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Velo June 2012. Photo by Tim de Waele

From the pages of Velo: In the Eye of the Tornado

Winning four classics in three weeks was more than victory for Tom Boonen — it was vindication

Editor’s note: As we ring out 2012, we look at 12 of our favorite stories of the year. Neal Rogers’ profile of Tom Boonen’s rise, fall and triumphant return first appeared in the June 2012 issue of Velo magazine.

In the Eye of the Tornado

When Tom Boonen crossed the finish line, alone, inside the hallowed velodrome of Paris-Roubaix, he’d done much more than just win the sport’s most demanding classic.

By winning Roubaix one week after he’d won the Tour of Flanders — and two weeks after winning both E3 Harelbeke and Ghent-Wevelgem — the Omega Pharma-Quick Step rider had silenced his critics, once and for all, proving to the world, and to himself, that he is the best cobblestones racer of his era, and perhaps of all time.

Unlike his sprint wins at Flanders, Ghent-Wevelgem and Harelbeke, Boonen won Roubaix in dramatic style, attacking with 55km remaining and holding off all of the sport’s toughest racers save for one — Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan), Boonen’s long-running classics rival — who was watching the race at home in Switzerland while nursing a surgically repaired collarbone.

With his victory, Boonen had tied Roger De Vlaeminck’s record of four Paris-Roubaix wins; he’d also become the only rider to accomplish the extraordinary Flanders-Roubaix double more than once.

But more important than any record, Boonen had come full circle. He’d closed the door on the endless question marks, implications and innuendo that suggested he’d fallen permanently from grace. He’d proven that he had not, in fact, squandered his talent, and he had not sold short the limitless career that lay before him after his breakthrough 2005 season — a career that has been hindered by obstacles, both external and self-imposed.

The Perils of Stardom

When Boonen first won Ghent-Wevelgem in 2004, on the heels of his first win at E3 Harelbeke, his arrival as a classics contender was without question. Later that year, he won his first two Tour de France stages, including the prestigious sprint finale on the Champs Élysées.

It was in 2005 that Boonen accomplished his first Flanders-Roubaix double, the first time he’d won either race. Within the span of seven days, he was launched into the celebrity stratosphere in his native country of Belgium. He followed those Monument titles with a pair of Tour de France stage wins before crashing out wearing the green jersey; eight weeks later he wore the rainbow stripes, winning the world championship in Madrid.

That world title came on the heels of Lance Armstrong’s final Tour de France victory, and Boonen, not yet 25, was the sport’s newest idol. He was the face of the post-Armstrong generation, a handsome, well-spoken and multilingual Belgian, powerful for the classics and fast for the sprints, popular for his smile and quick handshake.

In retrospect, 2005 was a dream season, and one that would prove impossible to match. But for a cycling-obsessed Belgian populace, still reeling from Johan Museeuw’s disgraceful exit from the sport in 2004 amid doping revelations, Boonen was nothing less than the second coming, a classics star for a new era.

Museeuw had long been affectionately referred to as “The Lion of Flanders,” and after Boonen first stood on the Roubaix podium in 2003, third behind Museeuw in his first Roubaix, the tall, handsome young man from Balen, just outside of Antwerp, was dubbed “The Cub of Flanders.”

By winning Flanders and Roubaix a few months into the first season following Museeuw’s retirement, the succession was complete. Even the nickname matured; he would thereafter be referred to as “Tornado Tom.” That nickname would prove to be accurate in more ways than one — a superstar at a young age, with everything he could ever ask for at his disposal, Boonen’s personal life became a whirlwind.

In 2006, Boonen moved to the tax haven of Monaco, won a second Flanders, was second at Roubaix (after he was held up behind a train crossing) and wore the Tour’s maillot jaune for three stages. In December of that year he split with his longtime girlfriend, Lore Van De Weyer. It wasn’t obvious at the time, but it was the beginning of a downward spiral that would last several years.

