Velo International Classics Rider of the Year: Tom Boonen

Tom Boonen is our International Classics Rider of the Year

Editor’s note: The January 2013 issue of Velo magazine, which is on newsstands now, is our 25th annual awards issue. Our 2012 Cyclist of the Year was announced on November 29; we’ll be rolling out various other award winners throughout the month of December.

International Classics Rider of the Year: Tom Boonen

Heading into Paris-Roubaix, Belgian Tom Boonen was on a roll. He’d won E3 Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgem, and the Tour of Flanders, breaking several records along the way. However, the big, strong Omega Pharma captain had won all three by the narrowest of margins, and had something to prove.

As Boonen crossed the finish line first in Harelbeke, ahead of Oscar Freire in a photo finish, the smile across his face was visible from 500 meters away. It was his fifth Harelbeke win, a record, and his first since 2007. Like Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgem also came down to a field sprint, with both Freire and Peter Sagan jumping early, while Boonen waited patiently; the big Belgian wasn’t necessarily the fastest man in the bunch, but he’d timed his sprint to perfection. It was his third Ghent- Wevelgem win, a record he shares with Belgians Rik Van Looy and Eddy Merckx, and Italian Mario Cipollini.

The week leading into the Tour of Flanders was loaded with anticipation, both for the battle that loomed between Boonen and Fabian Cancellara, and also to see how the new course might change the race dynamic, having lost the Kapelmuur for three circuits and instead using the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg. As it was, the April 1 race was somewhat anticlimactic and came down to the final circuit; by that time Cancellara was already in an Oudenaarde hospital with a broken collarbone, the victim of a stray bottle in the feed zone.

When Alessandro Ballan attacked on the final trip over the Kwaremont, Filippo Pozzato bridged across, taking Boonen with him, with Sagan putting in a brave, lone chase effort 20 seconds behind. With Pozzato the only rider standing a chance against Boonen in a sprint, the Italians formed a quick alliance over the final 10km — Ballan would attack, and Pozatto would not chase. Ballan’s repeated accelerations tested the Belgian, but he could not break Boonen’s resolve, and the Omega Pharma rider beat Pozatto by a bike length to claim an emotional third Flanders crown — another shared record.

Having won three races in sprints, and with Cancellara out of the picture, Boonen took a different approach at Roubaix, attacking with 55km remaining and holding off all of the sport’s toughest racers. For the first 10km of his solo move, his gap hovered around 30 seconds, until it slowly started stretching out. It was an audacious solo attack, reminiscent of Cancellara’s race-winning move in 2010, from nearly the exact same distance to the finish. And though he was alone, with four Team Sky riders amassed at the front of the first chase group, Boonen committed to the bold move, slowly increasing his lead until, with just over 10km remaining and the perilous Carrefour de l’Arbre cobblestones behind him, it was clear the race behind was for second place.

With the win, Boonen tied Belgian Roger De Vlaeminck as the only other man to win Roubaix four times; he became the only rider to have won E3 Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders, and Paris-Roubaix in one season, and he became the first rider to complete the Flanders-Roubaix double twice in his career.

“It’s my most beautiful win,” Boonen said after winning Roubaix. “I realize now that I am, maybe, the best guy to ever ride on these cobblestones.”