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GENT, Belgium (VN) — Tom Boonen isn’t racing for money, fame, or simply love of the game. Not anymore. The Belgian superstar already has plenty of that.
The 36-year-old from Mol extended his already illustrious career until Sunday for one reason: to create a club of one. He shares the record of four Roubaix victories with Roger de Vlaeminck, but Boonen wants his singular place in the history books. He wants a fifth Roubaix.
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“I’m not as good as I was in my best years, but I am better than I was last year,” Boonen said during a press conference Thursday. “The ideal scenario is that I can come into the velodrome alone. If it’s a big group, it’s more complicated.”
For as prolific as Boonen was throughout his career, with more than 100 career wins, including a world title and seven monuments, Paris-Roubaix is the race that suits him best. The brutality of the cobblestones, the vagaries of luck and weather, plus brute strength and stubbornness needed to win are ideal of his style of racing.
Boonen’s Roubaix track record already makes him the modern king of the cobbles. In 13 starts, he’s won four (2005, 2008, 2009, 2012), twice finished second (to Fabian Cancellara in 2006, and last year to Mathew Hayman), and one third, sharing the podium with Johan Museeuw in his extraordinary debut in 2002. There was only one DNF, in 2013, and only finished once out of the top 10 (24th in 2003, his sophomore effort). What could top it off? Go one better.
It’s why he chose Roubaix as his final race. And he’s not just racing Sunday to wave to the crowds and pose for photos with fans. He wants to win the fifth.
A few things need to go his way Sunday. No one is more experienced on the pavé than Boonen, but he knows better than anyone that everything has to go perfectly to have even a chance at riding into the velodrome with options for victory. Even with his arch-rival no longer racing (Fabian Cancellara retired last year), there is a gaggle of ambitious young challengers. No one’s going to sit up so that Tommeke can have his final pavé trophy. A win versus Boonen would only have that much more luster.
Even his former teammate and pal Stijn Vandenbergh (Ag2r-La Mondiale) said, “There are no gifts at Roubaix. Everyone wants to win there.”
Here are four things that need to go right on Sunday:
1. The perfect ride: No crashes, punctures, mishaps
This is the most obvious, but sometimes the hardest to work out. Roubaix is the lone race of the year where luck counts more than any other. Luck, and overcoming bad versions of it, is half the battle. An ill-timed puncture or crash has spoiled plenty of Roubaix dreams over the decades.
Once the cobbles arrive, the safest place to ride is near the front. It costs more energy, but the pay-off is the smoothest line over the pavé. Boonen can lean on his Quick-Step teammates to drive hard and assure him a smooth entrance to the treacherous Arenberg, the decisive cobbles that delineate the start of the real race.
Part of luck at Roubaix is making your own. Roubaix history is full of one-off winners who saw the stars align in their favor. And once on the cobbles, Boonen knows the lines better than anyone. Whether it’s on the pavé’s crown or along their edges, Boonen’s career-long experience will pay off Sunday.
Will it be enough? If he can avoid crashing, punctures or positioning errors, he’s halfway to the fifth.
2. The long bomb: Get up the road early
Boonen’s best chance to beat the likes of Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) and Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) is to take the race to them. And that means getting aggressive early.
Forecasters are calling for clear weather and southerly winds Sunday (there hasn’t been a wet Roubaix since 2002), meaning tailwinds and cross-tailwinds for most of the day. Above all, this delivers a fast race, making it difficult to break clear. But tailwinds also mean that if he does ride away, it will be harder for his rivals to bring him back. Tailwinds always favor pure strength.
He’ll also want to be ahead of Quick-Step teammates when the decisive surges go down. As we’ve seen in other races so far this spring, Boonen has often been held in check because he had a teammate up the road. That strength-in-numbers tactic is what makes Quick-Step so dangerous in the classics, but it could backfire for Boonen if someone like Niki Terpstra or Zdenek Stybar is up the road. That means Boonen would have to look to the others to chase, and if they don’t shut down the move, Quick-Step might win, but it wouldn’t be Boonen.
So watch for Boonen to try the long bomb. That’s not to say he cannot match his younger rivals or that he is racing against his teammates, but things become more complicated as more bodies are added to the fray. In 2012, Boonen’s fourth and final Roubaix win, he attacked with around 55km to go, and rode solo all the way to the velodrome. Expect him to try something like that on Sunday. There would be no better way to go out.
3. Ahead of the storm: Chaos behind him
If Boonen can avoid punctures and crashes, and muster the strength and timing to get up the road early, then he needs a few more things to stack up in his favor. Boonen will have his entire Quick-Step team at his beck and call to mark moves and stymie the chase. Taking Quick-Step’s firepower out of any organized chase dramatically tilts the race toward a rider up the road.
Then, he needs some of his most dangerous opponents to run into trouble. Of course, no competitor wishes bad luck on their rivals, but if it’s going to happen, better them than you, right? Last year’s Roubaix was marked by a crash involving Fabian Cancellara and Sagan, two powerful riders who were suddenly out of the frame. If a long-distance Boonen attack provokes panic in the ranks, Boonen will be better off for it. That means riders will be reacting to him, rather than the other way around, opening them up to a mistake.
An attacking Boonen could also count on riders playing games in the chase. Riders are often fearful of going too deep. That usually doesn’t happen in a race as demanding as Roubaix, where it’s often every man for himself, but any hesitation in a chase would aid a Boonen ambush.
4. Thinning the herd: Shed the sprinters
This will be Boonen’s Achilles heel on Sunday. Even though he wasn’t in top shape in 2016, last year proved that Boonen at 36 is not the speedster that earned him the nickname of “Tornado Tom” of a decade ago. If he’s going to win, it’s going to be like 2012, when he won in a long, solo move, not the other editions, when he still had the speed to win out of a reduced group. If riders with speed can cling to his wheel, such as Van Avermaet, Arnaud Démare (FDJ), or John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo), Boonen’s chances of victory are greatly diminished.
The fastest finishers will be doing everything they can to try to stay with Boonen, or at least work together to chase, because they also know they’re faster than Boonen in a reduced-bunch kick.
So what happens if Boonen can’t get away? Well, his chances diminish the larger the group that comes into Roubaix. In 2014, teammate Terpstra attacked out of a group of 10 that had three Quick-Step riders. Boonen could only sit back and watch. And the list is long of riders who could likely beat him in a bunch sprint — add Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) and rising Belgian prospect Oliver Naesen (Ag2r-La Mondiale).
Boonen is going to have a gigantic target on his back Sunday. It’s not hard to imagine the peloton marking his every move, and after several neutralized Boonen accelerations, a rider like Stybar could come over the top. And Boonen’s own tactic is one that strong riders like Sagan and Van Avermaet will try to deploy as well. Go long, go early, and be gone.
Paris-Roubaix is a complicated race to win. Maybe that’s why no one’s won it more than four times.