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Scheldeprijs says goodbye in Boonen’s hometown

Wednesday's event will serve as Tom Boonen's last race as a professional on Belgian roads.

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GENT, Belgium (VN) — Tom Boonen’s long goodbye will hit an emotional crescendo Wednesday.

Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix will be the Belgian superstar’s final hurrah and “Tornado Tom” will have his game face on for one last rumble across the pavé, so it’s at the start of GP Scheldeprijs where Boonen could be at his most sentimental.

As part of a homage to the soon-to-be-retired star, organizers moved the start of the 2017 Scheldeprijs from its traditional rollout in Antwerp to Mol, Boonen’s hometown.

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“I was really honored when I heard about [the race starting in Mol],” Boonen said last week ahead of the Tour of Flanders. “It will be very emotional, with all of my family and friends there at the start. It will be nice, but I also need to stay focused on the racing.”

Scheldeprijs, which the 36-year-old Boonen won in 2004 and 2006, will also be his final professional race in Belgium. With Paris-Roubaix running over French roads, Wednesday will be the last time for Flemish fans to see their beloved “Tomeke” racing on home roads.

Following his race-breaking performance at the Ronde van Vlaanderen, where his attack over the Muur set up teammate Philippe Gilbert for victory, on Wednesday, Boonen will slot into a helper’s role before returning as a protagonist Sunday in his shot at winning a record fifth Roubaix trophy.

On Tuesday, Quick-Step Floors confirmed its Scheldeprijs roster, with record-holder and four-time winner Marcel Kittel returning with the goal of winning his fifth title in six years. Boonen and the rest of the Quick-Step lineup will be riding to set up Kittel for a fifth win.

“I know Tom is getting a little bit emotional for his last races. Who wouldn’t?” Quick-Step’s Matteo Trentin said. “I also know he is very focused on the racing. You can see he wants to win.”

Wednesday’s Scheldeprijs could see a repeat of the outpouring of support from Belgian fans that was on display in Boonen’s final appearance at the Ronde. Thousands of fans packed into Antwerp’s main square and clapped their hands in unison as Boonen rode the ramp to the stage for the sign-on ceremony. The scene was more like a Queen rock concert than a bike race.

Fans also mobbed Boonen at the finish in Oudenaarde, and he was smiling and celebrating despite suffering his own bad luck on the Taaienberg climb, where he dropped his chain and lost any hope of reaching the podium.

Wednesday won’t be the last time fans in his hometown of Mol will be able to see Boonen race, it will just be the last time he’ll be a professional. Later in April, racing colleagues both retired and active will return to Mol for a critérium event to say goodbye one last time.

Other favorites lining up for Scheldeprijs on Wednesday include André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal), Arnaud Démare (FDJ), Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), Eduard Theuns (Trek-Segafredo), and Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo).