than just another sport. The pressure for a fairytale ending was seismic. Enormous. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that even Boonen, man of the people, couldn’t give us all the lap of honor we so desperately wanted. He couldn’t bring himself to look those fans in the eye after failing them, and himself, in his final Roubaix. No surprise that he fled to the bus after finishing 13th. That he took a half hour to compose himself. No surprise, really, that even Boonen isn’t always strong enough.

The Brussels airport the next morning is full of amateur cyclists nursing hangovers. The employee at check-in turns her eyes up. “Poor Tom,” she says. She is a Belgian cycling fan, of course. She shrugs her shoulders and makes a sad little noise. “Were you at the race yesterday? Did you see him?” She has the twang of a Flemish Belgian, one of Boonen’s people. “I wanted it,” she says. The fifth Roubaix, she means. The victory lap. The fairytale.