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Ride like... Tom Boonen

21 Dec 2016

We look at what makes the Belgian beast one of the greats of the modern peloton

Going down as one of the hardmen in cycling is no mean feat but for some like Tom Boonen it comes easy.

The former world champ has broken his skull (which has permanently damaged his hearing), collarbone and ribs, among other body parts.

He’s even been labelled ‘a warrior’ by Tour de France legend Bernard Hinault after his 2016 Paris-Roubaix podium finish.

With four wins at Paris-Roubaix, the Belgian is joint record holder in pro cycling’s hardest one-day race, and has only finished outside the top 10 once.

And he’s said he’ll continue to chase a fifth win even if it means racing into old age, such is his lust to be Paris-Roubaix’s all-time greatest.

Boonen has also won countless one-day races as well as the World Road Race Championships and a World Team Time Trial Championship. Here we learn how to ride like the big Flemish hero.



Name: Tom Boonen
Nickname: Tornado Tom
Age: 36
Lives: Mol, Belgium
Rider type: Classics specialist, sprinter
Professional teams: 2002 US Postal Service, 2003-Present Etixx-QuickStep
Palmarès: World Road Race Champion 2005; Tour of Flanders 2005, 2006, 2012; Paris-Roubaix 2005, 2008, 2009, 2012; Tour de France Green Jersey winner 2007, six stage wins; Vuelta a España two stage wins

Don't be afraid to try something new

What? Tornado Tom has raced for over 15 years and has seen just about everything the sport has to offer.

‘Everyone is predictable these days, and the easiest way to get beaten is to be predictable,’ he reveals.

So what’s his cure? ‘Sometimes you have to have the balls to try something new,’ he says.

‘When I first turned pro, the style of racing was to wait and wait. I tried to change that.’

And he certainly did, winning a record three Tour of Flanders crowns and four Paris-Roubaix titles.

How? Whether you’re racing or just like to train, changing things up can lead to success in many different ways.

When racing, switching tactics can obviously catch rivals by surprise.

And if you do the same in training you’ll not only manage to stay more motivated but make sure your body gets a proper work out.

Endlessly repeating the same exercise (grinding out low-intensity miles for example) will not test your body, and the aim of exercise is to do just that.

So spice things up by changing your routine and routes regularly to maintain peak levels of focus and effort.

boonen roubaix

Ramp up the power

What? Tornado Tom is known for his huge exertions of power in the final stretches as he sprints to victory, but how does he achieve it?

Utilising a training routine called the Ramp Test Workout, the Belgian superstar slowly increases his power output every eight minutes.

‘I begin by pedalling at 100 Watts – easy,’ he reveals. ‘Then after 8 minutes, I bring it up to 140 watts – still easy.

After another eight minutes, 180 watts... you get the idea!

If I’m in good shape, I can pedal the final eight minutes at 460 watts, by which time I’ve been riding for an hour and a half.’

How? While we don’t expect you to jump right in and match the Classics rider watt for watt, you can adjust the workout to suit you, by changing either the intensity, the intervals or the overall time.

For example, by halving Boonen’s incremental increases from 40 to 20 watts, you’ll still be putting down progressive amounts of power without knackering yourself out too quickly.

Working on your power in this way will improve your overall cycling, allowing you greater acceleration and a higher top speed.

When riding cobbles, relax!

What? Riding on cobblestones takes its toll on your body, and nobody knows this better than the pros who tackle the 258km Paris-Roubaix route every April.

Yes, there are things you can do to your bike to make it more comfortable, but ultimately improving your technique is the best strategy.

And after years of riding the pavé, Boonen has some very sound advice on this score.

‘The secret is to relax and keep the handlebars in between your hands with little pressure and let the bike ride,’ he reveals.

How? If you’re lucky enough to ride the cobbles, do as Boonen says. When Cyclist took on the course earlier this year, we lost feeling in our fingers from clinging onto the bars too hard.

Because cobbles are such an uneven surface, the desire to grip hard is intuitive but it drains your energy and causes your hands to ache, which is why Boonen recommends loosening up. And he’s right.

Riding uneven surfaces with just enough grip to steer gives you better control on the bike and greater confidence.

‘You actually move the bike with your arse and the power of the pedals, not the handlebars,’ Boonen told us, demonstrating a remarkable grasp of vernacular English.

Tom Boonen

Learn to suffer

What? ‘If you suffer a little bit in life, you appreciate more what you get,’ Boonen reveals.

Cycling and suffering go together, but the pros know it is a price worth paying. ‘It toughens you up and makes you a better person,’ Boonen insists.

And the man known as Tornado Tom knows as much about suffering as any rider, with multiple crashes in his career including one in 2015 that left a crack in his skull and permanent damage to his hearing.

How? Learning to suffer may seem like a strange concept, but it’s very simple.

A study in 2013 set out to discover how Ultra-marathon runners deal with pain compared to non-athletes.

The test saw people putting their hands in iced water for three minutes before rating the pain out of 10.

Only three non-athletes completed the task, rating the pain at 10 while all their athletic counterparts completed the challenge with a max rating of six.

The study concluded that the athletes could suffer more, not because they’re genetically special but because they’d trained so hard for their sport that their pain threshold levels were significantly higher.

In short, suffering conditions you mentally and physically.

Ride cyclocross

What? The King of the Cobbles isn’t afraid of wet or muddy conditions on the road – partly thanks to the work he puts in during road-cycling’s off-season.

‘I’ve always been someone who rides a lot on the cyclocross bike and in Belgium in the winter we have a lot of mud,’ he tells us.

Even when it isn’t raining, the tricky cobbles can throw up real obstacles for riders who may not be so clued up.

‘It’s a case of being used to it and not being afraid,’ Boonen says, ‘it makes it a little bit easier.’

How? Getting involved in cyclocross is a pretty simple. Races usually last 45-60 minutes, so you don’t have to spend a whole day out in the cold, and if you don’t have a specialist cyclocross bike, a mountain bike will do.

The British CX (Cyclocross) race calendar is run by British Cycling so you will need a race license to compete, but many local cyclocross leagues will allow you to just turn up and have a go.

Nick Craig, a multiple National Champ got us all excited. ‘I’d say it’s the most fun and accessible discipline in cycle sport with so many aspects that keep it interesting. The skills you will learn are all transferable and will make you a far better rider on the road.’

Double-wrap your bars

What? Tom Boonen is renowned for his exploits at Paris-Roubaix but how does he deal with one of the most demanding races of the year?

‘Some riders, including Tom [Boonen] choose to have double handlebar tape, so you don’t get all the shaking in your arms which can make your back stiff,’ Rolf Aldag, Boonen’s former team manager told us.

Specialized’s latest offering the appropriately named Roubaix Elite actually has suspension built into the handlebars to help with this very problem, but if you don’t have a spare two grand to buy one try following Boonen’s (far cheaper) lead.

How? You may think that as a rider who rarely (if ever) encounters cobbles, this would be of no relevance to you, but consider this: for many riders, particularly older ones who have just started in the sport, a numbness in the hands can come from any road surface. This can result in a lack of control over the bike.

If this sounds familiar, try wrapping two layers of tape around your bars like Tornado Tom. It’ll soften the vibrations from the road , increase blood flow through your fingers and improve your grip.