There was a great scene in the opening Belgian classics race of the season on Saturday when former world champion Tom Boonen refused to concede any space on the road on the decisive climb, forcing one of his rivals to run into a muddy ditch and come crashing down heavily onto the cobbles.
As Dutchman Lars Boom’s bike was catapulted into a mid-air 360, the group trying to keep up with Boonen on the Taaienberg scattered to avoid a pile-up whilst the grimacing Belgian powerhouse continued his upward trajectory without so much as looking behind to see the destruction he had caused.
It was to prove the winning move of the race – although Boonen himself could only manage second place in the final sprint, with the spoils going to his countryman Sep Vanmarcke, one of the only riders who could keep up with the Omega Pharma-Quick Step man after his initial attack.
Although Boonen clearly had no intention of riding his rival off the road, the incident served to remind the world that the aggressive rider could well be back to his best. Boonen has spent the best part of the past few years hitting the tarmac with alarming regularity so it’s promising to see an early season free from accidents and filled with wins and high finishes.
Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was not the only time Boonen hit the headlines this week after an in-depth interview with Thomas Voeckler in sports newspaper L’Equipe saw the French all-rounder reveal a rather unsavoury incident involving himself and Boonen back in 2006.
In the candid interview – in which Voeckler claimed that “nine out of ten riders in the peloton don’t like me” – the diminutive Team Europcar leader tried to explain the jealousy that rose in the peloton stemming from the first occasion he wore the Tour de France’s coveted yellow jersey for 10 days, back in 2004.
The pocket-rocket from Alsace said that while his pugnacious attacking style may have made him the “darling” of the French public, his relentless attempts to ride aggressively had won him few friends within the peloton.
“Tom Boonen, then the world champion, was one of the first to have a go at me, to try to tell me who’s boss,” said Voeckler. “Just at the moment that I launched an attack, he hit me hard in the back. I stopped, he yelled at me, and told him: ‘Say what you have to say but don’t ever touch me like that again’.
“I was the small Frenchman who he could hit because I was 30 cm shorter than him. Whatever your palmares, no one has the right to do that to a guy simply because he wants to go on the attack. I’ll never forget that moment.” (He clearly hasn’t – on Saturday, Voeckler was giving Boonen a wide berth on the Taaienberg when Boom hit the deck.)
Last July, a trademark Voeckler’s break saw the baby-faced assassin take the Tour’s yellow jersey for the second time in his career. Against the odds, Voeckler managed to hold on to the prize for yet another 10-day stint, putting in some incredible performances in the mountains and finishing the race just one place off the podium.
But the cheers soon turned to jeers in the minds of many as suspicions of foul play gathered steam.
“I understand the rumours all the more given I’m usually the first to suspect certain guys out there of it [doping] themselves,” Voeckler told L’Equipe. “But I can’t hold it against other people if they think that. Even I was surprised at what I achieved on the Tour. I hit a level that I never expected I would reach. I don’t know how to explain it, the fact that I have discovered some climbing ability in the high mountains.
“But I don’t have to justify myself. I ride I bike out of love for the sport and I have always done it with the same principles right from the start.”
Much like Boonen, Voeckler’s candour is appreciated by journalists and cycling fans alike. No one has really suspected this little gutsy rider of doping – after all, his name’s phonetic double is “eau claire” (French for ‘clear water’).
His stellar performance in the 2011 Tour had a lot to do with circumstance: the break gave him a decent cushion; there was no one outstanding rider in the race (Alberto Contador had shot his bolt in the Giro d’Italia); no one else actually seemed to want to wear yellow.
Voeckler also had a nation behind him, some solid lieutenants in Pierre Rolland and Cyril Gautier, years of experience on his side, loads of extra belief, plus heaps and heaps of luck (remember that near miss on the descent to Pau when he left the road?).
But it can’t help that one of his countrymen – youngster Yoann Offredo (FDJ) – was this week banned by the UCI for one year after a series of three “no shows” for doping controls.
The cynics will still target people like Voeckler – but so will his fellow riders. “It will be hard this year because I will be a marked man in the peloton,” he said. “No one will want to see me repeat the success of last year so I will be kept on a tight leash.”
Boonen, in particular, will have his fists ready during the next month of classics races.