By John Wilcockson
Perhaps more than any other world champion, current rainbow jersey holder Tom Boonen most resembles his legendary countryman Rik Van Looy. Van Looy, who was known as the Emperor of Herentals after his hometown, won all of the major one-day classics, including three editions of Paris-Roubaix, which Boonen is attempting to win for a second time this Sunday.
Remarkably, Van Looy and Boonen grew up in villages only 30km apart in the flatlands directly east of Antwerp jammed up against the Dutch border. This is not Flanders, the epicenter of Belgian cycling, but a region, once called Brabant, that has produced scores of excellent pro racers.
Van Looy turned pro in 1953 at age 19 and scored the first of his major victories, Ghent-Wevelgem, at age 22. Boonen was 21 when he turned pro with U.S. Postal in 2002, but his break-through win also came at Wevelgem, in 2004, when he was 23.
Two years later, Boonen has added two editions of the Tour of Flanders, one Paris-Roubaix, one world championship and four stages of the Tour de France to his palmarès. By the same age, 25, Van Looy had won Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Tours, the Tour of Lombardy, four stages of the Giro d’Italia and nine stages of the Vuelta a España.
Van Looy went on to take some 380 road victories in a pro career that spanned 18 seasons between 1953 and 1970. That’s an average of 21 wins per year. Boonen won only twice in his first two seasons, but since then he has averaged 16 wins per year and has already won 12 times in the first 10 weeks of the 2006 season.
Although Van Looy, at 5-foot-10 and 171 pounds, was much more compact than the 6-foot-3, 176-pound Boonen, he had similar qualities. Just as Van Looy could out-sprint virtually anyone at the end of a tough race, partly thanks to the famous Red Guard of his Faema-Flandria team, one of the sport’s first lead-out trains, he also had the ability to make strong solo attacks — the same as Boonen is doing today.
Van Looy was at his peak from 1960 to 1962, starting with his victory at the 1960 world championships on the Sachsenring in the former East Germany. With the rainbow jersey on his back, he stormed through the 1961 season much as Boonen is this year. In that season 45 years ago, Van Looy won 25 races, including the Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Zürich classics, and he repeated at the world’s.
While Boonen won Paris-Roubaix at his fourth attempt last year (taking the final sprint from George Hincapie), Van Looy was winless through six editions of the Hell of the North (third being his best placing) coming in to 1961. After bridging to the winning break on the cobblestones 20km from the finish and then out-sprinting five others on the Roubaix velodrome, the ecstatic Van Looy said, “this win makes me happier than winning the world title last year.” He then revealed that, with a kilometer to go, he felt his rear tire starting to slip off the rim; and so he waited until the velodrome’s final straightaway before making his sprint.
A year later, after again winning the rainbow jersey, Van Looy didn’t want to take any risks on the velodrome and broke clear of four others in the streets of Roubaix to win solo by 24 seconds. “The greatest racer in the greatest race,” wrote L’Équipe editor Jacques Goddet. “With its exceptional course, Paris-Roubaix was evidently created for an exceptional being like Rik Van Looy.”
A third Roubaix victory came to Van Looy three years later, when he was 31 and in his 13th season as a professional. This time he attacked hard from an eight-strong group and rode the final 10km alone to win by more than a minute. He called it “the greatest victory of my career because everyone said I was finished.”
But he wasn’t done. In addition to his three Roubaix wins and two world titles, Van Looy collected victories in all of the classics that then existed: Milan-San Remo, Tour of Flanders, Ghent-Wevelgem, Paris-Brussels, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Championship of Zürich, Paris-Tours, Tour of Lombardy…. There was just one classic missing from his collection when he lined up for the hilly Flèche Wallonne in 1968, at age 34, in his 16th year as a pro. Remarkably, Van Looy stayed with the strongest in the hills then broke clear with a young Belgian, José Samyn, on the flatter roads that preceded the finish in Marcinelle (this was long before the finish was moved to the Mur de Huy). Van Looy, a huge grin on his round face, easily took the final sprint to become the only racer to win all of the classics — even Eddy Merckx didn’t do that (he never won Paris-Tours).
But perhaps Van Looy’s greatest performance came in a race he didn’t win. It was at the 1967 Paris-Roubaix, a year before his historic Flèche Wallonne victory, when 10 riders arrived at the Roubaix velodrome to contest the victory. Among them were three world champions, Van Looy, Dutchman Jan Janssen and German Rudi Altig, along with the man who would become world champion that year, Eddy Merckx.
This is how Van Looy described the one and a half laps of the 500-meter concrete velodrome: “Coming onto the track, I took Altig’s wheel because he seemed to be the strongest. He was in ninth place, so I was at the very back of the group. On Rudi’s wheel, I was coming past everyone and I felt I was sure to win. Unfortunately, in the last straight, he suddenly slowed. I had to extricate myself and re-accelerate, and I was just beaten by Janssen.”
There was just half a bike length between Janssen and runner-up Van Looy, with Altig in third … and Merckx in eighth. Victory would have given Van Looy the all-time record of four Roubaix wins — a record that was set 10 years later by another Belgian, “Mr. Paris-Roubaix,” Roger De Vlaeminck.
It may be too early to predict that Tom Boonen, with just one Roubaix cobblestone trophy to his name, could some day beat Roger De Vlaeminck’s Roubaix record or even equal the all-the-classics haul of Rik Van Looy. What we do know is that with his all-conquering confidence, his modern Quick Step “blue guard,” and with the rainbow jersey on his back, Boonen has the potential to do it all. And Roubaix victory No. 2 is in the cards for this Sunday in the Hell of the North.