Poor Tom Boonen.
There’s a big fat goose egg in Boonen’s 2016 win column, and his Etixx – Quick-Step classics squad is a bumbling, big-budget mess.
Perhaps worst of all, however, is the media’s dogged search for Boonen’s replacement. These days, every talented youngster from the Low Countries earns the title “The Next Tom Boonen.” Most recently, Tiesj Benoot, Guillaume Van Keirsbulck, Jasper Stuyven, and Edward Theuns have all been called the heir to Tornado Tom’s gilded chamois.
I have no doubt that these youngsters possess the raw talent to become champions. But will any of them really become the next Tom Boonen?
No, of course not.
Tom Boonen has won lots of bike races, but his accomplishments away from the bicycle set him apart from every rider in the peloton. What accomplishments are these, you may ask? Well, he convinced throngs of lycra-clad American men to ask their barber for a faux hawk. He inspired this inarguably catchy yet bad song. And yeah, he pooped his pants during Paris-Roubaix that one time and lost none of his coolness.
So before we go naming every ambitious classics hardman as the next Tom Boonen, perhaps we should investigate the je ne sais quoi that has made the real Tom Boonen who he is.
Easily pronounced name
Here’s a fun exercise: Stare into your computer screen say “TOM BOONEN” out loud like a lunatic. The words just slip out of your mouth. No matter if you pronounce Boonen as “BOW-nen” or as “BOO-nen,” we all know the guy you’re talking about.
Let’s all imagine a scenario where Tom Boonen’s parents chose one of the many atrocious Flemish names for their son. How about Stijn Aerts or Jelle Goethals? I know, let’s call him Jules Vandenpeereboom, after Belgium’s old prime minister. Would your blood pressure rise with excitement every time Paul Sherwen yelled, “Vandenpeereboom has attacked! Vandenpeereboom!” No, you’d destroy your television.
It may sound ridiculous, but Tom Boonen has benefitted hugely from his easily pronounced name. This is a category where all of our prospective Boonens will struggle. I’m not sure the American mouth is capable of pronouncing “Tiesj” or “Guillaume.”
Unlike most waifish cyclists, Tom Boonen’s burly body type appeals to our American image of a sports hero. In another life, he could have been some corn-fed outside linebacker from central Texas. And yeah, your significant other thinks Boonen is hot. Big deal. So what.
So what? That sex appeal gives Boonen international reach. David Beckham was soccer’s most famous man for a decade, despite his single Champions League win and zero World Cup titles. And like Beckham, Boonen has the superhuman ability to wear all sorts of terrible European hairdos and still look cool.
Do you think your girlfriend would do the double-take on Boonen if he looked like this?
I have no idea how our up-and-coming Boonens fare in this category. Guillaume Van Keirsbulck seems to be doing all right for himself.
Party boy Boonen
Blaming your positive doping test on party drugs is a great move in pro cycling, because it brings a rider down to the everyman’s level. Sure, Jan Ullrich trained hard for the Tour, but he loved doing ecstasy at the discotheque on the weekends!
Boonen’s three positive cocaine tests (two were reported) cost him starts in the 2008 Tour of Switzerland and Tour de France. Does anyone even remember this? No, of course not. The only thing we remember is the amazing quote he gave Sporza:
“I stayed for a while, and I drank. At some stage I must have taken something. Then I had a blackout. After spending three to four months working, when I go out, I probably over-step the mark and I become someone else.”
Tom Boonen basically admitted to being a werewolf-like party monster that masquerades as a professional athlete during the daytime hours. I’m sure Boonen lost some fans after his coke bust. I’m also sure a certain subset of fans still fantasize about raging all night in Brussels’s seedy club scene alongside their favorite party beast.
King of the comeback
Tom Boonen has overcome a few other public gaffes. There was that time he maybe probably pooped his pants during Paris-Roubaix. He once crashed his Lamborghini and claimed he’d swerved to save a kitty. And who can forget his short-lived relationship with the teenaged daughter of the Amstel Gold Race’s promoter?
Each time, Boonen managed to get fans back in his corner, either by winning some major race or appearing in an advertisement dressed as a gladiator or bathing in beans. And this fact is why we shouldn’t relegate Boonen to cycling’s old folk’s home just yet. Even though his 2016 season has been a bust, something tells me Tom Boonen will win again.