Over a decade on from pulling on the rainbow jersey in Madrid, Tom Boonen goes into the 2016 UCI World Championships road race as one of the favourites. The 'Tornado' might not have been raging too often over the last few years, but there's no rider who can match his record in Qatar.
The 2005 champion boasts 22 stage wins and four overall victories at the Tour of Qatar, with the terrain and conditions well suited to the riding style that has landed him so much success in the one-day Classics.
With Boonen, who will turn 36 on the eve of Sunday's elite men's road race, set to retire after next year's Paris-Roubaix, it's hard to imagine that a win on October 16 would make a huge difference to his legacy. Sure, it would add a big win to his palmares but there are already quite a lot of big titles on that list. A selection: four wins at Paris-Roubaix, three at the Tour of Flanders, a world title, two national titles, a green jersey and six stage wins at the Tour de France, and two stages at the Vuelta a España, along with multiple wins in Ghent-Wevelgem, E3 Harelbeke and countless other one-day races.
For Boonen, a win doesn't matter too much; he'll always remain a big star on home soil. Which one would have a bigger impact: a second world title or an unprecedented fifth win at the velodrome in Roubaix? Boonen simply states it would be great to finish his career at the velodrome while trying to win the World championships in 2016 and a big Classic in the Spring of 2017. Shortly after extending his contract with Etixx-QuickStep for four months, 'Tornado Tom' stipulated that the Worlds road race was his main goal for the end of the season.
"I want to be there with the best possible sprinting form," he said in July.
Boonen realises that big wins don't simply come on demand, explaining after losing this year's Paris-Roubaix sprint to Mathew Hayman: "There are more races you lose, than races you win."
His career-long rival Fabian Cancellara will end his career at the end of this season, making his final bow at the Japan Cup. The Swiss rider failed to win Paris-Roubaix and come level with Boonen's four wins but Spartacus did manage to capture the Olympic time trial title in the final year of his career. Boonen is aiming for three final big races: the World Championships, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
With the Worlds course in Doha flat and amenable to a bunch sprint, Boonen is confident that he can still emerge victorious in such circumstances.
"I haven't been sprinting a lot because I didn't feel the need to do so but if I got my mind set on it then I can take on a lot of the other guys," Boonen told Het Laatste Nieuws recently.
His mind is set on victory.
"There's only a handful of World Championships where sprinters like me stand a chance and Qatar is one of them."
His team-mate Iljo Keisse knows the secret to Boonen's impressive score sheet in Qatar. "You can't hide in Qatar. From those who survive, he still has his sprint as his weapon; that's why he has won so much over there," Keisse told Sporza.
The Flemish media has speculated a lot on Boonen's mindset going into these final stages of his career. In typical style the man himself points out that he doesn't race because he likes racing – "I race because I like winning."
Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish are perhaps big names in Britain, but they don't even come close to the stardom of Tom Boonen in his home country.
The Belgian surged to the front pages after an epic debut Paris-Roubaix in 2002, where he finished on the podium having ridden in support of George Hincapie at the US Postal team. It was clear that Boonen was the new kid on the Belgian pavé, ready to follow in the footsteps of the 'Lion of Flanders', Johan Museeuw.
In 2004 he lived up to the high expectations by winning the E3 Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgem and the Scheldeprijs, along with two stages at the Tour de France, including the final one on the Champs Elysées. Boonen-mania then hit full flow in 2005 when he won the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and the bunch sprint victory at the World Championships in Madrid, with two further Tour de France stage wins sandwiched in between.
Boonen was elected 'Belgian sportsman of the year' three times. In 2005 he was also Cyclingnews' rider of the year, topping Lance Armstrong, who had won his seventh consecutive Tour de France.
Aside from his strong performances on the bike, Boonen left his mark off it, too. His magic 2005 year resulted catapulted him into the life of a pop star during the late 2000's. That's because cycling is big in Flanders. How big? There are about 100 days thus about 300 hours of live race coverage on Flanders' public broadcast every year. During the spring Classics season they average an audience share of 60 per cent.
The Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and Ghent-Wevelgem all attract above 70 per cent – about a million viewers (there are 6.5 million people in Flanders). There's one Belgian professional cycling team per 650,000 citizens. Compare that to approximately one team per 10 million in the UK, and one per 20 million in the USA. It gives an idea of the popularity of the sport. Only the national football team beats these TV ratings during the European Championships or the World Cup.
Boonen has the whole package: looks, good chat, humour and his young age. He showed up in commercials and was omnipresent in the media. At the Belgian races big crowds invariably gathered at the team bus, trying to grab an autograph, photo, or at least a glimpse of the star. Training rides were often halted by fans asking for autographs. To avoid the attention – some would also say Belgian taxes - Boonen officially moved to Monaco at the end of 2005.
Flemish magazines and newspapers always had something to write about and the readers loved it. First there was the break-up with partner Lore at the end of 2006. Early in 2007 Flemish newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws wrote 'Patrick Lefevere: 30 years of doping', which allegedly linked Lefevere and all his riders to doping. The newspaper lost a subsequent lawsuit.
At the end of 2007 the same newspaper broke the news that Boonen had a relationship with 16-year-old Sophie van Vliet, daughter of Amstel Gold Race organizer Leo van Vliet. The media loved his passion for fast cars and loved writing when 'Tommeke' headed out to party and who was accompanying him. Twice he was nailed to the front pages for being caught using cocaine around 2007 and 2008. He actually tested positive three times. He also crashed his Lamborghini Murciélago.
Popstar Boonen wasn't losing fans, though, and companies kept raising their price to be linked with him. Fans loved seeing him get back together with his former girlfriend Lore, although they nearly broke up again in 2009 when Boonen had a wild night out in Ghent.
The Boonen-mania is past its peak nowadays, although he still attracts a massive amount of fans at races. The only rider who has since drawn a similar level of mania is Peter Sagan.
Now when Boonen hits the front pages, the headlines are different. When he crashes his custom-painted Ferrari F12 Berlinetta it's on a car racing circuit. There's the odd tax evasion lawsuit - remember Monaco - which he paid off via an estimated 3,000,000 euro settlement. In 2014 he and his partner Lore were forced to inform the media about a miscarriage. In 2015 they reached the front pages again but with positive news when Lore gave birth to the twins Valentine and Jacqueline.
Whether or not Boonen will be able to add a second World title to his sporting palmares remains to be seen. The former Flemish cycling god Johan Museeuw has his doubts when seeing him get dropped on the Mt. Saint-Hubert in the recent Tour de l'Eurométropole.
"A Boonen at 100 per cent would not get dropped there – absolutely not," Museeuw told Flemish TV-station VTM.
We will know who was right on Sunday after the road race and the fight for the rainbow jersey.
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