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'Flanders is hardest to win': Tom Boonen in retirement

In-depth
28 Mar 2021
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It's Flanders week so this seems like a relevant read, doesnt it? Remind yourself of this fantastic interview where we visite Tomekke at home to talk Roubaix, Flanders, race cars and alpaca farming.

Words James Witts Photography Chris Blott

‘Will we be done by 3pm? I need to collect my twin daughters from school. This month is quieter before the motorsport season picks up.’

Tom Boonen is in relaxed mood as he ushers Cyclist into his rural home on the edge of his birth city of Mol, Belgium. The four-time Paris-Roubaix and three-time Tour of Flanders winner is three years retired from the sport that paid for the bricks, mortar and artworks of his magnificent cottage.

‘We’ve renovated inside and out,’ says the 39-year-old of his grand design. It’s typically Belgian, marrying formal undertones with quirky notes, including a waist-high rainbow-coloured elephant.

As he fires up the coffee machine, Boonen looks fit and displays none of the traits of ex-sporting legends. There’s no expanded waistline, no baseball cap hinting at a QuickStep ambassadorial role. Instead, he gives the impression of a man enjoying his freedom and moving faster than ever.

The 36-year-old Boonen lined up for what was his final professional race on Sunday 9th April 2017. Appropriately, it was Paris-Roubaix, the cobbled Classic that Boonen won in 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2012.

Seven days earlier he’d played the role of über-domestique in sending Philippe Gilbert to victory at the Tour of Flanders, but this edition of Roubaix was going to be all about Boonen.

It didn’t happen. Greg Van Avermaet won, with Boonen 13th. ‘It wasn’t to be and was a tough day,’ Boonen reflects, then forces a smile. ‘But not as tough as Roubaix in 2011. That day I broke three Eddy Merckx frames. The first in the Arenberg Forest; the second when my bottle shot out of the cage and jammed between my front wheel and frame; the third 50km from the finish. Those Eddy Merckx bikes were poor all year. We [QuickStep] won just eight times as a team.’

Boonen would make up for QuickStep’s poor showing in 2011 by winning both Flanders and Roubaix the following year. With that double, Boonen equalled the record for the number of wins at both races, eclipsing, ironically, the great Eddy Merckx.

Next to Boonen’s rainbow elephant stands a four-tier shelf, each straining beneath the weight of the cobble trophies he won at Roubaix. Next to them are three bronze sculptures, each won at Flanders, but even they are dwarfed by a shiny cup that resembles football’s Champions League trophy.

‘That’s from winning a 24-hour race in Dubai this January,’ says Boonen. ‘I had to dismantle it for customs!’

It was the maiden victory for Boonen’s Belgian motor racing team, AC Motorsport, and he hopes the first of many: ‘The Continents category, which we’re in, returns at Portimao [Portugal] in June, followed by races in Barcelona and Texas. That’s GT3 and touring cars, and we drive an Audi RS 3. I’m also racing the Ultimate Cup Series with round one taking place the same weekend as Milan-San Remo. These are cars more akin to Formula 1. I drive the Norma, a French racing car.’

It’s easy to sense his excitement when Boonen talks motor racing. He gets out his smartphone and shows me a clip of him in action. He’s mesmerised, as is one of his three cats, Pascalle, who’s rubbing his face on my elbow. ‘It’s around 3.5G, which is comparable to F1. I’ve followed motorsport since I was a kid. I love it.’

Aiming for Le Mans

These races are a springboard for his goal of racing the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Pascalle leaps off to find his sister, Odette.

‘The dream is racing Le Mans in a Belgian team with Belgian drivers, and we have a chance with drivers like Sam [Dejonghe],’ says Boonen. ‘He’s talented and competes in Formula E. We’re aiming to challenge in the European Le Mans Series in 2021.

‘In a 24-hour race, the maximum you can drive in one stint is three hours. But it’s faster to change drivers once the gas tank’s empty, which is under two hours. That leaves little time to sleep. I survive on coffee, rice and bananas. It keeps things light and digesting food makes you tired. And, of course, you don’t need the same calories as in cycling.’

But you do require fitness. The 30-hour training weeks may be no more, but he has retained his svelte frame.

