Analysis: Charmed Boonen back on top with Ghent-Wevelgem win

Former Flanders, Roubaix champ is making the right moves when it counts

WEVELGEM, Belgium (VN) — With his victory Sunday, the third Ghent-Wevelgem win of his career, Tom Boonen emphatically confirmed that, at the age of 31, and seven years after his breakthrough season, he is back on top.

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 complete. The following year he pulled off the hallowed Flanders-Roubaix double, and capped off the season with a world championship title. He was the face of the post-Armstrong generation, a young, handsome, well-spoken and multilingual Belgian, powerful for the classics and fast for the sprints, popular for his smile and quick handshake.

Seven years, two more Roubaix cobblestone trophies and another Flanders win later, after an emotional rollercoaster that saw Boonen rise and fall and seek redemption from a once-adoring Belgian public, the rider known as “Tommeke” returned to the top step in Wevelgem last year.

That 2011 win came as a shock, primarily because Boonen had planned to compete instead at E3 Harelbeke the previous day. But his Quick Step team management pressured him to race Ghent-Wevelgem instead, with the primary goal of earning WorldTour points. With teammate Sylvain Chavanel up the road in a breakaway until the final kilometer, Boonen’s second Ghent-Wevelgem win came as a blur, albeit with a pleasant surprise ending, his first win since Roubaix in 2009. 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 the Vuelta a España, both in pain. A stage 5 crash at the Tour left Boonen dazed and bleeding, pedaling along for 58km to barely finish within the time cut. Two days later, still complaining of headaches and dizziness, Boonen’s cobblestone classics rival Fabian Cancellara felt compelled to drift back to the Quick Step team car to tell 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.

And 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 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.”

The 2011 season ended in frustration, a continuation of a 2010 season that had been cut short by a knee injury, the result of terrible crash at the Tour of Switzerland while riding behind Mark Cavendish and Heinrich Haussler during a sprint. Boonen missed the Tour de France, had knee surgery, missed the Vuelta and world championships, and struggled through the winter. He found form in the spring of 2011 — enough to win in Wevelgem, but not enough to topple a monument.

While Boonen struggled with injuries, doubts surfaced about his longevity. With the emergence of Cancellara as the strongest classics rider in the peloton, and Mark 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 and John Degenkolb appeared poised for the classics throne. Beaten and battered, Boonen appeared to have lost his mojo, his best years behind him.

Only he hadn’t, and they weren’t.

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 squad 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. He finished second to Sep Vanmarcke with a poorly timed sprint at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and then won the first field sprint at Paris-Nice. Wins at Harelbeke on Friday and in Wevelgem Sunday, his sixth and seventh of the year, left no doubt that Boonen is enjoying a renaissance in his eleventh year as a professional.

“I only just said it 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. It’s important that I’ve won these two races. I said before the start, these five or six races are the most important of my season. Everything I do is to be ready for this part of the season.”

After winning Harelbeke on Friday, Boonen came into Ghent-Wevelgem as a big favorite; however, conventional wisdom dictated that in order to win, the peloton was going to have to dispose of Cavendish, which it did in the rolling roads between the final two climbs, the Kemmelberg and the Monteberg.

With Omega Pharma teammates Gert Steegmans and Gerald Ciolek alongside Boonen in the front group after the Kemmelberg, Omega Pharma was able to thwart a dangerous six-man move with Cancellara, Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) inside the final 20km. Once that move was caught, a field sprint was inevitable, with Oscar Freire (Katusha), second to Boonen at Harelbeke, likely the most dangerous threat. However, 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.

“When I took the start today, the first goal was to make it through with no crashes, especially with a day like today, with very little wind, it’s hectic, you have to stay concentrated to stay at the front,” Boonen said. “As the race went on the group got smaller. We talked on the bus about the possibility that if we survived the Kemmel with a few guys, we would work together. We did, and we controlled the final. I took my chances, maybe taking a chance to [sprint] from the second row. But with a headwind like we had, I think it was the best solution.”

With his wins at Harelbeke and Wevelgem, all eyes are now on Boonen to produce a cobbled classics hat trick — either at De Ronde next Sunday, or in two weeks’ time, at Roubaix. However, those races, particularly Roubaix, can be a bit of a lottery — a lottery Boonen’s seen both sides of. Clearly, though, lady luck is back on Tommeke’s side.