Boonen: My dream is to stop on a high

Tom Boonen has already set off down the road to Roubaix, with his final season with Quick-Step Floors culminating with one last tilt at the Hell of the North and perhaps a fairytale record fifth victory.

The 36-year-old Belgian collected the first win of the final season at the Vuelta a San Juan on Tuesday, and the next day he sat down in his hotel with a group of journalists, including Cyclingnews, to talk about retirement, Paris-Roubaix, his career, and much more.

Question: Tom, you've already taken a victory and are clearly in good shape; how did you come to the decision to retire?

Tom Boonen: It was the circumstances. I've been starting to do more stuff in the normal world than I used to, and planning my future a bit more. I'm 16 years a pro, I've been away a lot and I'm getting tired of that. It's best to stop at a moment when you still like it, and you can still ride your bike with a bit of love. I could easily continue for another two years, maybe three even, but maybe it would be at a less high level. Now, if everything goes okay I can still compete at the highest level. It's my dream is to stop on a high.

There's always doubt especially when you're riding well; you think: 'there's even more in the pot' but there is a point you have to stop. It's unavoidable; you have to stop sometime, so it's better to stop at a decent level, rather than wait and wait and wait and try to get a little bit more out. I just feel it's time.

Q: Was it a complicated process?

Boonen: There were no problems – it was just contract negotiations and everyone pulling on my sleeve. I was actually thinking at a certain point to go to another team and sign for two years. If I'd have changed teams it'd have been for two years – there's no point at my age changing for half a season. There were two teams interested, and Patrick [Lefevere] could only offer me one year because the team has no security for 2018. And I said 'no it wouldn't have been right to change teams, and I think it's time to stop'. I only see myself quitting after Paris-Roubaix, not at the end of the season after GP Fourrnies or something. I really want to stop at the track in Roubaix, even if the result is not there, It was where I was born as a rider and is where I will stop as a rider.

Q: Even if the result is there…?

Boonen: Never say never. I've learned that (laughs).

Q: Are you tired of the lifestyle of a professional cyclist?

Boonen: I still like everything, honestly. It's not like I hate it and say I have to stop or I'll be unhappy. I still like the traveling and doing the races, but I do feel like it's getting more difficult. The kids are getting a little bit bigger, and I ask Lore 'Do they miss their daddy?' But they can't miss me because they don't see me. So I want to be at home more. It's important at this age that daddy is not away 200 days a year. Cycling is something that demands 100 per cent of your time, and I've reached a point where I'd like to do other things. I like going skiing, mountain biking. All that is in the fridge at the moment, and I'm waiting to open the fridge.

Q: The Belgian public must be disappointed.

Boonen: They don't like it…but everyone understands, I'm not 25. I'm 37 at the end of the year and it's getting to the age where doesn't go easy every day – there are more bad days than good days.

Completing his palmares with one last win at Paris-Roubaix

Boonen has been racing as a professional since a end of season spell as a stagiaire with the US Postal Service team in 2000. Records show he has won 113 races since then and he is one of the all-time great Classics riders. He has won Paris-Roubaix four times (in 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2012), the Tour of Flanders three times (2015, 2006 and 2012). He was world champion in 2005 in Madrid and finished a close third behind Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish at last year's World Championships in Qatar.

Despite all his success, Boonen is down to earth. He wants a final Paris-Roubaix victory but seems happy with whatever life will bring him in the next three months and beyond into the rest of his life.    

Q: If someone had told you before you turned pro that you'd achieve what you have, would you have believed them?

Boonen: No. Not even when I was a pro already. My highest objective when I turned pro was maybe to one day try to win one Classic. It ended up being a bit more than that but I was always really sober about this, and always very grateful that I was able to all the stuff I did on the bike. I've already been shown a few times that it's really fragile. You have to be grateful for the good days, and also grateful for the bad days because they make you better in the end.

Q: What are your memories of your first Paris-Roubaix?

Boonen: I was disappointed I didn't win. That's where it started. I was disappointed because at the moment Johan went, just before that cobblestone section I told George we had to move up because I was staying with George at that time and we stayed a bit too far back and of course Johan went there, and at that point I could still follow him.

