Thirty-five years after Roger De Vlaeminck, on Easter Sunday 2012 the long-standing record of four wins in Paris-Roubaix was equalled by his compatriot Tom Boonen. It appeared that Boonen wanted to prove that he’s able of doing much more than just following his opponents and he drew level with De Vlaeminck by completing a solo of more than 50 kilometres to the vélodrome in Roubaix. The 31-year-old Omega Pharma-QuickStep rider also became the first man to win the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix double in the same season twice.
“Today was one of my best days in my career,” Boonen said. “I wasn’t really thinking about these records and victories. After winning Harelbeke I knew I would be good in Flanders and Roubaix.
“When I won Flanders I realized that I also needed a little bit of luck in Roubaix. If I look on these past two or three weeks it’s been amazing. It’s my second double. Now I’m the only guy that ever did this double two times. I realize now that I’ll probably be one of the best, maybe the best, guy on the cobblestones that ever rode on these roads.
“It’s very special but it’s not over yet. I still have a few good years to come. In the last few years I’m just finding more love for the bike. This is what I love: riding the hardest one-day races. Paris-Roubaix is a bit mythical. For me it’s getting easier [to be motivated] by getting older. The moment that I don’t like to train it’s time to stop.”
Change of tactics
Coming into the 2012 edition of Paris-Roubaix, Boonen was the overwhelming favourite. The Belgian rider captured the win at every northern classic in the last two weeks, throwing his hands in the air at the E3-Prijs Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders.
He won the above mentioned races by sprinting but Boonen changed tactics on Sunday afternoon when he suddenly rode solo at the pavé section of Auchy-les-Orchies à Bersée, with still about 53 km to cover before the finish on the legendary vélodrome of Roubaix.
“I felt really good,” he said. “I normally don’t need this weapon. Normally I use my sprint. It’s much safer to save as much energy as you can, like the first two times that I won.
“It was a little bit crazy. When I arrived in front when Niki Terpstra dropped I figured I could finish my fourth win in a special way. [When I attacked] I was not really thinking about winning the race or doing the record. I thought about fighting myself, cobblestone by cobblestone, kilometre by kilometre. If you start a race like this and think about the whole distance then you make it harder than it is. Riding this way not something I often do but today was a perfect day to take some risk.”
Sports director Wilfried Peeters explained what the original tactical plan was, and how they adapted to the changing situations.
“We knew that the wind would come up while the race went on and there would be a lot of tailwind in the finale of the race,” Peeters said.” We studied every pave section very thoroughly and knew where there would be crosswinds. I told the guys where we would try something and that’s also where they did it. Sylvain Chavanel rode away but he punctured. The original plan was that Chavanel would be up the road and Boonen would bridge up to him,” Peeters said.
As things unfolded differently, Boonen was up for a seemingly impossible task as a group of seven, and later even fourteen riders, was riding only half a minute behind him while there were still a handful of tough pavé sections to cover.
“Never panic, just push it as hard as you can,” Boonen said. “Now that I’m becoming a little bit older I didn’t panic when I was alone in front. During the first 15 km I kept it easy, trying to ride as economically as possible until the Carrefour de l’Arbre.
“Once I had thirty seconds I thought it might be possible. I only feared that a fresh rider – like Pozzato - would bridge up at the Carrefour de l’Arbre. But once the gap increased to a minute I was confident of holding on.”
Meanwhile, Peeters tried to support his team leader as much as he could from the team car. A counter-attack from Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) fell short and Peeters said he actually hoped the Spaniard would get away from the chase group.
“My job was to help him keep morale,” Peeters said. “Once he started there was no way back. Behind you they have to ride as well. Eventually it was a battle of a man against a man. Those men from Sky were steadily dropping back. If they were breaking then it was over. When Flecha attacked I thought he would bridge up to him but he didn’t succeed in his effort. That was a very important moment.”
During the last kilometres Boonen pointed to the camera and afterwards he explained why he did it. ”Winning it this way was really special. The last few kilometres I thought about my girlfriend, not about Roger [De Vlaeminck]. She’s putting a lot of work in our new house and in the move back from Monaco. That’s why I pointed to the camera. She probably almost died at home as she wasn’t here in Roubaix. This win is for her,” Boonen said.