Over the past couple of years the murmurs of who will replace Tom Boonen as Belgium's leading Classics campaigner have been growing louder and more anxious.
"Could it be him?" they ask. "Yes. No. Perhaps," is the uncertain reply. "What about him?"
When Johann Museeuw came towards the end of his glittering Classics career, there was relatively little head scratching in Belgium as to where his replacement would come from. Boonen was already picking up speed through the bend, ready to ensure the smoothest of baton handovers. Museeuw’s third, and final, Paris-Roubaix victory came in 2002, and a 21-year-old Boonen was standing two steps beneath him on the podium on his debut.
Now, though, Boonen, having gone on to surpass Museeuw’s achievements, finds himself in the twilight of his own career, and there’s no immediate candidate stretching out his hand for the next handover. That’s a big concern for the cycling-mad Belgian public. As Het Nieuwsblad journalist Jan Pieter De Vlieger told the Cyclingnews Podcast this week, Boonen has graced the front cover of the newspaper’s annual pre-season supplement for pretty much the entire past decade. His importance to the country goes beyond his mere palmarès; his force of personality has made him an icon and a media pin-up.
“It’s not so healthy,” the youngster tells Cyclingnews. “The press like to make comparisons, and they say a lot, ‘you are the guy to follow Tom Boonen, you have to follow him up, if you don’t do it there’s nobody else in Belgium.’”
“It was above all my expectations, and the expectations of everyone around me I think,” he replies. “The results I did in the WorldTour, I wanted to do them in the lower classes, the 1.1 races, the smaller races in Belgium. But actually immediately I could play a role in the final in WorldTour races, so it was really a big surprise for me.
“Let’s say, the dream became a goal.”