When it comes to modern bike racing, it is hard to find a bigger name than Tom Boonen. After all he shares the record for wins in both the Tour of Flanders (three) and Paris-Roubaix (four), which, at least by the books, makes him the greatest cobblestone classics rider of all time. But Boonen was always about much more than his long list of victories, as he was a model of sportsmanship not to mention a global ambassador for the sport well before such titles became ubiquitous in social media. Needless to say, his presence at this year’s Rouleur Live promises to make the ever-popular event a stunning success.
Looking back over his long and storied career, it is hard to identify any single defining moment. There was, of course, that eye-opening third-place performance in his first Paris-Roubaix back in 2002. On that day, Boonen started the race in support of his US Postal Service teammate George Hincapie. But by the finish it was clear that a new star had been born. Belgian fans had found a successor to classics king Johan Museeuw, while those around the world looked forward to following the exploits of one of the sport's most complete and charismatic champions for the next generation.
And Boonen more than confirmed all expectations in 2005 when he won not only the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, but also the World Championships.
But while Boonen was an immense winner, he was also one of the sport's most gracious losers. When Peter Sagan won his first world championship title in 2016, Boonen was one of the first to greet his rival after line. And he did so with open arms. “I’m always happy to see someone else happy,” he said of that moment. “During the race, you do everything possible to get your best result. But once the race is over, it’s over. I think if you can find joy in other’s happiness you are going to be happy for the rest of your life.”
And while Boonen was born and bred on the Flemish race scene, his language and communication skills helped spread the magic of those races globally.
Meanwhile, Boonen has always been passionate about the mechanical side of the sport. Back in 2017, he won his final race at the Tour of San Juan in Argentina, a modest early-season event. But while the victory proved to be his last as a professional, it was one of the first on a bike equipped with disc brakes. And at the press conference after, he was only too eager to talk about their benefits and the revolution they would soon bring to road racing.
Today that passion continues as he is a partner with Classified, a revolutionary shifting technology that eliminates the need for front derailleur or a dual chainring with its unique Powershift rear-wheel hub. You can read all about Boonen and the new Classified system here.
Much of his interest in the mechanical side of the sport can also be found in his passion for automobile racing, which he has been doing professionally since retiring from cycling in 2017.
Only months after closing out his career on the finish line of Paris-Roubaix, Boonen was on the race car track.
“Racing is just in my blood. Even before I started bike racing I went to my home racetrack in Zolder just to watch the races. My granddad even used to sell ice cream at the racetrack,” he said. “I just love everything about the track. I love the smell. I love the environment and everything that goes on at a racetrack. I love the tension that just hangs in the air.” This year he once again won the Supercar Challenge in Assen Holland, and he has his sights clearly fixed on racing the legendary Le Mans 24 hour race.
Boonen insists that the endurance car races like Le Mans can be every bit as exhausting as a gruelling cobbled Classic. “In the driver’s seat, you may have a harness on, but you are always completely full of tension. Everything comes out of the stomach, abs, back, shoulders and neck. And with all of the force and vibration and of the concentration needed, well, you are pretty wasted the day after a race. You feel it.”
Today he uses the bike as a principal training tool for race car driving. And while he has put on upper body muscle to adapt to the physical demands required behind the wheel, he is still virtually the same weight as when he was racing in the WorldTour.
But while Boonen still loves to win, it is the human side of the sport that he cherishes the most. “You know, it’s not really about success or defeat. It is about the shit you get through together and the stories you can tell. That’s probably the biggest comparison I can make with this sport to cycling. It’s the stories you can tell at night after a hard race, when you are sitting there with your teammates and everybody has their own story. Everybody had hard times, and sharing those stories with one another, its humanity at its purest. It’s just something I love!”
Needless to say, Boonen has collected his share of war stories over the years, be it as a cyclist, or now as a racing driver. You can hear some of those stories and more from the star-studded line-up of guests at this year's Rouleur Live.