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SCHOTEN, Belgium (VN) — Tom Boonen and Paris-Roubaix are synonymous. Since his daring debut in 2002, with third, to his near-miss second last year against Mathew Hayman, Boonen has given everything he has for the cobblestone monument.
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His place in Roubaix history is unrivaled. The 36-year-old from Mol shares the record of four victories with Roger de Vlaeminck. He’s won in small groups and won in dramatic, long-distance solo breakaways. He’s come close — including a heart-break second place last year to Mathew Hayman — and he’s crashed out.
Boonen’s Roubaix track record is superb. In 13 starts, he’s won four (2005, 2008, 2009, 2012), twice finished second (to Fabian Cancellara in 2006, and last year to Hayman), and one third, sharing the podium with Johan Museeuw in his extraordinary debut in 2002.
Over the years, Boonen’s been dogged by paparazzi, had allegations slung against him, and endured scandals with cocaine positives, but he’s always come back to the cobbles of Roubaix. From 2002 to 2016, he only missed two starts (2013 and 2015), and only filed one DNF. He never finished out of the top 10, except when he was 23rd in his second Roubaix in 2003.
Boonen always did it his way, telling VeloNews last week, “In all the years I’ve been a pro, I’ve never watched somebody else. You never, ever plan a race trying to race against another rider. I don’t see the point of it. If you meet each other in the final, OK, maybe you change the plan to try to beat them. I don’t think we have to make a plan to beat [specific] riders. We have to make a plan to win the race.”
Boonen will line up Sunday with his eyes on the biggest prize, setting the all-time mark with five Roubaix. His dream is, and always has been, a league of his own.
Here are Boonen’s five best Roubaix moments:
5. 2002: Confirmation of a prodigy
One of his best Roubaixs was one he didn’t win. By 2002, Flanders was already abuzz about the prospects of a strong, ambitious kid from Mol. Insiders tipped him for a top professional career, but no one knew how far he would or could go. He confirmed those expectations in his very first Roubaix, riding as a rookie under George Hincapie at U.S. Postal Service. He already pulled away in an early break, something that would have been enough to celebrate for any pavé beginner, but when Hincapie crashed, Boonen tried his luck. Incredibly, he hung on to finish third, sharing the podium with Belgian superstar Johan Museeuw. Even the “Lion of Flanders” would call Boonen his heir apparent. Of course, Boonen wasn’t the next Museeuw. He would be even better.
4. 2009: Rising above the headlines
By 2009, Boonen was no longer the new kid on the block. After winning the world title in 2005, and emerging as one of the best classics riders of his generation, Boonen exploded as a superstar in Belgium. He made headlines for his racing exploits but also for his fast cars and nightlife. In 2009, he was dogged by allegations of cocaine abuse, but with the support of his team and manager, he kept it together on the bike. In one of the most thrilling editions, Boonen survived a series of attacks, and while many of his rivals crashed, Tommeke stayed upright. Filippo Pozzato clawed within 10 seconds of Boonen, but he powered away on the Carrefour de l’Arbre. Scandals aside, with Roubaix win No. 3, Boonen was the new king of the cobbles.
3. 2008: Rivalry of the decade
Boonen’s greatest measure as a champion was his decade-long rivalry with Fabian Cancellara. During their heyday, they were untouchable at Roubaix, winning seven of nine Roubaixs from 2005 to 2013. Boonen won four, and Cancellara three, and perhaps their best came in a showdown in 2008. Some years, Cancellara would dominate, while in others, it would be Boonen who would run roughshod. This year, however, Boonen and Cancellara were at the height of their powers, and rode into the velodrome together, with Alessandro Ballan hanging on. Boonen still carried more speed in those days, and roared off the third wheel to claim in a crowd-pleasing sprint in what would be his second Roubaix win. Tommeke was in full flight.
2. 2005: A legend is born
After some fits and starts in the pro ranks, Boonen hit his full splendor in 2005. The “Tommeke” legend was born, and “Tornado Tom” not only was the new media darling in Belgium, but he was without rivals across the cobbles in what was his coming-out season. In a year that confirmed his promise and established him as the new dominator on the pavé, Boonen roared through the spring classics, winning E3 Harelbeke before claiming his first monument at the Tour of Flanders in the run-up to Roubaix. In a fast edition, Boonen squared off against former teammate Hincapie (with Juan Antonio Flecha third), and blasted to victory in the Roubaix velodrome. Later that season, he would also win two stages at the Tour de France, and then win the world title in Madrid. At 25, he would become the only rider to win Flanders, Roubaix, and the worlds in the same season. The legend was born.
1. 2012: A club of two
By 2012, Boonen had been around the block. The easy wins were gone, and the scandals and injuries had taken a toll, but he remained true to his Flanderen spirit. After turning his back on sprints, he focused solely on the spring classics in the second half of his career, and dreamed of becoming the first rider to win five Roubaixs. By 2012, at 31, he was more experienced, more calculating, and more mature. A week after winning his third and final Flanders, Boonen would cement his second Flanders-Roubaix double to win his fourth cobblestone trophy. Boonen took his record-tying fourth Roubaix (equaling Roger de Vlaeminck) in with unstoppable solo attack from 50km to go. It was pure Boonen. Everything seemed possible.
Since then, Boonen has been dogged with career-threatening injuries that kept him just short of completing what he admits is an obsession: to become the only man to win five Roubaixs. He came oh-so-close in 2016, only getting beaten by a dogged Mathew Hayman. This year, Boonen looks even stronger than he was then. Could the stars align on Sunday?
It’s his last ride. He’ll do everything he can to make it his best one.