“I could almost be his dad, ‘eh?”
Tom Boonen speaks with a broad grin and one eyebrow raised above the frame of his Tom Ford sunglasses. He is referring to Laurens de Plus, one of Etixx-QuickStep’s new signings for 2016, and, at 20 years of age, the youngest rider in the WorldTour.
Boonen is holding court before a scrum of journalists, descended on Calpe for Etixx-QuickStep’s pre-season gathering. He has already spent an hour with the Belgian press, but if he is tired of answering questions, he hides it well from the English speakers.
Boonen is pleasant, but engaging; light-hearted, but direct; surrounded, but in command. He looks you in the eye as he answers, but more often than not with a smile ready to break out at any moment. He must have given more interviews in his career than I’ve had hot dinners and he is good at it. Later, he admits that he is good at blocking out the press too, at that time of the season when talk of the Ronde is incessant and he is in constant demand.
Boonen remains among the most sought-after riders, though Marcel Kittel is the team’s new star, if judged by the number of hacks that cluster around the sprinter. The Belgian’s achievements far exceed those of his young German counterpart, but as Boonen acknowledges with his quip concerning De Plus, he is at the opposite end of his career from many of his team-mates.
This late period Boonen is as interesting as the phenom who broke into the wider sporting consciousness with an astonishing ride to finish third at the 2002 Paris-Roubaix, aged 21. That he is the last man still standing of the 41 riders who finished that day says much for his longevity and the changed landscape in which he finds himself competing.
There is a growing sense of time slipping for Boonen and for his legions of admirers, and that the time to cherish him is now. Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo) has officially declared 2016 his final season, but for Boonen, matters are not so cut and dried.
He has signed a one-year contract extension with EQS, as much for his convenience as theirs.
“It’s not that if you sign for two years, you’re not able to stop the contract if you want to, but I want to keep my options open at this point,” he explains. “I’ll be 36 this year, after the season. It’s not an age where you think you’re going to go on for 10 years.”
There are many phrases that can be applied to Boonen - as a four-time Roubaix winner and three-time Ronde champion, he can legitimately be described as one of the all-time greats - but ‘senior professional’ suits him best in the context of a pre-season camp.
With the press conference hours behind him, he pads alone through the hotel lobby with a supply of new team kit. For how many seasons must he have made similar errands? The tall, gaunt man with the shaven head and stubble waits patiently by the lift, unassuming as any commercial traveller, but to the fans who line the roads of Flanders and northern France each spring, such an encounter, even in such low-key surroundings, would be remarkable.
Boonen is modest, but even he acknowledges that in the pre-Ronde fortnight, he is public property. The storm gathers intensity from the “general exam” of E3-Harelbeke, and by the time the Tour of Flanders is reached, Boonen is in its eye.
“At the end of those two weeks…they can’t write anymore because everything’s been said and done.”
What hadn’t been shared, until the Calpe gathering, was Boonen’s distaste for a cautious approach to racing the cobbled Monuments, a style he characterises as “wait, wait, wait.”
It was the dominant approach when he arrived on the professional scene, he continues, and now it has returned, despite his best efforts and those of a select few in the modern pack. His assault on the 2014 Paris-Roubaix with Welshman Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) is mentioned.
“We were a little bit unlucky with the wind,” Boonen remembers. “There were two key points where we almost got away from the other guys, and we didn’t; we didn’t drop them, but I’m sure that if we had 50 metres more on them, then me and Thomas would have done the final there, and nobody else.”
There is still disappointment in his tone, and he has to remind himself who won that day (his team-mate, Niki Terpstra).
“Sometimes you just have to have the balls to try something like that,” he continues. “Everybody always waits for the Carrefour de l’Arbre. The easiest way to get beaten is to be predictable. Everybody’s predictable these days.”
He returns to the topic later in the same conversation.
“Sometimes you need to be able to lose the race to win it.”
“I think some people prefer to lose the race and not attack, than to attack and get dropped, and I don’t like it.”
They are the sentiments one hopes to hear from a great champion, but Boonen is voicing his thoughts, rather than playing to the gallery.
He exempts John Degenkolb from the condemnation. Boonen was mightily impressed by the German’s win at Roubaix last April, and he also speaks favourably of the man Degenkolb deposed as Milan-Sanremo champion, Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff.
Boonen himself will ride Milan-Sanremo in March, tempted back by the organisers’ reversion to the old course, before focussing fully on the cobbled Classics. After recent seasons blighted by accident and injury, Boonen believes he has earned a slice of good fortune.
“I hope I get these little presents,” he says, only half joking. “I think I deserve it after these three seasons.”
As a four-time winner of the Tour of Qatar (three in years in which he went on to win at Roubaix), you might be forgiven for thinking that Boonen’s gift will come in October when the World Championship road race will be held in the Gulf state.
The rider, however, disagrees. Seasonal conditions dictate higher temperatures and lower winds, Boonen believes, putting paid to echelons and all but guaranteeing a sprint finish.
“It’s going to be completely different to the races we’ve done in the past in Qatar. I don’t think we can compare it. It’s almost impossible to do echelons in those temperatures.”
Modesty prevents him from self-congratulation. Asked who might fill a Boonen-shaped hole in the peloton, he replies: “Does it need to be filled?” He admires Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal), but believes his young countryman is better suited to the Ardennes than the cobbles.
And what are his thoughts for his great rival Cancellara? The Swiss has already declared that this season will be his last. Will this season be special?
“It will be special for him,” Boonen responds with a smile. “I hope it will be more special for me.”
2015 might so nearly have been Boonen’s last season. An early-season crash at Paris-Nice forced him to miss the Spring Classics and a nasty fall in the season-closing Abu Dhabi Tour has left him with permanent hearing damage.
Does he ever ask himself how much he still needs cycling in his life? To continue to expose himself to the danger of injury or worse? “Quitting is the easiest way,” he replies.
Tom Boonen doesn’t quit, and if this is to be his last season, you can bet he will contest every kilometre.
Check back soon for our feature interview on Boonen's 2002 Paris-Roubaix breakthrough