In April of 2007, after winning Harelbeke and Dwars door Vlaanderen, but missing the podium at Flanders and Roubaix, he crashed his Lamborghini alone, late at night, claiming that he’d swerved to avoid a cat; drunk driving was wildly speculated. That summer, he took two Tour stages on the way to his first and only green points jersey title, and in the fall he was photographed cavorting around the Amstel Curaçao Race with 16-year-old bikini-clad bombshell Sophie van Vliet, daughter of the race organizer. Boonen was rightfully characterized in the Belgian media as a playboy, albeit a flawed one.

In June 2008, two months after outsprinting Cancellara and Alessandro Ballan for a second Roubaix title, Boonen was pulled over for driving 110mph in a 55mph zone, and was ticketed for driving while intoxicated. A few days later he tested positive for cocaine in an out-of-competition control, but denied using the drug, suggesting someone must have spiked his drink. He was banned from that year’s Tour de France. A year later, following his third Roubaix win in 2009, he tested positive for cocaine again; news also leaked that he’d tested positive for cocaine and ecstasy in a December 2007 out-of-competition test.

This time around, he had no choice but to acknowledge that he had a problem. If nothing else, he had learned very little from his mistakes.

“After spending three to four months working hard, when I go out I probably overstep the mark and I become someone else,” Boonen said at a May 2009 press conference. “For 364 days a year, it’s perfect. I try to be an exemplary citizen. But the day that I drink too much, something that I don’t do often, something changes. I’ll seek help.”

The Long Road Back

During that shameful confession, Boonen swore to turn his life around. And he did, though it would take longer than he might have imagined.

Reunited with Lore, he took a big win at the 2009 Belgian national championship, out-sprinting Philippe Gilbert. He and his Quick Step team mounted a protracted and successful legal challenge, forcing ASO to allow him to race the 2009 Tour. His race ended on stage 15 due to illness, without a stage win.

Cancellara dominated the 2010 classics season much like Boonen has dominated this year. After soloing away from Boonen and Juan Antonio Flecha at Harelbeke for the win, Cancellara was again the protagonist at Flanders. He and Boonen engaged in an epic contest, off the front together with 40km to go, each man trading pulls, each man wearing his national champion’s jersey. It was a battle for the ages, with Cancellara ultimately riding away from the Belgian champion over the Kapelmuur. A week later, Cancellara again soloed to victory at Roubaix, attacking while Boonen was eating at the back of a select group. The Swiss star had now achieved a Flanders-Roubaix double of his own, while Boonen had only second-place finishes at Harelbeke and Flanders to add to his second-place at Milan-San Remo, behind Óscar Freire (then with Rabobank).

The remainder of 2010, and nearly all of 2011, was marred by injury. The big Belgian crashed hard twice during the spring of 2010, first at the Amgen Tour of California, and again at the Tour of Switzerland, a victim of the infamous tangle between Mark Cavendish and Heinrich Haussler. Boonen’s injury forced him to miss the Tour de France; instead he underwent surgery on his left knee to repair ligament damage, missing the Vuelta and world championships, and he struggled through the winter. He found form in the spring of 2011 — enough to win Ghent-Wevelgem, but not enough to win a Monument. He went on to finish fourth at Flanders, but for the first time in his career he was a DNF at Roubaix after a series of crashes and mechanicals ended his race.

That Roubaix abandonment would be a precursor of things to come for Boonen’s 2011 season. He was forced to abandon the Tour de France and Vuelta a España, both in pain. A stage 5 crash at the Tour left him dazed and bleeding, chasing for 58km to barely finish within the time cut. Two days later, still complaining of headaches and dizziness, it was Cancellara who felt compelled to drift back to the Quick Step team car, telling Boonen’s director Wilfried Peeters that the big Belgian was wandering through the peloton and had become a danger to the rest of the bunch.

In the overbearing heat of the Vuelta, Boonen developed a saddle sore so painful that he rode the entire stage 10 time trial standing, out of the saddle, finishing the stage dead last. He then fell on stage 15 and broke his wrist; he was unable to hold the handlebar for the final 20km of the stage, including the climb up the brutally steep Angliru. Ten days later he was forced to relinquish his spot on the Belgian world championships squad, describing his wrist pain as “incredible.”

