The Long Road Back
During that shameful confession, Boonen swore to turn his life around. And he did, though it would take longer than he might have imagined.
Reunited with Lore, he took a big win at the 2009 Belgian national championship, out-sprinting Philippe Gilbert. He and his Quick Step team mounted a protracted and successful legal challenge, forcing ASO to allow him to race the 2009 Tour. His race ended on stage 15 due to illness, without a stage win.
Cancellara dominated the 2010 classics season much like Boonen has dominated this year. After soloing away from Boonen and Juan Antonio Flecha at Harelbeke for the win, Cancellara was again the protagonist at Flanders. He and Boonen engaged in an epic contest, off the front together with 40km to go, each man trading pulls, each man wearing his national champion’s jersey. It was a battle for the ages, with Cancellara ultimately riding away from the Belgian champion over the Kapelmuur. A week later, Cancellara again soloed to victory at Roubaix, attacking while Boonen was eating at the back of a select group. The Swiss star had now achieved a Flanders-Roubaix double of his own, while Boonen had only second-place finishes at Harelbeke and Flanders to add to his second-place at Milan-San Remo, behind Óscar Freire (then with Rabobank).
The remainder of 2010, and nearly all of 2011, was marred by injury. The big Belgian crashed hard twice during the spring of 2010, first at the Amgen Tour of California, and again at the Tour of Switzerland, a victim of the infamous tangle between Mark Cavendish and Heinrich Haussler. Boonen’s injury forced him to miss the Tour de France; instead he underwent surgery on his left knee to repair ligament damage, missing the Vuelta and world championships, and he struggled through the winter. He found form in the spring of 2011 — enough to win Ghent-Wevelgem, but not enough to win a Monument. He went on to finish fourth at Flanders, but for the first time in his career he was a DNF at Roubaix after a series of crashes and mechanicals ended his race.
That Roubaix abandonment would be a precursor of things to come for Boonen’s 2011 season. He was forced to abandon the Tour de France and Vuelta a España, both in pain. A stage 5 crash at the Tour left him dazed and bleeding, chasing for 58km to barely finish within the time cut. Two days later, still complaining of headaches and dizziness, it was Cancellara who felt compelled to drift back to the Quick Step team car, telling Boonen’s director Wilfried Peeters that the big Belgian was wandering through the peloton and had become a danger to the rest of the bunch.
In the overbearing heat of the Vuelta, Boonen developed a saddle sore so painful that he rode the entire stage 10 time trial standing, out of the saddle, finishing the stage dead last. He then fell on stage 15 and broke his wrist; he was unable to hold the handlebar for the final 20km of the stage, including the climb up the brutally steep Angliru. Ten days later he was forced to relinquish his spot on the Belgian world championships squad, describing his wrist pain as “incredible.”
While Boonen struggled with injuries, doubts surfaced about his longevity. With the emergence of Cancellara as the strongest classics rider in the peloton, and Cavendish as the most dominant sprinter of the era, Boonen’s time in the spotlight appeared to be in the past; he was neither as strong as the Swiss Time Machine nor as fast as the Manx Missile. Meanwhile, emerging young riders such as Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale), Sep Vanmarcke (Garmin-Barracuda) and John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano) appeared poised for the classics throne.
Boonen even admitted he’d grown wary of field sprinting, saying, “In the 10 years I’ve been part of the bunch, a lot has changed. In the past there was more respect … Nowadays the guys take too big of risks. They push the line. When it is too dangerous, I just don’t take part of it.”
Beaten and battered, Boonen appeared to have lost his touch, his best years behind him.
Only he hadn’t, and they weren’t.