Four-time Paris-Roubaix winner and three-time Tour of Flanders winner, Tom Boonen knows a thing or two about bike racing. Now retired, the Belgian keeps a close eye on racing and the changing demands that professional riders have on their equipment. As the strength of the peloton continues to grow, searching for every marginal gain becomes more important than ever.
Boonen sees Classified, a new shifting system in which he is invested, as the latest revolution in cycling tech. Being tested by WorldTour riders currently, the 41-year-old thinks it's only matter of time until it the equipment will be used by the masses, allowing people to say goodbye to a front derailleur for good.
Rouleur: Tom, what are some big changes you've seen in cycling tech in recent years?
Tom Boonen: The biggest advance was aero when I was still riding. The first aero bikes came out in 2009 and 2010, that was when everyone started to get aero. Disc brakes were there already for eight years before we started using them. The racing part is always more conventional, it waits a long time. Even if mountain bikes are already using disc brakes for 20 years, road bikes always come a little bit later.
I think Classified is the first real big revolution in drivetrain technology because the drivetrain is still the same as it was 80 years ago, the only thing that has changed is the electric engines, it’s still the same system.
R: Can you explain what Classified is?
T: It’s where we replace the front derailleur so you can use a normal 1x system, which many people are already using now in gravel and mountain bikes, but you still will have the advantage of having a virtual derailleur in the rear hub. So we made a sort of planetary gear system in the rear hub, where you can shift on the full load, up to 2000 watts even, in 0.15 seconds. So you can have a normal gear range, and still have the advantages of a 1x system.
R: When do you think the WorldTour teams will begin to use it?
T: Already this year they will ride it, they’re already training on it, we have a lot of people testing and I ride it at home as well. There’s a lot of questions from the peloton before they start using it and a lot of testing being done by riders like Victor Campenaerts on the time-trial bike.
Running a bigger chainring in the front gives you a more aero advantage. We actually did a test that showed you get a 1% gain on the drivetrain, because there's less frictional losses on the bearings and the chain ring. So there's a lot of advantages coming through now. You will also be able to use a normal 1x system, but you can't race a 64 chain ring on the front on a time trial bike without a bailout gear.
R: Apart from working on Classified, what do you have coming up?
T: I’m doing a Porsche Carrera Cup this year which is at a very high level, pro level. I do it for the focus. It's not about speed or riding fast with a car, it’s about having that approach to race weekends, being focused, having a reason to go training.
I was always interested in motor racing. I have done a lot of track days since I was 21 years old, it’s always been one of my passions together with bike riding, as soon as I stopped I got my motor licence and started racing. It’s just about having the race feel, the approach to a race weekend, with a bike or a car it doesn’t matter. Losing those hormones in your mind you get like a synthetic low. I think everybody should find something they really like and do it. Having 25 years of racing bikes and just stopping and doing nothing, it wasn’t an option for me.
Photo: Philipp Hypendahl
R: Do you still keep a close eye on bike racing?
T: Of course. Paris-Roubaix this year, it was lovely. Just lovely to see how they used every metre of the race to destroy everyone. What Ineos did was great. If you have the opportunity to do that in Paris-Roubaix when the wind is right, you have to do it. I think I turned the TV on at around 12 o’clock after they’d done 80km and I was like what happened? So many guys are already in front!
R: Is that sign of a big change with races being taken on earlier?
T: I don’t think so. I think the situation has to be right. When I did my first Roubaix back in 2002, we also went after 30km with 40 guys in front and I also made it to the podium. It's not every year you get the right amount of wind in the right direction and the right teams in the front. If you look back to the way the finals were in the last 20 years, I don't think there's a big difference.
The biggest difference in the peloton at the moment is the amount of young riders doing well. It’s not just five guys, it’s like 25 or 30 guys who are really good from 22 and 23 years old, it’s amazing. Maybe it’s to do with the planets and the moon at the time they were born, maybe they were given some superpowers. I don’t know, it’s unbelievable.
R: Do you think that young riders performing so well at a young age will mean they have shorter careers?
T: It’s not going to be the same for everybody, some people are able to do it for 15 years at a high level, some for five, some for three. Look at Tom Dumoulin, he’s a super good bike rider but he got stressed out and got a burn out, it’s different for everyone. Life just happens, some people just walk through life whistling and others have a hard life as a bike rider, it’s different for everyone, you can’t say.
R: You've worked closely with Patrick Levefere. What do you think about his management style and how does this affect riders on Quick Step?
T: I’ve been with Patrick for 17 years and the guy he is in the media is not really who he is. It’s a role he plays. He’s a very good manager and he’s not actually the guy who speaks to the riders that much, we have the director sportifs. Seeing Patrick at a race is actually not that common if you’re a rider. If he’s on the bus he just shuts up and he lets the people who know better do their work.
R: Have you ever considered a director sportif role yourself?
T: No. I’ve seen everything, done everything. The first year when I stopped, they really wanted me to stay with the team. I was thinking about it, but it’s 80 days a year on the road and in hotels all the time. The only reason I did it before was because I loved racing bikes, but I don't want to do it for something else, I’m not motivated to do something as a DS or manager. Maybe later, but not now.
Cover image: Classified