WEVELGEM, Belgium (VN) — When Tom Boonen last won Ghent-Wevelgem, in 2004, he finished ahead of Magnus Backstedt and Jaan Kirsipuu, with American George Hincapie in fourth. It was the biggest win of the 23-year-old Belgian’s career.
Later that year Boonen would go on to win two stages of the Tour de France; the following year he would win the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, two stages of the Tour and the world road championship. With Lance Armstrong out of the sport, Boonen became the biggest star in pro cycling.
“In 2004, winning Ghent-Wevelgem was still my main objective, along with Harelbeke, Waregem and Scheldeprijs,” Boonen said Sunday after winning in Wevelgem. “I was a helper back then. My biggest aims were always the Wednesday races. (Ghent-Wevelgem was moved from Wednesdays to Sundays in 2010.) Then (former Quick Step teammate Johan) Museeuw retired, and I became the weekend racer.”
Seven years later, Boonen returned to the top step in Wevelgem a different man. He’s won the Tour’s points jersey, Flanders twice and Roubaix three times. He’s survived the rollercoaster of A-list celebrity in his native country that saw his personal life become tabloid fodder, and brought with it a pair of damaging cocaine scandals. The first, in 2008, forced him out of that year’s Tour; the second, which followed his April 2009 Roubaix win, nearly ended his career. He was suspended from his team, and after a long legal struggle he was allowed to enter the Tour just one day before the start.
Though his sterling image is now a bit tarnished, and Boonen is no longer the prolific winner he seemed to be five years ago, the rider known as “Tommeke” is still hugely popular, both in Belgium and across Europe.
A win at the 2009 Belgian national championships allowed Boonen to race the 2009 Tour and the 2010 classics season in his country’s national colors. But he had a frustrating classics season, finishing second to Oscar Freire at Milan-San Remo and then second to Fabian Cancellara at Harelbeke and Flanders. His near-yearlong victory drought ended in February at the Tour of Oman, but Sunday’s win in Wevelgem was the surest sign yet that Boonen is back on track.
Whether Boonen’s good form means he can mount a true challenge at Flanders against Cancellara, who looked unbeatable Saturday at Harelebeke, remains to be seen.
“Fabian showed on Saturday that he is in fine form, but I proved on Sunday that I am in top condition also,” Boonen said. He also addressed his somewhat controversial — at least in Belgium — dissent over being forced to race Ghent-Wevelgem by team manger Patrick Lefevre, rather than being allowed to square up against Cancellara at Harelbeke. (Quick Step team sorely needed the WorldTour points to improve its 18th car position in the WorldTour caravan.)
“There are individual needs, and there are the needs of the group,” Boonen said. “At the end of the day, I’m an employee, and I work for a team. And I understand that. The difference between the two races is that at Harelbeke, the course has more points of reference.
“If I’m feeling good on the Kwaremont, or the Paterberg — or if I’m not feeling good — I know where my form is, and what I need to do for De Ronde. It’s not the same at Ghent-Wevelgem. That’s not to say it’s not a great race; it helped start my career. It’s just not the same preparation one week before De Ronde.”
With one week to go before the most important race in Belgium, Boonen said he would not race Three Days of De Panne, but would continue training, looking for that last little bit of form.
“This win is nice, but it doesn’t change my confidence a lot,” he said. “I think I still need to improve for Flanders.”
Asked if it’s truly possible to gain classics form over one week, Boonen said it wasn’t just possible, it was necessary: “You can improve a lot. You have to. This is the right time to do it. Over the last few years, when I’ve done well in classics, it’s now (this week, before Flanders) that you get the extra 5 percent. You do it with one good training session, and then recover. And when you’re not training, you’re resting. That’s it.”
A third win at Flanders would go a long way towards restoring Boonen’s popularity with his Belgian fans; his last Flanders win was in 2006. Whether he can accomplish that, against such a powerful Cancellara, will be decided in one week’s time.