While Boonen struggled with injuries, doubts surfaced about his longevity. With the emergence of Cancellara as the strongest classics rider in the peloton, and Cavendish as the most dominant sprinter of the era, Boonen’s time in the spotlight appeared to be in the past; he was neither as strong as the Swiss Time Machine nor as fast as the Manx Missile. Meanwhile, emerging young riders such as Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale), Sep Vanmarcke (Garmin-Barracuda) and John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano) appeared poised for the classics throne.

Boonen even admitted he’d grown wary of field sprinting, saying, “In the 10 years I’ve been part of the bunch, a lot has changed. In the past there was more respect … Nowadays the guys take too big of risks. They push the line. When it is too dangerous, I just don’t take part of it.”

Beaten and battered, Boonen appeared to have lost his touch, his best years behind him.

Only he hadn’t, and they weren’t.

Four-for-Four

With Quick Step since 2003, Boonen was an integral component of the new-and-improved Omega Pharma-Quick Step team of 2012, which saw the signing of GC riders Levi Leipheimer, Tony Martin and Peter and Martin Velits. No longer just a Belgian classics team, Omega Pharma had morphed into a team for the stage races. And a funny thing happened — it raised everyone’s game, including the team’s longtime franchise rider.

A revitalized Boonen came out swinging in 2012, winning stages at the Tour de San Luis, where Leipheimer won the overall, as well as the Tour of Qatar, where Boonen won the overall for a record fourth time. In February he finished second to Vanmarcke with a poorly timed sprint at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and then won the first field sprint at Paris-Nice.

When the big Belgian crossed the finish line first in Harelbeke on March 23, ahead of Freire in a photo finish, the smile across his face was visible from 500 meters away. It was his fifth Harelbeke win, and his first since 2007.

“I am happy. I am very happy” Boonen said after winning Harelbeke. “This has always been a special race for me, and after winning it four times in a row, everyone has been waiting for me to get the fifth, to take the record. I’ve been beaten two times here since [and missed the race two times], and it’s made me more eager to try.”

Ghent-Wevelgem, held two days later, also came down to a field sprint; both Freire and Sagan jumped early, while Boonen waited patiently. The big Belgian wasn’t necessarily the fastest man in the bunch, but he timed his sprint to perfection. Back-to-back victories at Harelbeke and Wevelgem, his sixth and seventh of the season, confirmed that Boonen was enjoying a renaissance season in his eleventh year as a professional.

“As I said in January — if I don’t have any injuries, I’ll be in top shape,” Boonen said after winning Ghent-Wevelgem. “Last year, with my knee problem, I could not get into shape. [The cobbled classics] are the most important races of my season. Everything I do is to be ready for this part of the season.”

The week leading into the Ronde van Vlaanderen was loaded with anticipation, both for the battle between Boonen and Cancellara, and to see how the new course would play out, having lost the Kapelmuur for three circuits using the Kwaremont and Paterberg, with a new finish in Oudenaarde. As it was, the April 1 race was somewhat anticlimactic and came down to the final circuit; by that time Cancellara was already in an Oudenaarde hospital.

When Ballan attacked on the final trip over Oude Kwaremont, Filippo Pozzato (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia) bridged across, taking Boonen with him, with Sagan putting in a brave, lone chase effort 20 seconds behind. With Pozatto the only rider standing a chance against Boonen in a sprint, the Italians formed a quick alliance over the final 10km — Ballan would attack, and Pozatto would not chase. Ballan’s repeated accelerations tested the Belgian, but he could not break Boonen’s resolve, and the Omega Pharma rider beat Pozatto by a bike length to claim an emotional third Flanders crown.

“It’s amazing. I wasn’t expecting it. I was not even feeling super today. I don’t know why, but I was feeling really tired during the race,” said Boonen. “But in the final, I had to count on my sprint. I wasn’t strong enough to ride to the finish solo.”

A week later, however, he was strong enough. With all eyes on him as the overwhelming pre-race favorite, Boonen silenced his critics with a demonstrative solo victory at Paris-Roubaix, crossing the velodrome finish line 1:39 ahead of a five-man group.

The race began to truly take shape on the Orchies cobblestone sector with 60km to go. After the day’s early 12-man breakaway had been reeled in, Boonen and Pozatto accelerated from the pack, catching Europcar’s Sébastien Turgot; behind, Omega Pharma-Quick Step teammate Niki Terpstra and Ballan bridged across to form a dangerous five-man move.

