Is Boonen the best ever on cobbles?
Tom Boonen wins 2012 Paris-Roubaix classic for the fourth time (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)
Tom Boonen’s emphatic win in Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix – the Queen of the Classics – led even the man himself to label himself “the best ever on cobblestones”.
Entering the 110th edition of Paris-Roubaix as the overwhelming favourite a week after equalling the record of three wins in the Tour of Flanders, Boonen utterly dominated the ‘Hell of the North’ on his way to emulating compatriot Roger de Vlaeminck’s record of four career Roubaix wins.
It was not that Boonen simply won the race that has seen the superlatives flow so freely – it is in the unbelievable way in which the Belgian powerhouse went about achieving this latest landmark in his illustrious career.
Last weekend’s triumph in the Ronde van Vlaanderen came after Boonen confirmed his sprinting abilities in a three-way battle against rivals Filippo Pozzato and Alessandro Ballan.
But Sunday’s victory in Paris-Roubaix saw the Omega Pharma-Quick Step leader break clear of the main contenders with 55km remaining before riding solo over 10 demanding cobblestone sections all the way to the finish in the famous Roubaix velodrome.
To make matters even more astonishing, Boonen was being chased by a group that featured four – four! – Team Sky riders in Juan Antonio Flecha, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Ian Stannard and Mathew Hayman.
Despite the combined effort of the Sky juggernaut, along with the pulling power of the likes of BMC’s Ballan, Lars Boom of Rabobank and unheralded French pair Sebastien Turgot (Europcar) and Mathieu Ladagnous (FDJ-BigMat), Boonen not only held his own, but saw his lead balloon to over a minute and a half by the time he crossed the finish line.
While all his main rivals suffered misfortune – impressive team-mate Sylvain Chavanel punctured, Ballan was held up by an accident and Pozzato crashed and retired – Boonen made his own luck and avoided any mishaps.
Another thing to consider: while most riders wore gloves to help absorb the brutal vibrations and curtail the blisters that usually form from riding over 51.5km of jagged cobblestones, Boonen rode with his bare hands, as if accepting that pain was part and parcel of the whole race experience.
The 31-year-old classics specialist became the first man to win the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix double twice in the same season. He is also the first rider in history to win E3 Prijs, Ghent-Wevelgem, Flanders and Roubaix in the same year.
Boonen’s nine wins this season amount to more than the combined wins of any World Tour team – with the exception of his own OPQS outfit, Liquigas and Sky. The Belgian now almost doubles Australian Simon Gerrans’ tally of points at the top of the UCI world standings.
Talking of GreenEdge, the Australian national team had a day to forget, with 2007 Roubaix winner Stuart O’Grady the best-placed finisher in 53rd almost 10 minutes adrift. In fact, only two of eight GreenEdge riders managed to finish the race, which is food for thought.
That said, just 86 riders from a field of 174 completed the brutal race within the time limit, with over 70 throwing in the towel before the finish.
“A fourth Paris-Roubaix in this era is unique, and if you have the chance to win a fourth time here then this was the perfect way to achieve it,” Boonen told reporters after his latest sensational scalp.
“I have not really been thinking about the records, I have just been working hard to reach my top level. Today I was just taking it by cobblestone by cobblestone.
“I think if you start thinking about how many kilometres you have to go then you only make it harder for yourself, but it turned out okay.”
“I am happy not to have had any big crashes yet this season, and if I look back at the last three weeks it’s amazing. Now I realise that I will probably be one of the best, maybe the best, guy on the cobblestones that ever rode on these roads.”
Watching Boonen ride in such a commanding way certainly gives fans the impression that they are watching the very best cobble master the sport has conjured up through the years.
Granted, Boonen’s dominance at Flanders and Roubaix this year has taken part in the absence of the man who seemed to end his previous era of supremacy, Fabian Cancellara. It will be a true feast for viewers to see how the pair shape up against one another next year, that’s for sure.
As things stand, 31-year-old Boonen has equalled the record for the number of wins in both Flanders and Roubaix.
Some may stress that de Vlaeminck won his fourth Roubaix title aged 29 – but this stat should pay no bearing for Boonen: one decade ago, another Belgian, Johan Museeuw, won Roubaix when he was 36 years old, while the race’s oldest winner was Frenchman Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle, who won a second successive Roubaix title in 1993, aged 38 and eight months.
As Boonen himself said on Sunday: “It’s not over yet – I still have a few good years to come. In the last few years I’m just finding more love for the bike.
“This is what I love: riding the hardest one-day races. Paris-Roubaix is a bit mythical. For me it’s getting easier [to be motivated] by getting older. The moment that I don’t like to train it’s time to stop.”
Boonen is not yet technically the stand-alone best cobblestone rider in history. Yet, he still has ample time on his side to enter the record books as the only man in history to win Paris-Roubaix five times.
Judging by the form he’s in now, who would bet against him?
Felix Lowe is an English photographer, writer and Arsenal fan with a penchant for pro-cycling. Eurosport writer and blogger, Felix has covered the major cycling races in the pro calendar for the past decade and is now taking up the sport himself, at the ripe age of 31.
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