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Peloton backing Boonen miracle farewell, with one caveat

Tom Boonen is one of the peloton's most popular riders. But though Roubaix favorites admire his career, they won't cut him slack on Sunday.

GENT, Belgium (VN) — Everyone wants “Tommeke” to win Sunday, even his rivals.

Everyone knows there is no charity in cycling, especially a race as prestigious as Paris-Roubaix. Yet less than 48 hours before the start of the “Hell of the North,” there is universal agreement in the peloton: If they cannot win Roubaix, they wouldn’t mind seeing Boonen take the history-making fifth Roubaix trophy.

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Several big names across the peloton expressed support for a final Boonen victory in what’s the Belgian superstar’s farewell race, but with one important caveat: only if they cannot win themselves.

“We will try to beat him, eh? Oliver [Naesen] is riding well. You don’t give presents, not in the classics. Everyone wants to win Roubaix,” Stijn Vandenbergh, a former teammate and friend now racing at Ag2r La Mondiale, told VeloNews. “But if we are not playing for the win, I hope he can win.”

Of course, no one is going to step aside to let Boonen ride into the history books. The Quick-Step star is tied with Roger de Vlaeminck with a record four Roubaix trophies, and enters Sunday’s Roubaix as one of the top favorites.

Two-time world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) was another voice who said he would like to see Boonen win his final race if he’s not in winning position himself. Sagan told the Belgian daily Het Nieuwsblad that Boonen was “my role model and idol. When I first raced Roubaix, I had no idea how to race the pavé. I watched him and learned.”

Sagan said he and Boonen have become close friends, and Boonen happily gave Sagan a high-five at the finish line when the Slovakian won the world title in Richmond in 2015. Sagan said he would celebrate a Boonen win Sunday.

“If I cannot win, I will be very happy if he could,” Sagan told Het Nieuwsblad. “It would be a great end to his career.”

Boonen leaves the sport riding on a wave of emotion and adulation from his legions of fans. On Wednesday, he raced his last race in Belgium, with Scheldeprijs moving its start to Boonen’s hometown of Mol to pay homage one last time to their most successful cobbles rider in a generation.

Throughout the buildup to Roubaix, Boonen has been patiently dealing with media requests, signing autographs, and soaking in the ambiance of his final days as a professional.

Even rivals and opposing teams express admiration for Boonen’s sportsmanship and professionalism.

“I always say, if we cannot win, I would like to see Tom win,” Trek-Segafredo sport director Dirk Demol told VeloNews. Demol helped bring Boonen to the U.S. Postal Service, and has known Boonen since he was a promising junior rider.

“I have known him since a young rider, and not only is he a good rider, but he is a good person, too,” said Demol a Roubaix winner himself. “He will be good on Sunday. It’s his race, and he showed everyone at the Muur [at Ronde van Vlaanderen] that he is ready. He will be missed.”

Of course, Boonen knows no one is going to set up the red carpet for him on Sunday.

“Everyone has been talking about me. I think I will have a big target on my back Sunday,” Boonen said Thursday at a press conference. “I am in better condition than I was last year [second to Mathew Hayman]. This year, I’ve had a better approach to Roubaix. Last year, it was a race against time. Let’s see how it goes. I know it won’t be easy.”

Boonen extended his racing career until Sunday for one reason: to win the record fifth Roubaix. He knows no one is going to give it to him, and he wouldn’t want it any other way.