Sensing the time was right, Boonen and Terpstra picked up the pace, while Pozatto and Ballan made the conscious decision not to join the Belgian Omega Pharma teammates. And that move looked to be the wise one when Terpstra dropped off the pace a few kilometers later on the five-star pavé section of Auchyles-Orchies-Bersée, leaving Boonen on his own with 55km to go. However, soon after, Pozzato overshot a cobblestone corner and went down, taking Stijn Devolder (Vacansoleil-DCM) with him, and Boonen’s lead doubled.

For the first 10km of his solo move, Boonen’s gap hovered around 30 seconds, until it slowly started stretching out — 34 seconds at 43km to go, 44 seconds with 37km to go, and 55 seconds with 32km to go. It was an audacious solo attack reminiscent of Cancellara’s race-winning move in 2010, from nearly the exact same distance to the finish.

“When I had 30 seconds, I thought, ‘Okay it’s hard for everyone,’” Boonen said. “I only worried about another favorite like Ballan or Pozatto bridging across on Carrefour de l’Arbre. Then it would have been impossible for me to win.”

And though he was alone, with four Team Sky riders amassed at the front of the first chase group, Boonen committed to the bold move, slowly increasing his lead until, with just over 10km remaining and the perilous Carrefour de l’Arbre cobblestones behind him, it was clear the race behind was for second place.

With the win, Boonen tied De Vlaeminck’s record; he became the only rider to have won E3 Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in one season, and he became the first to achieve the Flanders-Roubaix double twice.

“It’s my most beautiful win,” Boonen said after Roubaix. “I realize now I am maybe the best guy to ever ride on these cobblestones.”

He dedicated the win to his girlfriend, Lore, who had spent the day unpacking their belongings in their move from Monaco back to Belgium.

“The last few kilometers I thought about my girlfriend, not about Roger [De Vlaeminck]. She’s putting a lot of work in our new house and in the move back from Monaco. That’s why I pointed to the camera. She probably almost died at home as she wasn’t here in Roubaix. This win is for her.”

What’s Next for Tommeke?

After overcoming a string of bad luck, poor health and the struggles of dealing with superstardom that came at a young age, Boonen is now more mature, and more ambitious, than ever.

“I just love it,” Boonen said in Roubaix, of his career as a professional cyclist. “I think these last few years, I’ve found more love for the bike. I’m not losing it. I think it’s getting easier, getting older.”

Unlike Belgian legend Eddy Merckx, who won every Monument at least twice, Boonen has little chance of winning on the hilly courses of Lombardy or Liège-Bastogne-Liège. He’s got his eyes set on another world championship, perhaps in Valkenberg come September, on a course that will finish with the Amstel Gold Race’s Cauberg climb. Milan-San Remo is the only other Monument he can realistically win — he’s twice been on the podium — but his future lies firmly on the bumpy pavé.

How many more cobbled classics can Boonen win? It’s difficult to say, though at 31, it’s likely he will aim for at least one more Roubaix and one more Flanders, standing alone atop the list of all-time victories for both. However, with Boonen and Cancellara both hitting maturity, the next few years should be epic. And a gang of younger riders will be nipping at their heels, including the likes of Sagan, Degenkolb and Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing).

Boonen can be competitive for at least another four years, perhaps more, if he avoids any major injuries and continues to keep his off-the-bike lifestyle in check.

“There’s no way he’s done at 31,” said Omega Pharma team boss Patrick Lefevere. “We have stood by Tom during his troubles and I believe he will be competitive for many years to come. A champion is always a champion.”

For now, Boonen’s troubles seem to be in the rearview mirror, and a happier, more mature Boonen is a rider at the peak of his skills, enjoying his craft.

“I never have problems finding motivation to train,” he said. “It’s my eleventh year as a pro, and there are always ups and downs, but I never have problems training. These races are the ones I love. The moment I start to feel tired, and not training, then it’s time to stop.”

There’s no doubt Boonen is back on top. As proven time and again over his career, how long he’ll remain on top will be largely up to him.

