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Commentary: Flanders finds its next Tom Boonen

After a three-year wait, Flemish cycling fans have finally found an heir to Tom Boonen's throne.

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Long before Chris Froome’s Tour de France participation was our sport’s most pressing question, the cycling world was enraptured by a different inquiry that, in hindsight, was somewhat silly.

Who is the next Tom Boonen?

The year was 2015 and Boonen had entered the twilight chapter of his storied career. All across cycling-crazed Flanders, fans were on the hunt for their region’s next great cycling champion with enough of that extra special something to become global celebrity. Every few months a new promising youngster earned the moniker ‘The Next Tom Boonen,” much like every talented young basketball star in the early 2000’s was anointed ‘The Next Michael Jordan.”

The hunt was fruitless and, to be quite honest, unfair. Strong youngsters like Jasper Stuyven, Guillaume van Keirsbulck, and others faced the harsh reality of being measured up against their country’s best rider in generations.

And so, the search for the next Tom Boonen continued, well after Boonen’s discotheque-themed retirement party.

Well, here it is, 2020, and I think we finally have an answer. Three cheers, my Flemish friends, for Wout van Aert is the rightful heir to Tommeke’s fancy throne.

Wout is the answer! Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Come, let us analyze why.

In 2016 I tackled The Next Tom Boonen question in a column, and I came to a few conclusions about the je ne sais quoi that a cyclist must exhibit to truly embody Boonen.

Race results and big wins are, of course, the most important element of crowning the heir to Boonen’s throne. Boonen’s successor needs to crush the cobblestones of Roubaix and Flanders. He must also be a versatile rider capable of winning other races, like bunch sprints or time trials or whatever.

Over the past 12 months, van Aert has blossomed from a cyclocross star into perhaps the most dynamic road racer in the peloton, capable of winning bunch sprints, hilly classics, individual time trials, Tour de France stages, and the sport’s longest monument. Remember last year when he crushed Tom Dumoulin to win the individual time trial at the Critérium du Dauphiné, only to beat Sam Bennett the very next day in a sprint?

Van Aert’s huge wins at Strade Bianche and Milano-Sanremo both hint at big wins to come at a wide range of road races, from cobbled to hilly classics.

Like Tom Boonen, Wout van Aert is a freakishly talented cyclist who is sure to achieve huge victories in the years to come. And he’s only 25.

But there are other important qualities that The Next Tom Boonen needs to have in order to cross over from cycling star to international sports hero. He needs to outmuscle his rivals with raw, sheer power. He must embody that storied Flandrien hard-man spirit of logging long miles in driving rain into a constant headwind that blows from all directions. He must be tough as nails and overcome the suffering that cycling dishes out at every race.

Wout is tough as nails. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Check all of those boxes for Wout van Aert. In his previous career as the world’s best cyclocross racer, Wout van Aert ate mud sandwiches for lunch and washed them down with a glass of pressure-washer runoff from the tech pits. As for van Aert’s toughness, let’s all recall the 2018 Strade Bianche where he pushed himself so hard that his legs failed on the final climb.

Or, we can watch his gutsy ride at the 2019 Paris-Roubaix, where he was unable to stand up after crossing the line due to exhaustion.

Now that’s what it’s like to ride like a Flandrien. 

Wout van Aert collapsed from exhaustion after his gutsy ride at Paris-Roubaix in 2019. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

 

But that’s not all. He who wants to be the next Tom Boonen must-have skills and talents away from the bicycle as well. He needs a natural charisma, fluency in multiple languages, and — don’t underestimate this — the ability to look ‘cool’ in Lycra. He also must be extremely handsome, or he needs to have a cool hairdo.

An easily pronounced name helps, too. Sorry Guillaume van Kiersbulck.

Only this magical combination of qualities will help the next start achieve such mainstream heights as having a catchy EDM mix produced in his honor — Tommeke wereldkampioen

You probably think the above paragraph is ridiculous, right? At face value, it is, perhaps. Here’s the thing: In a previous career I reported on sports business, and I spoke to dozens of marketing executives from Fortune 500 brands. I cannot stress how important qualities like charm, charisma, and — while it’s an unfortunate reality — good looks and cool hair are in helping a top athlete crossover into the mainstream world of Pepsi commercials or ads for wristwatches.

Does Wout van Aert have the special sauce needed to become a global cycling celebrity? I think he does.

Let’s get the two silly — yet important! — qualities out of the way.

Does Wout van Aert have cool hair?

Heck yeah, Wout van Aert has cool hair (see below).

Wout van Aert has very cool hair. Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Is “Wout van Aert” easy to pronounce? Yes, and the Twittersphere has come up with a seemingly limitless number of hilarious ways to fashion ‘Wout’ into celebratory turns of phrase for his victories.

“Wout a race!”

“Woot Wout!”

“Wout’s going on??”

Is Wout van Aert a handsome fellow? Yes! See below.

Wout van Aert has all the qualities to become a cycling mega-star. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

And, most importantly, can Wout van Aert handle the pressure of stardom? Again, he’s proven that he can. Van Aert has already operated in the limelight for much of his life, thanks to his huge results in cyclocross. Last spring I attended his press conference prior to his Tour of Flanders debut, and van Aert calmly answered questions in Flemish and in English without so much as a moment’s hesitation to think about which language he was speaking.

When I asked him about the pressure placed on him by Flemish fans at Flanders, van Aert said it paled in comparison to the pressure that he faced during those three elite world cyclocross championships victories. At Flanders, there were other stars to fill the limelight, such as Peter Sagan, Philippe Gilbert, and Nikki Terpstra, he explained.

At cyclocross races, everyone’s gaze was squarely on him and Mathieu van der Poel.

I know, I know — how can Wout van Aert be the next Tom Boonen if he hasn’t won the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix, you ask? It’s a legitimate question, and one we can keep our eyes on during this season’s abnormal classics season later in October.

And, should he never win a cobbled classic and follow in Boonen’s footsteps, it’s not a huge setback. The next Tom Boonen is a silly title, after all. Wout van Aert is already the original Wout van Aert.