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Is ‘Tommeke’ the best cobbles rider of all-time?

  • By Andrew Hood
  • Published Apr. 9, 2012
  • Updated Mar. 27, 2014 at 6:11 PM EDT
With seven monument wins and two Flanders/Roubaix doubles, Boonen is arguably the top cobbles rider of all time. Photo: Graham Watson | www.grahamwatson.com

ROUBAIX, France (VN) — Tom Boonen won his record-tying fourth Paris-Roubaix trophy Sunday in the best possible way: with no one else in the photo.

The reborn Belgian — back in top form after a few rough seasons marred by injury and controversy — had plenty of time to soak up the cheers on the velodrome and raised his hand in jubilation with four fingers held high, one for each of his Roubaix wins.

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

Boonen’s impressive track record on the pavé certainly backs up his boast.

The Belgian’s daring solo attack with 55km to go put him elite company, and perhaps a class of his own.

His fourth Roubaix win not only matches him with Roger De Vlaeminck on Roubaix’s all-time winner’s list; Boonen also became the first rider in cycling history to complete the Flanders-Roubaix double twice.

Coupled with his three victories at Tour of Flanders, Boonen now boasts seven wins in the cobblestone monuments, ranking him as the all-time best in cycling history among the “pavé-eaters.”

The dust had barely settled — well, mud in this case — before pundits were looking for ways to put his dominance into historical perspective.

Boonen said during the heat of Sunday’s battle he had no time to think about his place in history.

“I was not really thinking about these records or these victories,” he said. “I was just fighting myself. I was taking it step-by-step, cobblestone-by-cobblestone, kilometer-by-kilometer.”

His audacious long-distance attack — the second-longest in race history compared to Andre Tchmil’s burst with 62km to go in 1994 — certainly earned the respect of his peers.

Mathew Hayman, who ended up eighth as one of four Team Sky riders chasing in vain in Boonen’s wake, told VeloNews that their numbers worked against them.

“What Tom did was impressive, no question,” Hayman said. “We had four in the chase group, so everyone was looking at us to chase. Had we had some help, I think we could have caught him. That’s taking nothing away from his ride. Chapeau.”

Sean Kelly — a two-time Roubaix winner — told VeloNews that Boonen’s ride was as surprising as it was courageous.

“It takes a lot of bravery to attack from that distance,” Kelly said. “I think the others behind him underestimated his strength. One bobble, one puncture could have changed everything, but what he did (Sunday) we have not seen in a long time.”

Winning alone was particularly special for Boonen, who’s enjoying a career renaissance with nine important wins so far in 2012; enough to put him atop the WorldTour rankings by a wide margin.

Of Boonen’s four Roubaix wins, two came out of small bunch sprints. In 2005, victorious for the first time at just 24 year old, Boonen outkicked George Hincapie and Juan Antonio Flecha. Three years later, he was fastest against Fabian Cancellara and Alessandro Ballan.

Boonen did win alone in 2009 — something he reminded journalists about during his post-race press conference — but that came after a costly late-race crash of chasing riders, including an on-form Thor Hushovd.

By attacking alone at such a long distance — after being paced by teammate Niki Teprstra for two kilometers at a key moment of his surge — Boonen earned his place in history with the panache of a great champion.

“I was not planning this,” Boonen said. “But when I arrived in the front with Niki and he dropped off, I was thinking, ‘Ok, I already have won Flanders. Why not try to win my fourth Paris-Roubaix in a very special way?’”

Why not, indeed.

Do his seven wins make him the best-ever over the cobblestones? If measured by statistics, the answer is yes. A few things to consider:

His four wins (2005, 2008, 2009, 2012) matches him with De Vlaeminck as the most in Roubaix history

His seven cobblestone wins (3 Flanders, 4 Roubaix) rank him as best of the cobbles riders. Johan Museeuw won six (3F, 3R); with five are Rik Van Looy (2F, 3R), Eddy Merckx (2F, 3R), and De Vlaeminck (1F, 4R); with four are Gaston Rebry (1F, 3R) and Rik Van Steenbergen (2F, 2R)

If counting his three Ghent-Wevelgem victories, Boonen now boasts 10 classics scalps, tying him with Fausto Coppi and Francesco Moser. Merckx holds the all-time record with 27, followed by Van Looy with 14. Museeuw and Kelly won 11 each.

His winning speed of 43.476kph is the fastest average speed ever at Roubaix since adopting the “modern” course in 1968. Peter Post holds the absolute fastest average speed with 45.129kph in 1965 on a distance of 265km. Brisk tailwinds certainly helped push Boonen along as well.

He becomes the first rider to win four of the classics that make up “Flanders week,” winning E3 Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgem, Flanders and Roubaix in 17 days

And Boonen says he’s not done yet.

Next week, he will start the Amstel Gold Race for the first time, a hint that he’s already thinking about the world championships course that will be held on a similar finale atop the Cauberg later this season.

After overcoming a string of bad luck, poor health and the struggles of dealing with superstardom that came at a young age (think his two cocaine positives and his smashed up Lamborghini), Boonen is now more mature and more ambitious than ever.

“I just love it,” Boonen said of the life of being a bike pro. “I think these last few years, I’ve found more love for the bike and I’m not losing it. I think it’s getting easier getting older.”

Unlike Merckx, who could win at races such as the Giro di Lombardia and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Boonen seems fated to racing the cobbles. That’s a destiny that he confronts with pleasure.

Milan-San Remo is the hilly classic that he’s closest to winning — twice on the podium — but his future lies firmly on the bumpy pavé.

It’s difficult to say how many more Boonen can win. Arch-rival and nemesis Fabian Cancellara, sidelined with injury following his crash at Flanders, is the only contemporary who can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Boonen when he’s on top form.

With Boonen and Cancellara each hitting maturity in their early 30s, the next few years should see the aura of the sport’s top rivalry continue to grow. A gang of younger riders will be nipping at Boonen’s heels, including the likes of Peter Sagan and Taylor Phinney, but it usually takes years to gain the experience, durability and confidence to fully take on Roubaix and win.

Still only 31, Boonen can be competitive at least another three to four years, perhaps more if he avoids any major injuries and continues to keep his off-the-bike lifestyle in check.

“There’s no way he’s done at 31,” said Omega Pharma-Quick Step team boss Patrick Lefevre earlier this season. “We have stood by Tom during his troubles and I believe he will be competitive for many years to come. A champion is always a champion.”

For now, Boonen is happy to be back on top. His troubles seem to be in the rear-view mirror and a happier, more mature Boonen is a rider at the peak of his skills enjoying the craft of his trade.

“I never have problems finding motivation to train,” he said. “It’s my 11th year as a pro, and there are always ups and downs, but I never have problems training. These races are the ones I love. The moment I start to feel tired, and not [like] training, then it’s time to stop.”

There’s no doubt Boonen is back on top. How long he stays there remains to be seen.

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Andrew Hood

Andrew Hood

Andrew Hood cut his journalistic teeth at Colorado dailies before the web boom opened the door to European cycling in the mid-1990s. Hood has covered every Tour de France since 1996 and has been VeloNews' European correspondent since 2002.

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