‘I work with a personal trainer and do much more upper-body work. I run and ride – mainly mountain biking now. In fact, at the back of my garden, beyond those fields [he points out of his window] is a big nature park with 80km of trails. You can reach Leuven, where I used to be fitness-tested at the Bakala Academy when racing for QuickStep.

‘My all-over conditioning is arguably stronger than when I was racing bikes. Then, you’re super-skinny and everything hurts because you don’t have the muscles to support your skeleton. Motorsport is more physical than you think. The force is so great I’ve even torn a muscle in my arm. The vibrations are often comparable with Roubaix and Flanders.’

Boonen’s passion for both sports is clear in his garage. The riding overalls of two-time World Superbike Champion Colin Edwards hang from a wall beside the rainbow jersey Boonen won in 2005, overlooking a Porsche 964 Turbo that Boonen spent years restoring, behind an S-Works with vivid gold decals. Reassuringly, there’s also a fridge packed with beer, albeit with the words ‘No mayo, low salt’ scrawled in a heart on the glass door.

Boonen has further Porsches in storage, plus an old Norma he used to drive. And just for good measure, he’s even taken to selling cars.

‘The showroom’s called Iconic Cars,’ he says. ‘There are some normal cars but a few are really special.’

Special, like Ferraris? ‘That’s a normal one,’ he booms. ‘We’ve sold two McLaren P1s, an Aston Martin One-77 and a Bugatti Veyron.’

If you want to feel extremely poor, it’s worth checking out iconiccars.be. It doesn’t take up too much of his time, says Boonen, but is another project, another distraction, to redirect focus from the cocooned and sometimes cossetted world of professional cycling.

‘It helps as you miss the structure and competition,’ he says. ‘For 20 years, everything’s clear. You have your goals. Your friends and family know them too, so they give you space. That falls away. It was so easy being a pro cyclist. You arrive home after a winter ride, have a good meal, shower and then you’re allowed to lie on the couch as it’s part of the job. Yes, there’s pressure, but pressure is fun if you like it.’

Father figure

At that, Tom’s wife, Lore, comes into the room carrying an assortment of Belgian goodies: brioche rolls, cheese, ham, cherry tomatoes, mini salamis, cheese cubes and breadsticks. Tom disappears to the kitchen and returns with sparkling water, given its fizz by a Soda Stream.

A child’s table-and-chair set will be filled later by their five-year-olds, Valentine and Jacqueline. Pascalle joins us. It’s the Flemish Good Life. Boonen looks content in retirement and is happy to discuss his successors at the Classics.

‘I don’t want to compare myself with Mathieu van der Poel, but if there’s one thing I see in both of us, it’s how we race. He throws all his cards on the table and isn’t afraid to finish second. It’s all or nothing and that’s more satisfying.

‘Take my last Flanders. Instead of looking to break on the Kwaremont we pushed hard on the Muur with about 100km still to go. That broke the pack and about 15 of us went clear. People thought we’d never stay away, but it worked as Gilbert won.’

Boonen spectated on the Kwaremont in 2019. It’s why he can’t look beyond Van der Poel at both Flanders and Roubaix. ‘I watched him try to come back after his crash and his speed was incredible. He’s one impressive driver.’ Boonen corrects himself. ‘Rider.’

‘He’s opening people’s eyes by doing things differently,’ he adds. ‘Cycling is old school, even now. Mathieu rides at a high intensity. He’s also a little crazy. Recently he finished his cyclocross season and went skiing for a week. All his competitors were racing and he’s off skiing!’

Boonen is also a fan of Remco Evenepoel, who he offers advice to, especially in dealing with fanatical home support. While Boonen relished the battle – ‘In 2012, when I won Flanders and Roubaix in the same season for the second time, I’d line up, look around and think I’m going to have some fun today’ – he felt less comfortable with media intrusion. Two-thirds of Belgium’s 11 million population is from cycling-mad Flanders. ‘It reached a peak after my World Champs victory [2005]. I was 24 or 25 and neither me nor the team handled it too well. We took on too much.’

Three failed tests for cocaine between 2007 and 2009 points to a young rider struggling with the pressures and temptations that come with fame and celebrity. It also saw him banned from the 2008 Tour de France. Boonen moved to Monaco in 2005 in search of sun and better training. He stayed there until 2012.

