Tales from the peloton, February 23, 2006
The Tom Boonen juggernaut continues to roll on, with the World Champion notching up seven victories already this season. As well as giving Belgian cycling another lift, Boonen is now promoting a range of smallgoods... Sabine Sunderland reports on the latest round of Boonen-mania.
Cycling fever is rising in Belgium and even though Tom Boonen is training on the sunny Côte d'Azur and not on the parcours of Het Volk, the media are heating up the discussion about the next winner of the opening race of the 2006 calendar in Flanders. Tom Boonen's name seems to be named the most as possible winner, and his popularity in Belgium is benefiting the sport of cycling immensely.
Het Laatste Nieuws reports that everyone wants to be become the new Tom Boonen and they are actually not talking about the other sprinters in the peloton. According to the latest figures, last year no less than 587 kids signed up with a cycling club in Belgium, a considerable growth of 42% compared to five years ago.
Former cycling start Rik Van Looy comments: "A similar progress was noted in tennis over the last years, thanks to the successes of Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin, and currently cycling is profiting from the success of Tom Boonen. Tom Boonen is a the guy of the many victories. He's an example for our youth."
If you really would like to get a piece of Tommeke Boonen, you can now literally put your teeth in. The World Champion will be featuring in the publicity for Fresty Fresh, a new brand of meats, sandwich spreads and sauces produced by Van Baelen NV. Not only the food sector has discovered Boonen as a great marketing tool; he'll also be the face of a telecommunication company and a third endorsement is being analysed.
But Boonen remains cool and collected despite all the commotion. In an in-depth interview with popular Belgian magazine Humo, Tom put it down to genetics. "It must be hereditary. When others bend under the pressure and the stress, like during the final of the Tour of Flanders, I can keep thinking clearly. In hindsight I sometimes even surprises myself with that, because I'm such a scatter-brain outside of the racing scene.
"Sport brings structure in my life. After all the celebrations and award evenings, it felt really good to go to the training camps and to race. That rhythm - breakfast, training, working on your fitness - has become something so familiar that I would have a hard time going without it. And during my free time, the only things I do now are things I really like doing. If I can keep doing that, I don't expect to get into trouble."
Boonen has got a sparkly personality; always smiling and joking around. But although appearing a restless youngster, Boonen does have a calmer side to his character.
"I'm a bit odd sometimes." he admitted. "Now and again, I feel the need to just go within, crawl back within myself; and at those moments I'm hardly aware of that. It has stressed out my relationship with Lore more than once. Lore and my parents were looking forward so much to the world championships because after that we expected to get some peace. But then I won, and the whole circus started over again. It was sort of a blessing that I had to undergo that minor surgery; that week of rest was something I really needed."
Asked by reporter Luc Kempen if he reclaimed his 'image rights' to avoid certain marketing abuse of his popularity, Boonen is quick to point out that he's not going to let anyone walk all over him business wise either: "I earned zero from all that was happening with my name. A cyclist signs a contract with a team and that team can do whatever they want with that rider. That's different now; QuickStep can use my name for publicity purposes, but I do have the rights to a percentage of the profit. I'm not planning on having my face on every billboard in the future. This spring, I will feature in two, three publicity campaigns, but that's where it ends. I've bought back the image rights to regain control over what my name is being used for. Before you know it you have your name on wristbands you have nothing to do with."
Boonen's popularity is thus not always a blessing. Tom is aware that he might have enemies who are not so Boonen-minded. "I know there's people like that, but I don't know any. Enemies are people who do ugly things behind my back, or purposely spread damaging rumours. There might even be some in the peloton, but I haven't had any threatening letters à la Merckx as yet. A while ago I read on an internet site that I had dumped Lore and that I was going to present my new girlfriend in a few weeks time. It was signed with "Tom Boonen's new girlfriend". I had to laugh really hard about that, but there's always people who will believe those things."
Boonen reacted to the marketing people who suggested he'd be worth even more if he dumped Lore for a blonde bombshell: "There's so much nonsense being said. And also, I had to buy a car which suited my 'star-status'; my family car wasn't up to that. Hey, we're talking about an Audi S4, a car of which most men can only dream!" he commented, a little irritated.
Those speculating on how long Tom Boonen might remain in the peloton, need to be aware that he aims to continue for a while to come. At 25, Boonen is enjoying his prime time and he says he still looks very much forward to every big race.
"I'm afraid I didn't think when I said I would stop in 2010. At this moment I can't really imagine being burned out in four years time. But 30 is a nice age to try something different. I think being a cyclist is a really nice profession. You get to see so many places, are surrounded by people all the time: that's something I like. When I'm by myself at home for an hour, I start getting restless and I call someone to meet up. After a while you get so used to living in a group that it's hard to be all alone. Just think about how many times a year I say, 'Goodnight Kevin' (Hulsmans)!"