After one of the best editions in the history of the "Hell of the North", the four-time champion added another strong result to his impressive palmares.
October 9th 2015: Tom Boonen crashes in stage 2 of the Abu Dhabi Tour and suffers a skull fracture, his worst injury during a pro career which spans over a decade and a half. The doctors' prognostic is harsh: six month of break and a long recovery ahead, which automatically means that the Belgian has to miss his beloved Classics.
April 10th 2016: after 257 hard kilometers – out of which 52.8 were on the rough cobbles of Northern France – ridden at full gas, Tom Boonen is close of writing history and becoming the first five-time winner of Paris-Roubaix, a race which is almost unanimously considered as the toughest one there is in the cycling. Did something change in the meantime? Absolutely nothing! Then what made the difference between what the doctors said last Autumn and what happened on the road? The answer couldn't be easier: the DNA of a champion.
On Sunday, Tom Boonen was one of the 198 riders to line up in Compiègne's Place du Général-de-Gaullefor at the start of Paris-Roubaix, a race which will forever bear his mark thanks to the four victories that he scored in 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2012, as well as for the unique emotions and memorable moments he has generated in an event as special as the cobblestones that shape its outcome. Supported by a very strong outfit, which included also Tony Martin and Niki Terpstra, the 35-year-old showed his intentions right from the beginning, when the team rode hard, at first to send a man in the break, and then, once an escape was formed without an Etixx – Quick-Step rider, by controlling the group at the front and not giving it too much of a space.
Eventually, 16 riders broke away and got a 4-minute gap before the first cobbled sector of the day, Troisvilles. It was the start of a fascinating chess game, which unfolded like few editions of Paris-Roubaix have done in recent history, and Etixx – Quick-Step moved immediately, sending one of its strongest and most valuable pieces at the head of the peloton. Riding his maiden Paris-Roubaix, Tony Martin showed that sometimes it's not only the experience that counts, but also your skills and the strong legs that you have, as he began to chew into the breakaway's advantage.
Kilometer after kilometer, cobbled sector after cobbled sector, the three-time ITT World Champion brought pain into the legs of other riders, and played his part into what turned out to be one of the most important moments of the day: on Monchaux-sur-Ecaillon, a crash occurred and split the peloton, and Tony did a huge pull that splintered the groups even more, as he dropped a big number of riders who did their best in order to limit the loses, but couldn't match the German's fantastic pace. As a result, only a handful of men stayed in that group, among whom was also Tom Boonen, who led the way in the Arenberg Forest, the race's most iconic sector. Unfortunately, Etixx – Quick-Step lost Nikolas Maes there, due to a crash which required a couple of stitches on his right knee at the Valenciennes hospital.
Behind, Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segrafredo), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) tried to come back, but despite their combined efforts, the gap didn't drop below 30 seconds. With 82 kilometers remaining, what was left of the escape and Boonen's group merged, and their chances of going all the way increased considerably. The race witnessed another important moment later, on the five-star Mons-en-Pévèle sector, where Cancellara crashed, an incident that saw Niki Terpstra hit the deck and abandon. The Dutch champion was also taken to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with a left knee hematoma and on Monday is set to undergo further examinations. Another noteworthy event on Mons-en-Pévèle was the acceleration of Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo), who forced a selection in the leader's group, narrowing it down to just seven riders.
The final 20 kilometers had plenty of excitement, drama, emotion, and especially attacks. Carrefour de l'Arbre, an old Roman road which in Paris-Roubaix has been the road to glory in more than one occasion, had Vanmarcke in the spotlight, as he attacked again and opened a 10-second gap. The first to respond to this move was Tom Boonen, who dug deep and made contact with his fellow countryman, the two of them being joined by Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data), Mathew Hayman (Orica-GreenEdge) and Ian Stannard (Team Sky). Knowing that his chances in a sprint were slim, the Brit then countered on a tarmac section and got five seconds in hand, but the same Boonen chased him down.
Then, inside the last 2500 meters, the Etixx – Quick-Step rider made his move after waiting patiently for the right moment, and only Hayman was capable to get in his wheel. It looked like the victory will see a two-man sprint, but the tension ramped up in the next few seconds, because Vanmarcke and Stannard managed to return at the front and spice up the finale. The Australian opened his sprint first, and although Boonen put in the big watts, he couldn't surpass him on the line and had to be satisfied with second place, which marked the 13th time that he has finished in the top 3 of a Monument.
"Trying to win my fifth Roubaix never turned out to be an easy task, and coming here today I had a couple of obstacles. I am proud of myself for making it so far, but looking behind I can see how difficult it was. On the last lap, my plan was to take the lead in the final corner, but I had to wait for 30 meters, because Sep was on my side and there wasn't any space, so those 30 meters cost me the victory."
Of course, I am upset for missing out on the win, but being second here after those tough months in the winter is a win in itself for me and I am proud of this.
"Just this morning I got the message from my doctor who treated me in Abu Dhabi, saying that today was the day in which I should have looked at my bike again, so that means that I'm ahead of the schedule", Tom Boonen said at the press conference after returning on the Paris-Roubaix podium for the first time in four years.
The Belgian also made an analysis of the way the race went since the start and of the finale which saw five men play for the win in the "Queen of the Classics": "Our team had a well-defined plan, and that was to make the race as hard as possible. We tried to go in the breakaway, but everyone was chasing us, so then, after the 16 riders got clear, we began to work. Tony Martin did an incredible job today, he kept on going and gave it his all. It was a standard Paris-Roubaix, a crazy race, chaotic, with crashes and flat tires. All five which were in the front had our share of work, and we were all tired. I tried to attack a couple of times, but it was very hard to get away, because everybody knew that I was aiming for my fifth victory. Mathew turned out to be the strongest and deserves to get such a victory after a career of helping people out and not scoring the big wins, so congrats to him for today."
Many were curious to find out what was Tom Boonen's top emotion at the end of the day, and he made some light on this, while also offering some hints related to his future: "I'm not sure how I will feel on Monday, but at the moment I am happy with my performance, because it was hard to come back at this level after that injury. Maybe coming second it's not so bad in the end and will give me that extra motivation for another year. At this moment I don't really see a reason why I shouldn't come back next season."
Photo credit: ©Tim De Waele