So I didn't have the feeling I took out the maximum out of that race. In the last 10km I was finished, but even then I already had that hunger to win. Of course I was super happy because I could never have expected to finish on the podium in my first Roubaix. But at that moment it wasn't the most important thing. The feeling I had was like 'okay it's a bit more possible'. I already had a lot of love for Roubaix form my amateur period but from that day it was really there.

Q: What was your best day on a bike?

Boonen: Roubaix 2012. I think I could have done anything that day.

Q: And your worst?

Boonen: I think the worst one was when I was at a training camp in Font Romeu with Iljo [Keisse], just the two of us. We came back from a ride and I was in the shower, and Iljo walked into the bathroom and said he'd had a phone call and that Wout had crashed – Wouter Wylandt. 'Ah yeah, fuck, he crashed' [I thought], I carried on with my shower, got out and I got a phone call from my mum and she ways crying and said: 'Are you ok?' I didn’t realise what was going on. I still get goosebumps now. Iljo wanted to drive home straightaway, but I kept him there for the night said 'try to sleep a little bit first', because we'd just done a seven-hour ride. In the end we drove back at five or six in the morning. That's the worst day of life so far.

Q: Is your legacy something that matters to you?

Boonen: The most important thing is to try to motivate people, try to be an inspiration, to kids or anyone. That's why athletes are important – we may not really be important and we don't change the world, but if we can motivate people to do stuff, to improve their lives, it's already a success.

A lot of people now turning pro were still kids when I was winning big races, and they come up to me and they say 'we bought those Northwave shoes you were wearing with the Worlds stripes on it'. People like Kwiatkowski, for example, or Sagan, it's the first generation starting to win big races that started racing because they went to the race and I was there.

Q: Everyone talks about Paris-Roubaix but are there other things you're still hungry to achieve?

Boonen: Everyone talks about Roubaix because it's my last race, but I'm the last guy to talk about Roubaix. Every race is important – from day one. The first day back in Belgium it will be important and I will be doing my best in every race that's still there. I'm not the kind of guy who's going to sit at the back of the bunch waiting for the 9th of April. I will do my best everywhere.

Q: You've spoken a lot about Roubaix, what's your relationship with the Tour of Flanders?

Boonen: It's different. There's only one Paris-Roubaix. Flanders is a big race, but it's not that special – you have the same climbs as you do in all the other races in the spring classics. It's not like I dislike it – I really love it – but it's not special like Paris-Roubaix. It's just another race in Flanders. I prefer the magic of Paris-Roubaix.

Q: Have you already played out April 9 in your head?

Boonen: It's not like I don't want to think about it but I'm trying to focus day by day. I haven't thought about crossing the finish line and throwing my bike away and saying it's over. Maybe I will be emotional, maybe I won't be.

Q: What's the first thing you'll do after it's over?

Boonen: I think I will sit on the sofa for a day. On the Sunday night we'll go out for dinner with the team, but we always do that – even if we lose. On Monday I don't know, just relax a bit. I won't do anything special, no bungee jumping (laughs).

Q: Will you shower in the iconic shower blocks?

Boonen: We have team buses now…I've never showered there. In the amateurs I did, and I was their last year for a TV show but that was the first time since 2001 I'd been to the showers. You know, when Hincapie was in the showers there in 2002 I was taking a shower the team bus.

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Patrick Fletcher
Deputy Editor

Deputy Editor. Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist who has seven years’ experience covering professional cycling. He has a modern languages degree from Durham University and has been able to put it to some use in what is a multi-lingual sport, with a particular focus on French and Spanish-speaking riders. After joining Cyclingnews as a staff writer on the back of work experience, Patrick became Features Editor in 2018 and oversaw significant growth in the site’s long-form and in-depth output. Since 2022 he has been Deputy Editor, taking more responsibility for the site’s content as a whole, while still writing and - despite a pandemic-induced hiatus - travelling to races around the world. Away from cycling, Patrick spends most of his time playing or watching other forms of sport - football, tennis, trail running, darts, to name a few, but he draws the line at rugby.