The 2017 season was Tom Boonen’s last in the professional peloton. Before riding off into the good night, he had time for one last crack at the Tour of Flanders, the race that made his name.
Rouleur: What is the first Ronde van Vlaanderen you remember?
Tom Boonen: I got interested in cycling a little bit later than everybody is expecting. I was there in Ninove when Johan Museeuw won in ’96, I did a race there as a nieuwelingen, the 15- to 16-year-old category as it’s called in Belgium, and we stayed afterwards to watch the Tour of Flanders.
It was a pretty immense thing to be there and see all those people, and he crossed the finish line solo… I think that’s when I really started getting interested in the Classics. That was the first time I really understood what the Tour of Flanders was.
My dad was a pro rider who did the Ronde. But I was really little, so I have no memories of him racing. After he quit cycling, my dad didn’t follow the sport, not the way he does now. He had some bad memories, he was injured, so he had enough for a few years, then it all came back when he was older.
So it wasn’t like I grew up in a cycling family with bikes everywhere. We had one of my dad’s ones left, the bike I started racing on when I was 12 or 13. Then the revival started in my family.
Was Johan Museeuw your hero as a kid?
Indurain was my hero. He had a nice bike and he looked good in a time-trial. [laughs]
The Belgian press must have loved that when they found out! And when was the first time you rode the Muur de Geraardsbergen and Koppenberg?
Probably in Omloop Mande-Leie-Schelde’s junior race. I was 17 or 18 years old, it was a Classic for us. It’s a derny race at the end of the season in Belgium for seniors and it’s about 200 kilometres: 100km normal racing with 20 guys, then dernys over the other half. It was pretty big over the last 50 years. The junior race went over the Muur. Yeah, that was something special. I was really nervous the first time, I didn’t expect to get up it. Oh, and I was in the small ring.
The first time up the Koppenberg was when it came back into the parcours of the Tour of Flanders [in 2002].
Your first Ronde as a pro rider was four months into your freshman year in 2002 with US Postal. Do you remember being nervous at the start in Brugge?
It was a healthy kind of nervous. It’s the stuff that dreams are made of. Riding the Classics here in Belgium as a young, upcoming talent was really something that makes a big impact in your life.
With all the pressure and attention you get now, do you feel your personality changes in the months and weeks before Flanders?
I get more into myself, at home as well. When I have the pressure of doing well in these races, I kind of lock myself up into a little cocoon of safety. It’s something that, even if you don’t think about it, happens automatically. I think it’s because you’re focusing so much on it.
You don’t want to spend any energy on other things, you don’t want to think about other stuff. Actually, you just want the world to stop turning so you can really focus on this one-day race. My wife knows it’s only a few weeks a year and when the Classics are over, it takes a few days to get out of it.
What are the secrets to winning the Ronde?
It’s probably just being a very complete rider in very good shape on one particular day. There’s no one big secret: you have to have the talent to be there and have a good nose for racing circumstances.
Of your three wins at the Ronde [2005, 2006 and 2012], which is your favourite?
My first one. I was alone, I was 24 years old. It was really something, it was the first real chance I had to win Flanders; before that, it was always with Johan [Museeuw] in the team. I was always the second, third or fourth guy there.
That was the first year they were aiming for me as leader. And I won straight away… being as young as I was, winning solo, it had a huge impact on my life, and it will stay with me for the rest of it.
How did you find the media and pressure in the first few years?
Now it’s different; you learn how to deal with media and the attention. The last years, a lot of things changed with social media, it’s a big difference now to 30 years ago. When you’re young – 22, 23 – when I started to get good results in professional races, you’re not the same guy. I have a lot more experience now.
If I was always the person that I really am, you get punished by the media, because you’re too open and talk too much. It’s better you shut up. You learn how to deal with it, you learn it’s not your friends you’re talking to – or at least, not all of them. You have to respect a certain code and in the end, it just makes the interviews worse, but it’s a protection you’re building.
Who’s been your biggest rival over the years?
For sure, in my career it’s been Fabian Cancellara. Because the last few years, he was there, really pushing me and the limits of everyone. But it’s nice to have somebody trying to increase everybody’s level.
If we were alone in this generation, we probably would have won more races, but it wouldn’t help the… how should I put it? The rivalry makes the result look better, you know? If you beat a big name, it’s nicer than somebody who gets second one time and never again.
What does De Ronde mean to Flanders, in your opinion?
For the people next to the road, it’s a party. There’s a lot of guys who really understand what cycling is, but for 70 per cent, it’s a party. You just go there to drink and watch the race and there’s a nice atmosphere. And most of that 70 per cent doesn’t even know who the winner is.
Do you ever train on the route?
I like to train on the bergs, I don’t do them ten times a year. I try to do them as much as possible in the weeks before the race just to get everything… automatic. It has to be. You don’t have to think about it. It makes me calm knowing the course that well, I get peace of mind.
It’s something I really try to tell the other guys on Etixx: be well organised, have your shit together. It’s stupid things like clothing. Bring a backpack with the clothes you’re gonna wear, one pair of socks, pants and so on. Some guys arrive with a suitcase of 50 shirts, going ‘ah shit no, this is too warm, this is too cold.’ It’s already chaotic in their mind and they haven’t even started the race yet. So it’s something I try to teach them: be organised, it brings you peace and quiet, you’re already more relaxed than with one hour of chaos.
Everything you can do to prepare, prepare it. Know the course well, it just helps you out in the end.
During the race, do you hear the people on the roadside, do you smell the smells?
Of course, it’s pretty noisy. I almost never sleep that night after Flanders or Roubaix because I’m so stressed from the noise. The different sensations, you’re super focused and you just keep getting all this information.
I don’t know why, because I have a bad memory normally, but everything that happens in the race, I remember afterwards. Because you get into this state of super focus, it’s full of stuff you’ve seen in the race. When I have interviews of races from the past ten years, I can’t bring it up like that [clicks finger], but you tell me something and I can go ‘whirrrr’ and it comes back. It’s like: ‘How come I know this?’
What was the worst mistake you made at Flanders?
It was 2007, the year that Ballan won. I crashed near the beginning of the race in Kortrijk. It was the fire department, I think, who had the genius idea of putting up a rain curtain, then with the sun, you had a rainbow. So we arrived, everybody was trying to be in front, I think the tenth guy slipped and crashed, I went over and hurt my wrist. I was in pain all day and I wasn’t focused. At the end of the day, we arrived at the bottom of the Muur with 60 guys.
And I went straight from the bottom. I don’t know why, I just arrived like ‘okay, we’re here.’ And Hoste and Ballan passed me 150 metres from the top, they got away and I wasn’t with them.
It wasn’t instinct. If I hadn’t crashed and I was focused, I would never have done that. I was in pain all day long, I just needed to get over it, [but] they got away. I was at 50 metres till the Bosberg then everybody came back and the race was over for me.
I was disappointed because if I hadn’t crashed, for sure it would have been a different result.
This article is an edited extract of the Tom Boonen feature which appeared in issue 61 of Rouleur, originally published online in 2017, updated in 2019.