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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 EST
Velo June 2012

Four-for-Four

With Quick Step since 2003, Boonen was an integral component of the new-and-improved Omega Pharma-Quick Step team of 2012, which saw the signing of GC riders Levi Leipheimer, Tony Martin and Peter and Martin Velits. No longer just a Belgian classics team, Omega Pharma had morphed into a team for the stage races. And a funny thing happened — it raised everyone’s game, including the team’s longtime franchise rider.

A revitalized Boonen came out swinging in 2012, winning stages at the Tour de San Luis, where Leipheimer won the overall, as well as the Tour of Qatar, where Boonen won the overall for a record fourth time. In February he finished second to Vanmarcke with a poorly timed sprint at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and then won the first field sprint at Paris-Nice.

When the big Belgian crossed the finish line first in Harelbeke on March 23, ahead of Freire in a photo finish, the smile across his face was visible from 500 meters away. It was his fifth Harelbeke win, and his first since 2007.

“I am happy. I am very happy” Boonen said after winning Harelbeke. “This has always been a special race for me, and after winning it four times in a row, everyone has been waiting for me to get the fifth, to take the record. I’ve been beaten two times here since [and missed the race two times], and it’s made me more eager to try.”

Ghent-Wevelgem, held two days later, also came down to a field sprint; both Freire and Sagan jumped early, while Boonen waited patiently. The big Belgian wasn’t necessarily the fastest man in the bunch, but he timed his sprint to perfection. Back-to-back victories at Harelbeke and Wevelgem, his sixth and seventh of the season, confirmed that Boonen was enjoying a renaissance season in his eleventh year as a professional.

“As I said in January — if I don’t have any injuries, I’ll be in top shape,” Boonen said after winning Ghent-Wevelgem. “Last year, with my knee problem, I could not get into shape. [The cobbled classics] are the most important races of my season. Everything I do is to be ready for this part of the season.”

The week leading into the Ronde van Vlaanderen was loaded with anticipation, both for the battle between Boonen and Cancellara, and to see how the new course would play out, having lost the Kapelmuur for three circuits using the Kwaremont and Paterberg, with a new finish in Oudenaarde. As it was, the April 1 race was somewhat anticlimactic and came down to the final circuit; by that time Cancellara was already in an Oudenaarde hospital.

When Ballan attacked on the final trip over Oude Kwaremont, Filippo Pozzato (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia) bridged across, taking Boonen with him, with Sagan putting in a brave, lone chase effort 20 seconds behind. With Pozatto the only rider standing a chance against Boonen in a sprint, the Italians formed a quick alliance over the final 10km — Ballan would attack, and Pozatto would not chase. Ballan’s repeated accelerations tested the Belgian, but he could not break Boonen’s resolve, and the Omega Pharma rider beat Pozatto by a bike length to claim an emotional third Flanders crown.

“It’s amazing. I wasn’t expecting it. I was not even feeling super today. I don’t know why, but I was feeling really tired during the race,” said Boonen. “But in the final, I had to count on my sprint. I wasn’t strong enough to ride to the finish solo.”

A week later, however, he was strong enough. With all eyes on him as the overwhelming pre-race favorite, Boonen silenced his critics with a demonstrative solo victory at Paris-Roubaix, crossing the velodrome finish line 1:39 ahead of a five-man group.

The race began to truly take shape on the Orchies cobblestone sector with 60km to go. After the day’s early 12-man breakaway had been reeled in, Boonen and Pozatto accelerated from the pack, catching Europcar’s Sébastien Turgot; behind, Omega Pharma-Quick Step teammate Niki Terpstra and Ballan bridged across to form a dangerous five-man move.

Sensing the time was right, Boonen and Terpstra picked up the pace, while Pozatto and Ballan made the conscious decision not to join the Belgian Omega Pharma teammates. And that move looked to be the wise one when Terpstra dropped off the pace a few kilometers later on the five-star pavé section of Auchyles-Orchies-Bersée, leaving Boonen on his own with 55km to go. However, soon after, Pozzato overshot a cobblestone corner and went down, taking Stijn Devolder (Vacansoleil-DCM) with him, and Boonen’s lead doubled.

For the first 10km of his solo move, Boonen’s gap hovered around 30 seconds, until it slowly started stretching out — 34 seconds at 43km to go, 44 seconds with 37km to go, and 55 seconds with 32km to go. It was an audacious solo attack reminiscent of Cancellara’s race-winning move in 2010, from nearly the exact same distance to the finish.

“When I had 30 seconds, I thought, ‘Okay it’s hard for everyone,’” Boonen said. “I only worried about another favorite like Ballan or Pozatto bridging across on Carrefour de l’Arbre. Then it would have been impossible for me to win.”

And though he was alone, with four Team Sky riders amassed at the front of the first chase group, Boonen committed to the bold move, slowly increasing his lead until, with just over 10km remaining and the perilous Carrefour de l’Arbre cobblestones behind him, it was clear the race behind was for second place.

With the win, Boonen tied De Vlaeminck’s record; he became the only rider to have won E3 Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in one season, and he became the first to achieve the Flanders-Roubaix double twice.

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

He dedicated the win to his girlfriend, Lore, who had spent the day unpacking their belongings in their move from Monaco back to Belgium.

“The last few kilometers I thought about my girlfriend, not about Roger [De Vlaeminck]. She’s putting a lot of work in our new house and in the move back from Monaco. That’s why I pointed to the camera. She probably almost died at home as she wasn’t here in Roubaix. This win is for her.”

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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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