Velo European Correspondent Andrew Hood contributed to this profile.

Cancellara injury dramatically changed classics season

In an instant, the complexion of the 2012 spring classics season had changed.

With around 65km remaining at the Tour of Flanders, in an innocuous, paved feed zone, the rider widely predicted to win the race, and possibly Paris-Roubaix one week later, was on the ground and out of the race, his collarbone shattered into pieces.

With Fabian Cancellara’s injury, the Ronde van Vlaanderen quickly fell into Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s hands, evidenced by a 10-man escape in the final 40km that featured Tom Boonen, Sylvain Chavanel and Niki Terpstra. No other riders were willing to commit to that group — and why would they? There had been only one rider in the race truly capable of disrupting Omega Pharma’s stranglehold, and he was in an ambulance.

It was as if the schoolyard bully, who had been kept in check by a protective older brother, suddenly had full rein to pick on the rest of the class. A race that was already being ridden tentatively, due to its new, demanding course, had suddenly become a death march towards the inevitable. This time, unlike one week earlier at E3 Harelbeke, the Swiss champion would not get up off the ground after a crash and chase valiantly back to the front group.

The fact that Cancellara’s injury opened the door for Omega Pharma to control Flanders, and allowed Boonen to ride away from the rest of the field at Roubaix, is a testament to the influence the RadioShack leader wields when it comes to the cobbled classics.

Even an on-form Boonen admitted in the build-up to Flanders that Cancellara was “probably one or two percent stronger than I am.” (To which Cancellara had joked, “Tom says I am one or two percent stronger than him — what is he, a scientist?”)

The truth was, however, the new Flanders course, with its three trips over the Kwaremont, was better suited to Cancellara than Boonen. If there was one rider capable of powering away on the final trip over the Kwaremont, as Alessandro Ballan attempted to do, it was Cancellara. Whether the big Swiss rider would have been capable of holding off a chase in the headwind-run into Oudenaarde would have depended largely on the size of the chase group, and shall remain a question for the ages.

After the Flanders podium celebration, Velo asked Boonen to articulate what Cancellara’s crash meant, both for Flanders and for the anticipated battle at Paris-Roubaix.

“It’s a pity for Fabian, I know how it feels, you do a lot of work, and then you lose all your chances,” Boonen said. “But that’s bike racing, sometimes you are lucky, sometimes you are not. I can’t say what it would have meant for the race, it’s impossible to know.”

Instead, Boonen is a three-time Flanders winner and four-time Roubaix winner, while Cancellara is recovering from surgery, and has changed his focus towards the Tour de France and London Olympics.

“I had two major goals this season: the classics and the Olympics,” Cancellara said two days after Flanders. “The spring campaign is unfortunately over for me now. Because I had planned a break after the classics anyway, my build-up towards London will not change. The plan is that I will return to competition in May, possibly the [May 23-27] Bayern Rundfahrt, as I did last year.”

Had a stray bottle in the feed zone not caught Cancellara’s front wheel, it could all have been so very different; the Swiss star might have become a two-time Flanders champion, tying Boonen, with an epic duel slated for Roubaix.

At the very least, it would have been much more enjoyable to watch.

A Tale of Two Bike Launches

Both Trek and Specialized launched new bikes in the week before Paris-Roubaix. Thanks to Tom Boonen’s incredible performances, we all know which bike was ridden to victory at the Tour of Flanders and the Hell of the North. And while it would be easy to praise Specialized for a superbly timed introduction for the new Roubaix (we at Velo did just that when the Specialized Venge was launched and a day later Matt Goss won the 2011 Milan-San Remo), if not for an errant water bottle, the outcome could have been much different.

With 63 kilometers to go at the Tour of Flanders, at the exit of a feedzone, Fabian Cancellara crashed heavily, breaking his collarbone in four places. He was aboard the new Trek Domane at the time, after having helped Trek develop the new machine; he won Strade Bianche on it earlier in the season.

