This season will be Tom Boonen’s last in the professional peloton. After the 2017 Paris-Roubaix, retirement beckons. That still leaves time for one last crack at the the Tour of Flanders, the race that made his name.
Rouleur: What is the first Ronde van Vlaanderen you remember?
Tom Boonen: I got interested in cycling a little bit later than everybody is expecting. I was there in Ninove when Johan Museeuw won in ’96, I did a race there as a nieuwelingen, the 15- to 16-year-old category as it’s called in Belgium, and we stayed afterwards to watch the Tour of Flanders.
It was a pretty immense thing to be there and see all those people, and he crossed the finish line solo… I think that’s when I really started getting interested in the Classics. That was the first time I really understood what the Tour of Flanders was.
With all the pressure and attention you get now, do you feel your personality changes in the months and weeks before Flanders?
I get more into myself, at home as well. When I have the pressure of doing well in these races, I kind of lock myself up into a little cocoon of safety. It’s something that, even if you don’t think about it, happens automatically. I think it’s because you’re focusing so much on it.
You don’t want to spend any energy on other things, you don’t want to think about other stuff. Actually, you just want the world to stop turning so you can really focus on this one-day race. My wife knows it’s only a few weeks a year and when the Classics are over, it takes a few days to get out of it.
Of your three wins at the Ronde [2005, 2006 and 2012], which is your favourite?
My first one. I was alone, I was 24 years old. It was really something, it was the first real chance I had to win Flanders; before that, it was always with Johan [Museeuw] in the team. I was always the second, third or fourth guy there.
That was the first year they were aiming for me as leader. And I won straight away… being as young as I was, winning solo, it had a huge impact on my life, and it will stay with me for the rest of it.
Who’s been your biggest rival over the years?
For sure, in my career it’s been Fabian Cancellara. Because the last few years, he was there, really pushing me and the limits of everyone. But it’s nice to have somebody trying to increase everybody’s level.
If we were alone in this generation, we probably would have won more races, but it wouldn’t help the… how should I put it? The rivalry makes the result look better, you know? If you beat a big name, it’s nicer than somebody who gets second one time and never again.
Are you motivated to prove people wrong if people say you’re too old?
I am getting older. I’m 35. It’s not too old… no, I’m really sad. That’s probably the worst feeling I had about the crash [at the 2015 Paris-Nice, dislocating his shoulder] before last year’s Classics.
I was in really good shape, I was ready to do some decent things in those races. It’s always easy [to say] afterwards but for sure I was gonna be one of the big players for these races. It’s six months of work you throw away.
Is there enough time to add a fourth Ronde or win another Monument?
We’ll see. I don’t know. There’s no answer to the question. But I plan to.
Extract taken from the Tom Boonen feature which appeared in issue 61 of Rouleur, published in April 2016.