The Belgian authorities saw things differently, accusing Boonen of tax evasion and fining him €2 million. It’s at odds with a rider who was regarded as one of the peloton’s most generous, kind-spirited members.

‘The spotlight was intense and might have been less so in America or France, which are bigger countries,’ he adds. ‘But I wouldn’t trade it. I love Belgium.’

And Belgium loves Boonen, forgiving indiscretions based on partying not performance. It’s a love affair that simmered in the early 2000s before boiling over in 2005.

‘That was when I went to Flanders as QuickStep’s main man. Until that point I’d supported Johan [Museeuw, who won Flanders three times]. It meant I got the Wednesday races, although I won Gent-Wevelgem and Harelbeke in 2004. Johan stopped that year. Come 2005 I won. And I won Roubaix.’

Flanders is harder

If success breeds success, Boonen was the most fertile man in the peloton. That year, 2005, he went on to win the World Championships and two stages of the Tour de France, plus he earned a stack of awards including Belgian Sports Personality of the Year. But it was the cobbles that cemented his reputation as the hardest of riders.

‘I actually suffered less at Roubaix. In Flanders there are always more people who can win. At Roubaix, if you do your thing and you’re good at it, you end up in the final eight guys. And of those eight, four are already dropped and they don’t know it. In Flanders you arrive at the Muur with 45 to 50 guys. It’s harder to win.

‘But they’re both great races and races I won in different ways, whether it was a sprint, solo or in a small breakaway. As you grow older you gain more confidence. I remember Flanders in 2012. I was in a lead group of three with [Filippo] Pozzato and [Alessandro] Ballan. I pretended I was dead. I’d give them four metres, they would attack but I never let them go. Cycling’s such a mental game. You have to create the right circumstances for you.’

Which he did by spending 15 of his 16 years as a professional at arguably the strongest Classics team in history: QuickStep.

‘I helped make the team and they helped make me. Guys with us rode 10% better than they used to because of the team ethic. Other teams looked up to us, tried to copy us. Data is important but the likes of Tom Steels knew as DS how to handle people. A rider might be able to churn out huge watts but might be feeling crap because his dog died.’

Boonen raced for QuickStep between 2003 and 2017. His sole season away from Patrick Lefevere’s collective was on turning professional in 2002 when he raced for US Postal – a first step that seems incongruous for a Belgian and one whose explanation stems from before his teens.

‘My dad was a professional rider, too, but he retired after a fissure on his butt wouldn’t heal. I don’t recall much of my dad racing except that the team he raced for went bankrupt.

‘They were sponsored by a soap company, so he was paid in soap. Our garage was packed with the stuff and we sold it to everyone. His experience with cycling wasn’t great so he never pushed it.

‘Anyway, when I was young I lived in Mol and Balan, which is just outside Mol. I didn’t have an interest in cycling until 12 or 13. I then raced for Balan Bicycle Club. It’s one of the best clubs for young riders and is where Remco grew up. In fact, my Belgian licence never listed QuickStep as my club – it was always Balan BC.

‘I won a few races for Balan and then competed for the Belgian national team. It only lasted 12 months as clubs complained that the federation was taking the best young riders. Marc Sergeant was our DS. He’s now at Lotto-Soudal. I then moved to a club in Kortrijk for four years.

‘It was there I met Dirk Demol and Johan Bruyneel. Dirk was my DS as an amateur. Both moved to US Postal and Dirk told Johan to keep an eye on me. I did a stagiaire year with them in 2000 and remember my first race, the Tour of Poland. It was 250km every day and I suffered big time.

‘Thankfully I finished third overall at Franco-Belge. US Postal, Mapei and FDJ showed interest in signing me for 2001 but I was 20 and it felt too early. So I signed an agreement with Postal to stay amateur for one more year but go on their training camps. It worked well as I won many races in that final amateur year. It gave me confidence when turning pro.’

It meant a year with the world’s biggest cycling team, a year with the then three-time Tour winner (then seven, then none), Lance Armstrong.

‘I actually raced Flanders with Lance and there’s a well-known image of him riding the cobbles while I’m in the gutter. I think it was the last time he raced Flanders. He was tough as nails but did wrong and treated people the wrong way.

‘I didn’t have bad experiences with him until I sent a thank-you email to my teammates when I moved to QuickStep. Lance emailed back and finished with, “Good luck, you’ll need it.” I was like, “Oh f**k!”’

