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Though it appeared at the time that “Tomeke” would keep ticking off victories in the Hell of the North, his dominant victory that year would be his last. Injuries, team politics, superior rivals, and other setbacks would keep him off the winner’s podium at Roubaix for the remainder of his career.
The 2012 Paris-Roubaix would be the high-water mark for Tom Boonen; he won his fourth and final edition that year — why was this one special?
James Startt: Well, firstly because it was his last win. Not only was it his last Roubaix victory, but it was also his final monument victory, and by winning it, he equaled the legendary record set by Roger De Vlaeminck, as the two both scored four wins in the race.
It was also a significant victory because Boonen was far from guaranteed another success. His last victory dated back to 2009 and the two previous years were rather lackluster by Boonen standards. Some even started saying that he was over the hill. But I remember talking to him at the team’s pre-season presentation in Brussels, and if memory serves me, he even referred to Muddy Waters, saying that he was ready to get his “Mojo Working” again. And he very much did, not only winning Roubaix, but doing it in dramatic fashion with a long solo breakaway. It was a magnificent victory with Boonen clearly at his best.
Andrew Hood: It turned out to be Boonen’s last Roubaix win, and he was at the height of his celebrity, rock-star status in cycling. Few riders truly capture the imagination of the larger public, but Boonen was one of them. His fame naturally carried over into France, and Boonen often called Roubaix his favorite race. Fans would go crazy watching Boonen blur by as they stood and cheered only the dusty sectors of cobbles.
With his burly build and pure power, Boonen was naturally built for the pavé. The 2012 edition saw him win alone in perhaps his most dominant win. In two of his previous victories, he won out of small groups. In 2009, he won alone but after riders crashed out of the leading group. In 2012, he attacked with 53km to go, and rode home more than a minute clear. Textbook.
Paris-Roubaix is always one of the most thrilling races to watch; what it is like covering the race as part of the media?
Andrew: There are a few races out there that still bring on the goosebumps, and Roubaix is among them. Covering the race means a long, 15-hour day, but it’s one of the most rewarding of the spring.
The classics are associated with Belgium and Flanders, but Roubaix is a very French affair. It’s an early start in Compiègne, with bad coffee and too-sweet croissants, but there is a pre-race buzz in the morning air unique to Roubaix. Most years, we try to skip ahead of the race to catch the peloton fly over the pavé. There’s nothing in cycling as impressive as seeing the peloton hit the cobbles at full fury. With luck, you can stop at two or three sectors before a mad dash to the Roubaix velodrome.
The year Peter Sagan won, I drove ahead of the race with James, and we managed to see the race five times, but got caught up in a railroad crossing hurrying back to Roubaix. We hit the velodrome just in time to see Sagan dash to victory. The best place to interview riders is after they come out of the old showers. Riders like Philippe Gilbert are teaching a new generation of riders to use the historic showers instead of retreating inside the modern team buses. Then it’s a few hours of punching up stories, and if you’re lucky, some late-night kebab shop might still be open for dinner.
James: Well, Paris-Roubaix is the most thrilling race to cover! I have said it many times before and I will say it again, Paris-Roubaix packs all of the emotion of the three-week Tour de France into one single day. There is simply so much drama. Crashes, flats, mechanicals, you name it, the action simply never stops as riders seemingly out of the race altogether can battle back, while riders out in front simply collapse. “Roubaix is strange,” Boonen once told me. “You can be feeling really good at one point and then a couple of kilometers later be just totally dead.”
I’ll never forget covering my first Paris-Roubaix back in 1993. Defending champion Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle punctured or had a mechanical well before the first cobblestone section in Troisvilles. And when I saw him come through there, I just assumed that his day was done. But over the course of the day, he battled back and won the race by millimeters in front of Franco Ballerini on the Roubaix velodrome. I knew that day that Roubaix was like none other. And it remains my favorite.
How do you rank Tom Boonen among the legends of Roubaix?
James: Well perhaps very much the greatest! It is obviously hard to compare generations. Roger De Vlaeminck was the greatest Roubaix rider of his generation, fending off rivals like Eddy Merckx, not to mention Francesco Moser, himself a three-time winner. But Boonen scored four wins in the same era as Fabian Cancellara, another one of the all-time greats. In addition, Boonen equaled the record in the Tour of Flanders with three victories in the Flemish classic as well, not to mention wins in Gent-Wevelgem and the Grand Prix E3.
Watching Boonen on the cobbles is something I will never forget. He could get into this low-aero tuck, while his hips barely moved with each pedal stroke. He was so smooth that you had the impression that you could literally put a cup of tea on his back and he would not spill a drop. He quite literally floated over the rocky roads. Perhaps the only thing that could possibly hold Boonen back from the title of greatest-ever Roubaix rider was the fact that he always rode on the strongest team (what is today Deceuninck-Quick-Step) with the capacity to literally squelch the competition. De Vlaeminck, in comparison, rode in a time where every rider raced more or less for himself.
But Boonen won his four victories in an era where narrow gains often define victory and defeat, so to dominate like he did really is all the more impressive. Personally, I would give the nod to Boonen. But if he is not the greatest Roubaix rider, he is definitely the greatest cobblestone classics rider.
Andrew: Like James said, it’s hard to compare generations. For me, Boonen is the best classics rider of the past 25 years. Fabian Cancellara ranks right up there, but Cancellara for me was more a time trialist who could ride the cobbles. In contrast, Boonen seemed fated to win on the pavé, and his palmarès run much deeper in the Flanders classics than Cancellara.
Also, Boonen had way more pressure and media attention than Cancellara ever did. Cycling for the Swiss is viewed like a hobby for grown adults, whereas in Belgium, cycling is only outranked by religion and beer. Boonen had to live with that constant stress to perform, and though he certainly had some rough patches, he learned to live with his celebrity status and was still able to match up to and surpass expectations.
Boonen also won something Cancellara never did; the road world title. Either way, their longtime rivalry defined a generation, and Boonen deserves his spot in the pantheon of cycling’s greats.