It was hard not to know that Tom Boonen was making his last start in Paris-Roubaix on Sunday. The four-time former winner made a final run at glory in the Queen of Classics with his Quick-Step Floors team aiming to work in full support of the 36-year-old Belgian star.
It didn't work out. Teammate Zdenek Stybar found himself in the winning selection the Czech rider ended up sprinting for the victory. He fell a few meters short, beaten by in-form Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and settling for runner-up honors for the second time in his career. Boonen finished in the big chase group in the velodrome – packed with fans – and rolled across the finish line in 13th place. Boonen and his countless fans didn't get the happy end they were hoping for, but early disappointment quickly turned into celebrations, with fans starting their chants for 'Tommeke' Boonen.
Read more on this article:
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- Stybar: We all wished in our hearts that Tom could win
- Paris-Roubaix: Degenkolb pleased with team performance
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- Tom Boonen: The rise of a legend in Paris-Roubaix 2002 - Podcast
After the race, Boonen arrived at the bus and took his time to freshen up. Meanwhile, a huge gathering of fans and media was trying to get near Boonen. When he eventually appeared in the doorway, it was as if a football team had scored a last-minute winning goal. For the first time, very briefly, Boonen showed a glimpse of his emotions.
Sporza journalist Renaat Schotte asked about the outcome of Boonen's race, sprinting for sixth place. "A sixth place doesn't mean a lot," Boonen said. "All day long we were riding at the back really. Once we started the sprint I was thinking, 'What for?' I was glad to have gotten there and it wasn't for the victory that I was racing. All day long I wasn't in the running.
"I was really marked out massively by Degenkolb. To me, he rode the most cowardly race of his life. It's a pity but I resigned myself to it."
Later he was asked if he felt a fifth win was within his reach. "Hm, yes. There was still the possibility in the final 15 kilometres but behind the first group there wasn't a team who was capable of doing something. Only in the final part, Lotto worked because Greipel bridged back up. They rode really well but they were the only team."
When asked whether he felt disappointed, not taking a lap of honour, Boonen pointed out that he'd been in the spotlight enough during the last few weeks.
"I did enough laps of honour. Laps of honour are for those who deserved it today. I just came here to take a shower. It's not necessary to make a show of it," Boonen said.
At about 35 kilometres from the finish, there was a front group of 15 riders with Boonen and Stybar representing the Quick-Step Floors team. The rest of the team was thrown backwards or out of the race due to one misfortune or another, with 2014 winner Niki Terpstra abandoning midway through the afternoon after a bad crash.
"That's Paris-Roubaix," Boonen said. "You never know how it's going to pan out."
BMC's Daniel Oss soloed away on sector 9, and then Cannondale's Sebastian Langeveld and Lotto Soudal's Jürgen Roelandts jumped – and suddenly Stybar was on the move as well. World champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) responded with an acceleration, leaving Boonen in a lined-out group trying to chase. Boonen said after the race that he didn't feel like Stybar forced him into a difficult position.
"No, not at all. 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."
Sagan then had a rear wheel puncture and was passed by eventual winner Van Avermaet, Sky's Gianni Moscon and Trek's Jasper Stuyven. Boonen was further back in a group that started growing as riders returned from the background.
"The gaps were never impossible to close down. We weren't blown away. It was always 30, 40 seconds. At the back, it was always slowing down straight away. We never raced," Boonen said.
With fans chanting all around even during the interview, Boonen was asked if he felt it was something special. "It is special indeed," he replied simply, taking it all in for a moment.
"In the end, we had Styby in front and the possibility to have a little bit more. Everybody was so tired of the speed all day that there wasn't anybody able to bridge the gap," he said.
When asked if he had any regrets, Boonen was clear: "No. Not a minute. For me, it was the best race in the world. I love it. It's also just time for me. 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."
Later, when talking with French media, he denied feeling emotional with a laugh. "No, no. [...] I wasn't really thinking about this being my last race until the last five-kilometre mark," he said. "That's when I thought, 'Oh, these are really the last five kilometers of my career'. Then you start thinking about it being the last day, the last time on the track. That's life."
With the crowd chanting at short distance, Boonen was asked if he expected something like this. "Never. I didn't have any expectations, that was something for after the race. The race happened like always. It was a difficult finale and everybody wanted to stay with me. In the end, I'm satisfied with the result. I'm satisfied with my last race, I'm satisfied with all the people here."
With this 115th edition of Paris-Roubaix being the fastest edition ever, it turned out there was no time to think about the experience. "No, not at all. It was super fast," he said. "We were going flat out all day long. There wasn't any time to do something different – just ride."
Before he headed to the team bus, Boonen was asked what he would do next. "Now? I'm going to look for my car," he said with a laugh. That closed out the crazy scenery at the Quick-Step Floors team bus.
15 years after he burst onto the scene with a third place in Paris-Roubaix, Tom Boonen's stunning professional career ended in the same place, Roubaix's iconic velodrome.
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