Tom the farmer

Boonen rises from his sofa to make another espresso. I look out of the front room’s large window, beyond the myriad molehills to a small stable. Boonen, shadowed by Pascalle, returns. ‘What’s in there,’ I ask? ‘Donkeys,’ Boonen replies. ‘I have three of them.’

Why donkeys? ‘I just like donkeys,’ he says. ‘They’re tough but sweet, too. The oldest is 16. I got him in 2004. We’d play football together. I’d pass the ball to him. He’d kick, sometimes he’d connect and then run after it.

‘I also have a qualification in alpaca farming,’ he adds, warming to the subject. ‘They’re curious animals. Deer run away from you. Not alpacas – they always come to you. I like that. They also look regal. The problem is, I thought I’d be home more than I am so we haven’t got any yet.’

Boonen highlights his absence further by explaining that he’s just returned from making a TV programme about altruistic cycling projects around the world.

‘We were in a jail in Brazil where prisoners rode bikes loaded with dynamos to provide energy for the poorest areas. It brought light to the darkness. And we also visited Denmark, where a guy set up a cycle scheme in nursing homes. Oh, and Berlin where a woman teaches refugee women how to ride a bike. It was fascinating.’

After nearly three hours in Boonen’s company it’s time for us to leave. He has been fascinating company, a mix of intelligence, steeliness and sensitivity. The innocence of a boy who loves toys – fast ones – married to the experience of a million eyes watching his every move, every mistake, every victory.

‘Where will you watch this year’s spring Monuments?’ I ask on farewell. ‘Here. For two years I went to Flanders, visiting spots and hitting the big VIP area. But everybody’s getting drunk and asking me questions. I have more control of the situation when I’m involved – a sense of adrenaline to keep you on your toes. If you’re watching, you have control over nothing.’

Tom’s the word…

The best bits from Boonen’s career

2001: Wins the Belgian U23 road race title alongside riding as a stagiaire for US Postal.

2003: Makes the switch to QuickStep, winning a stage and the mountains prize  at the Tour of Belgium.

2004: Wins E3 and Gent-Wevelgem in a season that also yields a pair of Tour stage wins,  including on the Champs-Élysées. 

2005: Takes a prestigious Flanders-Roubaix double and caps the year off in style by winning the Worlds road race.

2006: Wins a second straight Tour of Flanders and the GC at the Tour of Qatar. Ends the year ranked No.1 in the world.

2007: A fifth and sixth stage win at the Tour helps Boonen to the green jersey in Paris.

2008: Claims his second of four wins at Paris-Roubaix. Suspended from the Tour, but wins a pair of stages at the Vuelta.  

2009: Becomes the eighth rider ever to win three times at Paris-Roubaix, finishing on his own nearly a minute clear.

2012: Returns to top form in a big way with wins at Flanders, E3, Paris-Roubaix and Gent-Wevelgem.

2014: Victory at the Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne one-day race marks Boonen’s first notable win of any kind in over a year.

2016: Finishes second at Paris-Roubaix, then in September places third in the Worlds road race, one day after his 36th birthday. 

2017: Officially retires from pro cycling after placing 13th at Paris-Roubaix.

Boonen on...

…His cycling hero

‘That was Miguel Indurain. It might sound odd as a Belgian but I loved the time-trial and loved his bike. When I was young, I won a lot of TTs and loved these crazy bikes.

‘When I was small I had a drawing board where I used to draw TT bikes. The possibilities were endless. Sadly they’re not now. Rules limit what manufacturers can make. It’s a shame.’

…Riding with Cav and Kittel

‘They were very different. Cav was a street-fighting pitbull. Marcel was a gentle giant. If a sprint went wrong, Cav would start shouting, throwing stuff and then 15 minutes later everything was cool. He was like a barking dog before heading to his basket and chilling. Kittel would go to bed with his concerns. As a sprinter you must learn how to lose. You can’t carry it with you.’

…Lotto-Soudal

‘One of my most awkward moments was when an old manager asked me to be the face of a campaign to build a community that supported Flemish cycling. I said yes, and he invited me to a press conference just prior to Omloop. It looked like I was representing Lotto-Soudal. I thought, “Oh shit, this is going to go pear-shaped.” I called him soon after to say I can’t do this any more.’