One could certainly say that Tom Boonen has a sense of symbolism and things coming full circle. Exactly 15 years after he made his debut with a third place in Paris-Roubaix, he decided to wrap the gig up at the very same legendary velodrome. Although he was hoping to put a fifth and final victory under his belt and go with a bang it didn’t quite work out, despite unwavering support by his whole team, the Quick-Step Floors. Ultimately, it was his teammate Zdenek Stybar who reached the winner’s podium, bested only by the eventual winner Van Avermaet, but Boonen didn’t seem to mind much, confirming the rumours of his extremely laid-back nature.
“I was the one who told Styby to go,” Boonen said. “I didn’t feel super all day long. The sections where it was possible to make a move featured a headwind. It is what it is. He received a bit more freedom than me. Then we played his card, well, the race circumstances put Styby in the front.”
Boonen eventually ended up in a 13th place, finishing within the big chase group on the velodrome. Although he admits that it might not be the grand happy end he and his supporters were wishing for, as soon as he crossed the finish line he was met with crowds of fans and onlookers chanting “Tommeke”, his nickname over the years, turning the slightly disappointing outcome into celebration.
It wouldn’t be like Boonen if he didn’t have a down-to-earth response to all the praise he received when he publicly announced that he’s putting his pro career on the back burner: “I’ve been feeling it already since last year. I was still able to do good races. If I motivate myself I can still do a good World Championships for example. It was time. I’m happy it’s finally this day.”
Apparently, many of his now former team mates and rivals have only words of awe and respect for Boonen. Recurring topics are his tenacity, openness, friendliness, and equal treatment of all contestants he encountered, regardless of their background, team, or ranking. Peter Sagan was heard declaring that Boonen was his favourite rider when he was 16 and basically got him interested in cycling.
“I’ve reached the age that the guys that started cycling because of me are now my rivals. If you look at [Michal] Kwiatkowski and [Peter] Sagan, they’re only the top of the iceberg. A lot of guys and girls started riding their bikes because they saw me 10 years ago winning Worlds or something. It’s been a real honour when these guys come up to you and say thanks for being an influence to our lives. You made us ride our bikes and now we’re here. It’s actually the only thing that counts: that you get people motivated to do something with their life.”
With groups of cheering fans and journalists, accompanying him on his way to the Quick-Step Floors’ team bus and eager to get some sort of closing statement, Boonen was asked what’s he up to next. In his never-take-anything-seriously fashion, he replied, laughing: “Now? I’m going to look for my car.”
It’s sufficient to say that with three Tours of Flanders and four Paris-Roubaix titles on his metaphorical fireplace mantle, he can afford to no longer give a damn and just look forward to his hard-earned years of leisure riding. We say Godspeed!