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From the pages of Velo: In the Eye of the Tornado

  • By Neal Rogers
  • Published Dec. 29, 2012
  • Updated Dec. 29, 2012 at 10:06 AM EDT
Velo June 2012. Photos by Graham Watson | grahamwatson.com

The Perils of Stardom

When Boonen first won Ghent-Wevelgem in 2004, on the heels of his first win at E3 Harelbeke, his arrival as a classics contender was without question. Later that year, he won his first two Tour de France stages, including the prestigious sprint finale on the Champs Élysées.

It was in 2005 that Boonen accomplished his first Flanders-Roubaix double, the first time he’d won either race. Within the span of seven days, he was launched into the celebrity stratosphere in his native country of Belgium. He followed those Monument titles with a pair of Tour de France stage wins before crashing out wearing the green jersey; eight weeks later he wore the rainbow stripes, winning the world championship in Madrid.

That world title came on the heels of Lance Armstrong’s final Tour de France victory, and Boonen, not yet 25, was the sport’s newest idol. He was the face of the post-Armstrong generation, a handsome, well-spoken and multilingual Belgian, powerful for the classics and fast for the sprints, popular for his smile and quick handshake.

In retrospect, 2005 was a dream season, and one that would prove impossible to match. But for a cycling-obsessed Belgian populace, still reeling from Johan Museeuw’s disgraceful exit from the sport in 2004 amid doping revelations, Boonen was nothing less than the second coming, a classics star for a new era.

Museeuw had long been affectionately referred to as “The Lion of Flanders,” and after Boonen first stood on the Roubaix podium in 2003, third behind Museeuw in his first Roubaix, the tall, handsome young man from Balen, just outside of Antwerp, was dubbed “The Cub of Flanders.”

By winning Flanders and Roubaix a few months into the first season following Museeuw’s retirement, the succession was complete. Even the nickname matured; he would thereafter be referred to as “Tornado Tom.” That nickname would prove to be accurate in more ways than one — a superstar at a young age, with everything he could ever ask for at his disposal, Boonen’s personal life became a whirlwind.

In 2006, Boonen moved to the tax haven of Monaco, won a second Flanders, was second at Roubaix (after he was held up behind a train crossing) and wore the Tour’s maillot jaune for three stages. In December of that year he split with his longtime girlfriend, Lore Van De Weyer. It wasn’t obvious at the time, but it was the beginning of a downward spiral that would last several years.

In April of 2007, after winning Harelbeke and Dwars door Vlaanderen, but missing the podium at Flanders and Roubaix, he crashed his Lamborghini alone, late at night, claiming that he’d swerved to avoid a cat; drunk driving was wildly speculated. That summer, he took two Tour stages on the way to his first and only green points jersey title, and in the fall he was photographed cavorting around the Amstel Curaçao Race with 16-year-old bikini-clad bombshell Sophie van Vliet, daughter of the race organizer. Boonen was rightfully characterized in the Belgian media as a playboy, albeit a flawed one.

In June 2008, two months after outsprinting Cancellara and Alessandro Ballan for a second Roubaix title, Boonen was pulled over for driving 110mph in a 55mph zone, and was ticketed for driving while intoxicated. A few days later he tested positive for cocaine in an out-of-competition control, but denied using the drug, suggesting someone must have spiked his drink. He was banned from that year’s Tour de France. A year later, following his third Roubaix win in 2009, he tested positive for cocaine again; news also leaked that he’d tested positive for cocaine and ecstasy in a December 2007 out-of-competition test.

This time around, he had no choice but to acknowledge that he had a problem. If nothing else, he had learned very little from his mistakes.

“After spending three to four months working hard, when I go out I probably overstep the mark and I become someone else,” Boonen said at a May 2009 press conference. “For 364 days a year, it’s perfect. I try to be an exemplary citizen. But the day that I drink too much, something that I don’t do often, something changes. I’ll seek help.”

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Neal Rogers

Neal Rogers

Neal Rogers is editor in chief of Velo magazine and VeloNews.com. An interest in all things rock 'n' roll led him into music journalism while attending UC Santa Cruz, on the central coast of California. After several post-grad years spent waiting tables, surfing, and mountain biking, he moved to San Francisco, working as a bike messenger, and at a software startup. He moved to Boulder, Colorado, in 2001, taking an editorial internship at VeloNews. He never left. When not traveling the world covering races, he can be found riding his bike, skiing, or attending a concert.

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