Roubaix contenders pay respects to Boonen ahead of his final race

Sagan: 'Tom Boonen was my favourite rider when I was 16'

Tom Boonen (Quick-Step Floors) will close out his illustrious career on Sunday at Paris-Roubaix, where he will try to put himself in the record books as the only five-time winner of the race. Boonen turned professional in 2002 and made his Paris-Roubaix debut that season, finishing a surprise third place.

Over the years, Boonen has cemented his place as one of the Classics greats, with three Tours of Flanders and four Paris-Roubaix titles. His feats both frustrated some his rivals and inspired several of the generation who will try to disrupt his fairy tale story this weekend.

Cyclingnews spoke to Boonen's teammates, friends and rivals about their memories of the Belgian and what he means to them.

Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe)

"Tom Boonen was my favourite rider when I was 16. I watched him ride Flanders and Roubaix on Eurosport.

"He was my big idol when I was a kid and after that I had the opportunity to race with him. He's a very good rider and a very good man. It was nice experience for me to ride with him.

"I suppose we're similar in a lot of ways, in the way we crash too."

Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin)

"I remember before I was racing with him, when I was young and he was winning these races like Paris-Roubaix. I remember watching it on TV and when he became World Champion in Madrid. He was a big idol of mine and he is a guy that I still really look up to. It's a little bit sad that he's finishing his career but he'll always be remembered as one of the best riders we've ever had.

"I don't know what made him so good. He has a good finish, he is strong. He reminds me a bit of myself, just a stronger version."

Roger Hammond (Dimension Data directeur sportif)

"He's not one of a generation, he's one of a lifetime. He's one of those guys that we tried to beat all the time and sometimes we did and sometimes we didn't. He turned professional five years after me so we did spend a lot of our careers at the best of our abilities racing against each other. The thing about him is that he's amazingly consistent and a graceful bike rider that's always had dignity. There's not too many of them around and that's what sets them apart."

Mathew Hayman just beats Tom Boonen on the line at the 2016 Paris-Roubaix

Mat Hayman (Orica-Scott)

"Sentimentally, if I couldn't win or one of my teammates didn't then I would love Tom Boonen to finish his career like that to crown a special race and a special career.

"We've had very different careers. I've not been under the pressure that he has been day in day out. I've had it for the past week and I can't even imagine what he's gone through."

Zdenek Stybar (Quick-Step Floors)

"He is a great teammate and a great atmosphere maker at the table, before the race and after the race. He was always a very important person on the team. Even when it didn't go so well, he was always there and he can take it everything very well. At the moment, I don't think that we have someone like this on the team. For sure, we will miss him.

"I think we will still have some support from him and at the big races I hope that he will come and join us for dinner but we still have to ask him. Life will have to go on after him and we don't have anyone else like him on the team but we will find someone."

Arnaud Démare (FDJ)

"His retirement affects us indirectly. We try to focus on our race now. It affected me more at the GP L'Escaut where all the flags were out for him. It was impressive. Now, we're in France and I don't know if he'll get the same reception here like he had on Wednesday.

"He inspired me a lot. When I was younger, he won the green jersey at the Tour. When I turned professional it was different. He's some sort of myth, a phantasm who's now going away. There's some riders you like more than others. Tom Boonen, he's something else."

Matteo Trentin (Quick-Step Floors)

"Tom is chilled out even though he's retiring, I think that shows what's his true character. He's ridden Paris-Roubaix 13 times but as he said, the only difference this year is that when he reaches the finish in Roubaix, it's over. But despite all the attention and affection with his farewell, he's very focused and knows how he wants to go out.

"I've been in the team with him for six years now, so Tom's a teammate, a friend. We spend a lot of time together and so we're close and it's seems we've always known each other. After the race I'm sure we'll celebrate in style but we're ready to race and be as aggressive ever. That part of our team spirit. Just because Tom is retiring won't change anything. We won't ride to the velodrome just for Tom to wave to people and say goodbye."

Luke Rowe (Team Sky)

"He's pretty inspirational really. He's the king of Belgium and just being in that breakaway with him at Flanders and being in his wheel going up those climbs it's just a wall going, 'Tommeke!' It's crazy the amount of support that he has. It's been great racing against him. He's quite an iconic person in the sport and the way he races is second to none. He'll always race aggressively and put his nose in the wind, and he's a super nice guy to go with it. He's been a real asset to the sport in the last years and it's a shame to see him go but I wish him the best of luck for his final Roubaix.

"I think the first time that I rode in a peloton with a guy like him I think that I was probably in awe of everybody. You're in an awe of a lot of guys when you turn professional but I've looked up to him for several years and I've always tried to replicate the way he races and rides, not quite as successfully of course, but I've got a lot of respect for the guy.

"The thing a lot of people will say about Tom is that he has a lot of respect for all the riders. Whether you're his prime competitor on the start line or a guy in a slightly smaller team he'll treat you the same and that's nice to see. As a rider, he's made for these races. He's a big powerhouse. You name a Classic and he's won it. He treats races so tactically well."

Niki Terpstra and Tom Boonen have a laugh

Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors)

"The best thing is that he's got is a good sense of humour and that makes a good atmosphere. Always in the winter when we go training, I always have the feeling with Quick-Step that you were part of something. I was happy to be going out with the boys again in Spain. It never felt like a working camp but a fun camp with him."

Maarten Wynants (LottoNL-Jumbo, former teammate between 2007-2010)

"Matt Hayman showed everybody that age doesn't matter in this race. I have to believe in my chances. Boonen is a friend but we're not in the same team. I've known him since 2005. We rode in the same training group. He's a very friendly, social bloke. He's always remained the same person. His focus stands out, even for World Championships which were on paper too hard for him. Much later than expected, he would still be there in the race. He was built for Paris-Roubaix. Last year he was runner-up despite being only half prepared."

Matti Breschel (Astana)

"[The first time I met Tom Boonen] was at the Tour of Qatar in 2005. I was second in general classification. He came over in the last stage to congratulate me. It's my first Boonen memory. We hung out a few times after the race. The biggest memories I have were when we were racing against each other in 2010. It was between him and Cancellara in the classics but I was there too as some sort of pigeon. It gives you goosebumps. He's a legend. I'm truly honoured to have raced with him."

Tyler Farrar (Dimension Data)

"He's a legend. He's been top of the heap forever and he's always been one of the really classy riders in my opinion. He's always been one of the top guys but he's really down to earth and he treats everybody equally and respectfully and he's a funny guy. He's definitely one of the nice guys in the bunch."

Frédéric Guesdon (FDJ directeur sportif)

"I was at the end of my career when he burst to the scene. Of course, I remember his debut when he was going better than George Hincapie. Personally, I was always impressed how he made it look easy to ride over the cobbles. He's the top favourite for the win on Sunday."

And a final word from Boonen himself...

"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."

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