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Boonen’s secret legwarmer code

“He’s not even trying,” says the pair of black legwarmers wrapped around Tom Boonen’s legs as he smashes up the Taaienberg, a peloton of mostly bare legs dangling in his wake. It’s February, at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Or maybe it’s March, at Dwars door Vlaanderen. Doesn’t matter. But it’s definitely not April. Boonen wouldn’t wear legwarmers in April. There are codes, and one must abide.

To overdress is to scoff at the severity of an effort. And thus, Boonen’s apparel choice is a clear message: These races are just practice. “He won’t even generate enough heat to pull me off,” the spandex tubes say of their master, sticking their tags out in petulance. In these legwarmer races, mere stepping stones to the glories of April’s Holy Week, a champion cannot be seen taking the work too seriously. That would be uncouth.

What are the legwarmer races? Most everything going down in Belgium and Northern France from the end of February to the end of March. Omloop is the first. Win there and you’re cursed for Flanders. (Sorry, Greg Van Avermaet.) Best wear the legwarmers and make a few half-hearted moves early.

Kuurne is one as well. The sprinter’s classic (most years, Jasper Stuyven’s exceptionalism excluded) allows a chance for the champion to stretch his legs without any real concern for victory. Dwars door Vlaanderen is another opportunity to put the legwarmers on display on the Taaienberg. Such opportunities should not be missed. Gent-Wevelgem counts, too, but barely.

Boonen, in this odd ode, stands in for any champion or consistent protagonist of Holy Week: Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix. Peter Sagan, Fabian Cancellara, Stijn Devolder, Alexander Kristoff, and John Degenkolb all qualify, among a select few others. One does not qualify if victory in a February or March race would sit atop the palmares. It’s that simple.

You see, the legwarmer is an insurance policy against humiliation. There is no shame in losing Flanders or Roubaix. But lose a sprint to some upstart at Harelbeke? Please. “The champion clearly wasn’t trying. Look, he even left his legwarmers on.”

In racing, legwarmers go over shorts. This is an important distinction. Over, rather than under, conveys a certain aloofness. It’s also a threat: “I can take these off at any time, and then you’ll all be in trouble.”

The champion gives it a go in the legwarmer races, just to keep things interesting. Just to test the form. But legwarmers tell the world that even if he wins one of these smaller, early-season races, it was little more than an accident. “Oops. He’s simply that good,” the legwarmers say.

The younger riders, the lesser riders — their legs are bare. They have not yet earned the devil-may-care attitude legwarmers signify. They are not cool enough. They have won no monuments. They will work, and work hard, to create the heat they need.

Stroll around the start paddock in Gent 40 minutes before Omloop begins, and you’ll spot an unlucky few on trainers, warming up. They are the sacrifices, human offerings from a nihilistic sport director to the day’s doomed breakaway. They are polar opposites of the champion.

“May he ride with a strong heart and bare legs,” the director says. “May he bring pride to his team and his family in his impossible mission. No legwarmers for him; he won’t need them.”

The codes are not carved in stone. Weather may alter the calculus. A particularly cold or wet day allows everyone to don the legwarmer without repercussion. Further, though the right to race-day legwarmers is generally restricted to Holy Week protagonists, certain exceptions may be made.

Last year, on his way to victory at Gent-Wevelgem, Luca Paolini held his legwarmers up over top of his shorts with small safety pins, tiny metal symbols of dedication. Though Paolini was not of the caliber of Boonen or Cancellara, he has a most excellent beard and tailguns with the panache of 10 men, and thus his black-clad legs are met with approval. It was also really cold and windy.

Of course, all of this flips on its head come April. As riders assemble on Brugge’s cobbled square for the start of the Ronde, few will dare to cover legs, no matter how cold. The code of Holy Week is opposite of church: Shorts only, please. Show some respect.