Why is Tom Boonen so good?

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Tom Boonen (centre) wins the Tour of Flanders ahead of Filippo Pozzato and Alessandro Ballan. (AFP)

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It’s a combination of nature, nurture, technique and body shape, with a bit of history for extra motivation. Nature and nurture are Boonen’s physical gifts and the training he does to maximise them

The potential to produce big power numbers is the key to cobbled Classics. Power outputs for the rough sections of Paris-Roubaix and the cobbled climbs of Flanders are at world class individual pursuit levels.

A few years ago I witnessed the 2004 Paris-Roubaix winner training on the cobblestones of the Hell of the North. Magnus Backstedt is big on numbers, and knew that when he did 4 minutes 35 seconds for 4000 metres on the track he put out 550 watts average.

Backstedt zeroed his SRM power cranks before the Forest of Arenberg section, gave it all he’d got, and at the other end the readout said 550 watts. His figures tally with Bradley Wiggins, who in his pursuit days did 580 to 600 watts to ride under 4 minutes 20 for 4000 metres on the track.

But Backstedt revealed more facts and figures about Paris-Roubaix. “I’ve timed all 22 cobbled sections, and the shortest is two minute and the longest is six. But you also have to consider the gaps of smooth road between them, they range from 20 minutes down to two minutes,” he told me

So to do well in Roubaix a rider must make 22 efforts at pursuit intensity, with a variety of gaps between them. It’s the same with the Tour of Flanders where the American coach-to-the-pros, Hunter Allan said, “I’ve seen client’s SRM files with peak values of 700 watts for a minute, and they ride each hill at 120 to 200 percent of their functional threshold.”

To translate, 200 percent is twice as hard as they can go in a one hour time trial.

That’s Tom Boonen in numbers. He’s a big unit who in top form puts out the same power as world class track racers, but repeats it many times in the three to four frenetic hours that are the crux of a cobbled Classic. And he’s always had the ability to do it.

What’s different this year is that he’s found his focus again, something that’s magnified by a couple of coincidences. At 31 he’s at his physical peak, and the man in charge of training at Omega Pharma-Quick Step is Tom Steels, an ex-racer who’s at the forefront of cutting edge training.

Steels was the Belgian road champion four times and won Ghent-Wevelgem twice, but he suffered an illness during his career that compromised his immune system. It forced him to find ways to measure how hard he was training. Hard training depresses the immune system, so Steels needed to know to stay healthy.

With a computer expert friend Steels developed software that measures a whole raft of body responses during training. He used it on himself and he uses it to see how his racers respond in training and races. The detailed information allows him to prescribe measured training doses that ensure precise progression.

Boonen has applied himself to training with Steels, and his methods have allowed him to maximise the physical potential of his body engine. However, Boonen has other things going for him too.

He’s tall, but unlike many pro racers cyclists, who look like they are all leg, Boonen has a long upper body. This distributes his weight along his bike, balancing it between the front and rear and making him very stable when riding on rough surfaces.

Boonen’s proportions are so unique among cyclists that Specialized had a special mould made to produce frames for him. However, if you look back a number of cobbled Classics specialists were built the same.

Boonen bears the most striking resemblance to Rik Van Steenbergen, the Belgian winner of Paris-Roubaix in 1948 and 1952, who also won the Tour of Flanders in 1944 and ’46.

I’ve only seen photos of Van Steenbergen, but he has the same distinctive pedalling style as Boonen. Most cyclists point their toes down at the bottom of each pedal stroke, where Boonen is very flat footed. Maybe it helps him get extra power, or it smoothes out his pedalling somehow. I’m not sure, but these things rarely mean nothing.

Finally there is the weight of Belgian, or rather Flemish cycling history. Belgium is split by language. In Flanders they speak Dutch, and that’s where 99 percent of Belgium’s great cyclists come from.

Flanders has made a bigger impression on the world through cycling than anything else, a fact that has helped and hindered Boonen. After the first successes of his career he became his country’s number one sports idol. He couldn’t go training without being followed and his every move was scrutinised.

He went a bit wild, not that you can blame bike fans for that, but being a good bike racer in Belgium can be like living in a pressure cooker. Boonen seems to have put that behind him, and now uses the fan’s passion to power him.

Because their riders have dominated the cobbled Classics, these races mean more to Belgians than any other races. It gives Flemish riders the extra edge to step up and become legends.

Tom Boonen is the latest of a long line, and the way he raced this year suggests he’s going to be the best.

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