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Tom Boonen: Celebrity status at Scheldeprijs

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Tom Boonen managed a misty-eyed smile on the podium.

Tom Boonen managed a misty-eyed smile on the podium.
(Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)
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Tom Boonen (Quick Step) receives a push from a mechanic after getting a new wheel.

Tom Boonen (Quick Step) receives a push from a mechanic after getting a new wheel.
(Image credit: www.ispaphoto.com)
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A serene-looking Tom Boonen (Quick Step)

A serene-looking Tom Boonen (Quick Step)
(Image credit: Richard Tyler)
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Belgian champion Tom Boonen (Quick Step) gives it his all on the Kapelmuur.

Belgian champion Tom Boonen (Quick Step) gives it his all on the Kapelmuur.
(Image credit: Bettini Photo)

They come in all shapes and sizes at Scheldeprijs. That was the conclusion as we stood in the sun-soaked centre of Antwerp on Wednesday morning, watching as the 188 riders rolled past to sign on.

They didn't literally roll, of course, but it did occur that one or two could feasibly have done. Yes, old habits die hard among some Belgian pro's, whose diet, in a racing sense, comprises countless kermesses and, in a culinary sense, frites and mayonnaise. Or so you might imagine.

Not naming any names, but certain riders on some of the smaller teams seemed to have turned up to a bike race by mistake. One or two wouldn't look out of place on a rugby pitch, lending their bulk to the scrum. They were huge. Enormous. Legs like tree trunks, bodies like barrels, heads like bulls (and flaring nostrils, too, to lend a mean look).

Quite a contrast to the leaner, whippet-like and sometimes frail-looking riders whose bread and butter (or low fat margarine) is stage races. But watch these grizzled, battle-hardened beasts motor along flat, crosswind-battered Belgian roads, and weep. Horses for courses, and all that.

Even Tom Boonen - not exactly Andy Schleck in stature - looked slender beside these guys. And speaking of Tomeke, the extent of his status as the country's number one sportsman really has to be seen to be believed.

But it goes beyond that - Boonen's celebrity in his native land transcends sport. His autobiography is displayed in the windows of book shops, girls queue to have their picture taken alongside him - he is more rock star than sportsman. Then again, that probably owes something to some of his rock star-esque misdemeanours.

He is not only famous for being a great cyclist, he is also, like Paris Hilton, famous for being famous. Or should that be infamous? I bet some Belgians don't even know that he's a cyclist (like some don't know that Paris Hilton is, er... what is she?).

We were unwitting 'victims' of Tomeke's status as we crawled into the centre of Antwerp on horribly clogged up roads.

Ambling up to the bumper of the car in front, we became aware of rapidly approaching sirens and flashing blue lights. A police motorcycle sped past, then another, with a sense of urgency befitting a major emergency.

Another screeched to a standstill alongside and gestured for us to move on or pull in - no dilly-dallying was the clear message, delivered by a stern Belgian policeman (it probably didn't help that our driver was fiddling with the sat-nav).

What was the fuss? Necks craned to find out, and then, amid a phalanx of more flashing lights and sirens, it appeared: the Quick Step team bus. Thus were Tom and his team transported serenely into the centre of Antwerp, fans swarming like ants around his bus, then multiplying as it came to a stop.

No wonder he left it until 11.58am to appear (the race, scheduled to start at 12.05, was delayed), and brave the crowds on his way to the signing-on stage.

But in the words of a football manager, "credit to him" - Boonen is amiable and blessed with a natural smile, and he stopped to sign (almost) every proffered scrap of paper.

And the celebrity thing only gets you so far; 37km from the end of the race Boonen hit the cobbles hard at about 50km/h, having been caught in a crash with a couple of Euskaltels, who are about as comfortable on this terrain as the Belgian rugby players-come-cyclists of Landbouwkrediet and Topsport Vlaanderen would be on the Col du Tourmalet.

Eventually he picked himself up, got going again and, holding on to the team car as he changed his shoes (a novel ruse that, especially at 70km/h), he was soon back in the bunch. You never saw Paris Hilton do that.