A Belgian fairy tale was harshly disrupted on Sunday afternoon at the vélodrome in Roubaix. Six months after sustaining a serious head injury in the second stage of the Abu Dhabi Tour, Tom Boonen reached out to a record-breaking fifth victory in Paris-Roubaix, but he was beaten to the line. The five-man sprint was won by Mathew Hayman (Orica-GreenEdge), who even apologized during his post-race interview for taking away the Belgian's chance to make history.
Belgian Sporza commentators were ecstatic during the final kilometres of a – once again – spectacular Paris-Roubaix, clearly feeling that the only logical end to this fairy tale was a win for Boonen. The volume in the studio and in the vélodrome rose to a crescendo but then abruptly went silent as Hayman raised his hands in victory.
For once, Etixx-QuickStep manager Patrick Lefevere had to search for words. In fact, Boonen seemed to be the only man who was able to deal with second place.
“I never doubted myself. I don’t need to do that,” Boonen said. Despite his lack of results or strong performances at the previous Spring Classics he always kept believing in Paris-Roubaix. Boonen pointed out though his crash in Abu Dhabi happened in 2015 he was due to be running out of time for the 2016 Spring Classics.
“This morning I received a text message from the doctor who treated me in Abu Dhabi after my crash telling me today was the day I could look at my bike again. So I’m a little bit ahead of schedule. Today I finish as runner-up in Paris-Roubaix and had the opportunity to win it. In Flanders we say ‘you have to call a cat a cat’, I can’t be unsatisfied.
“If you try to win the race it’s possible you lose it. We went all in, we did everything we needed to do and maybe being second today won’t be so bad for the future.
"Maybe it’ll give me another year. It’s not all that obvious. If you watched the race then you know that I’ve given the maximum to get the win. Sprinting for the victory on this track is treacherous. In the final kilometres it was clear that nobody had energy left in his tank. We were there with five really strong riders.
"Everybody did his share of the work. Everybody who rode there deserved to get the win.”
The Etixx-QuickStep team made the race particularly hard. After the traditional fast two hours in which a breakaway was formed the team decided to get the finale going straight away.
“We made a nice plan before the race to make it as hard as possible. We missed out on those 16 guys and so we had no other chance than to make it a hard race. Tony Martin did an incredible job today. We did it like the last few weeks actually. Now it turned out a bit better. It was a finale of 130 kilometres. Nobody was really trying to profit from each other. Just hard racing. That’s what I like.
“It was a standard Paris-Roubaix. That’s it. We had no information. We were just racing. I had to ask 15 times what was going on. The first time I was really sure I was in front was when we caught the breakaway. It was like every year. Chaos, crashes, flat tyres. The best way to watch the race is on television because in the race you have no idea where you are, unless you are in front.”
On the Carrefour de l’Arbre his compatriot Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) managed to ride way. In hindsight Boonen felt it was a good thing to happen. “I missed the corner a bit and from that point I was on the bad part of the cobble stones for a few metres. I thought it was a little bit early with the wind. It was a good choice not trying to close the gap full [gas]. Just keeping him out there was not that bad.”
In the final kilometres before the vélodrome there were countless attacks including a late one from Boonen himself.
“Everybody was on their limit. It was very hard to get away because everybody knew I was trying to get a fifth victory. In the end I found a good moment when everybody was tired. I managed to sneak away. Mathew passed me. He was going so fast. I was almost killing myself to get back in the wheel. Then I thought to myself that maybe I was running out of juice. Everybody was really tired. I was still confident in the sprint. I knew I had to be in front in the sprint.”
The sprint for the victory on the vélodrome was thrilling. Boonen entered the vélodrome with Hayman on his wheel but quickly they saw Vanmarcke and later also Boasson Hagen and Stannard come back. Boonen was in front halfway the final lap but then he was overtaken by Hayman, who started his sprint from far out. Boonen seemed to want to get on Hayman’s wheel but found no space as Vanmarcke was in that hot seat.
Vanmarcke was still beside him at 100 metres from the finish before eventually fading back. No mistake was made.
“I didn’t make a mistake. I was unlucky that I didn’t have the space to pass. It’s a sprint. It’s never like you expect it to happen. I was trying to take the last corner from the lead. He passed me there. I had to wait a little because Sep was passing me but he then lost momentum. I needed to wait for about 40 metres. It cost me the victory, or at least the chance to sprint against him. I was already too far behind. Maybe I should’ve gone earlier at half speed.”
Regarding winner Hayman there were no bad words at all from Boonen about the Australian rider. “Mat was the rider nobody was really looking at. He rode a good sprint. He passed where he had to pass. A guy like him really deserves a victory like this after a career of helping people out and being in finales of classics a lot but not really getting the big wins. Like in the past, riders like him can win Paris-Roubaix. I think that’s not a bad thing. We all tried our best and we have to be happy with the result we get.”
Before the race Boonen clearly planned to take his time before taking a decision regarding his career. A few moments after the race he stated he would take his time but as the questions kept coming he kept giving away his current view on things.
“I’m a few days off now. I’ll need the time to really think about all the stuff that happened the last four months. I was really rushing myself to get in shape,” Boonen said at first.
“At this moment I don’t really see a reason why I shouldn’t come back next year” and also “I’m pleased with second place but I want to try one more time.”
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