The Domane is Trek’s first stab at endurance bikes like the Specialized Roubaix. The Domane has increased tire clearance, a longer wheelbase, lower bottom bracket, taller head tube and Trek’s new Iso-Speed frame de-coupler (which isolates the seat tube from the rest of the frame, allowing the seat tube to absorb more road vibration). The resulting bike puts the Roubaix squarely in its sights. Like the Roubaix, it’s a bike that will suit racers doing longer events (its bottom bracket stiffness is higher than the Madone, making it very efficient) and cycling’s growing demographic of older professionals who run higher handlebars and enjoy more predictable handling.

While the Domane signals Trek’s entry into the high-performance endurance bicycle segment, the Specialized is arguably the bike that started it all. Introduced in 2004, the Roubaix is the archetype for this genre and won VeloNews’ endurance bike test last year. Three of the past four winners of Paris-Roubaix have been aboard the model. The latest version includes new, larger Zertz inserts in the fork and seatstays and serves as the next step of refinement for the Roubaix.

With Specialized’s position as top dog in this category, it was Trek who had more to gain with the Domane, an entirely new model. And who would have bet against Cancellara? Many cycling pundits were certain that Cancellara would have won either Flanders or Roubaix, possibly both, had he not fallen. And with those victories, Trek would have collected huge bragging rights for its new bike.

While cycling fans may have been left a bit wanting, Trek was especially saddened, both for its fallen rider and for the major setback to the debut of the Domane. The attention garnered by winning a cobbled Monument would have guaranteed the new model’s success like little else could. And that’s a shame, since the bike displays how Trek has taken an amazing step forward. Oh, the difference a dropped bottle can make. — NICK LEGAN

Turgot’s Millimeter

It’s not often that you can directly credit an equipment choice with giving a rider a higher placing in a race. A bicycle is, after all, a human-powered vehicle and it’s the effort of the rider that propels them both across the finish line. But sometimes, just sometimes, equipment choices do make the difference between winning and losing — or in this case, between second and third.

On Easter Sunday, Sébastien Turgot went to the finish line of Paris-Roubaix with a group of five, including Alessandro Ballan. Using his experience on the track and what he had left in the tank, Turgot followed the right wheels to move up, and then led hard out of the last corner. In the head-to-head sprint with Ballan, the Frenchman took second place, one millimeter ahead of the Italian.

In many sports, it’s the athlete’s body that counts when crossing the line. Nordic ski racing, for example, counts the first boot to breach the finish line, not the tip of the ski. But in cycling, it’s all about the front wheel, and more specifically, the front edge of the tire. And here is where equipment choice may have made the difference.

Ballan and his BMC Racing team were aboard the new GF01 gran fondo bike. They rode Easton carbon wheels with Continental Competition 28mm tubulars. The Europcar team opted for Colnago Prestige cyclocross machines, Campagnolo Bora wheels and 29.2mm Dugast-produced Hutchinson tubulars. It turns out there are small, but significant, differences there.

The front center (the distance between the bottom bracket and the front dropout) of a cyclocross bike is typically longer than a road bike. What that means is that for a given rider’s position, with the set up being the same on a road bike and a cyclocross bike, the front wheel on the cyclocross bike will be farther in front of the rider.

Now imagine that you spend your entire season, save for one day of racing, on a road bike. You learn to time your bike throw based on where your front wheel is on your road bike. After all, it’s all about getting your front wheel across the line first. But on that one special day of racing, you’re aboard a bike with a front wheel a few millimeters farther forward. Voilà! There’s the millimeter difference that may have put Turgot one step above Ballan on the Roubaix podium. (Ballan’s BMC also had a longer front center than his normal SLR01, but the difference is smaller than in Turgot’s case.)

There was another millimeter in Turgot’s favor, however: his tires. Europcar used huge Dugast 29.2mm tires on its Colnago ’cross bikes. Ballan’s BMC team used Continental Competition 28.0mm tires. That’s a width measurement, but as a tire gets wider it also becomes radially taller. Voilà encore! There’s another millimeter for Turgot.

Judging a sprint, and especially a bike throw, is about situational awareness. But in a race as hard as Paris-Roubaix, sometimes it’s simply about throwing everything you have at it. Europcar’s choice to use cyclocross bikes and large 29mm tires was fortuitous in a race of millimeters, and that choice moved Turgot onto the second step of the Paris Roubaix podium, ahead of Ballan. — NICK LEGAN