An impressive rookie performance as a US Postal Service rider in the service of American rider George Hincapie in the 2002 edition of Paris-Roubaix sent signals that Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma - Quick Step) had a bright future ahead of him at the pavé classics. Ever since joining Patrick Lefevre's Quick Step team in 2003, he has always played his role in in the cobbled races with their short, but tough climbs.
In 2005, the year of Tornado Tom, he lived up to high expectations when he bagged the double win at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix at the tender age of 24. One year later, Boonen won Flanders again and from that year on, a third win was talk of town in the weeks ahead of the race.
On Sunday, Boonen did just that, winning his third Flanders against Italian riders Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas-Cannondale) and anther former winner Alessandro Ballan (BMC) and putting himself in the same category as four legendary riders Achiel Buysse, Fiorenzi Magni, Eric Leman and Johan Museeuw. It is not an easy record to match; even Eddy Merckx didn't succeed in equaling it. It was April Fool's Day, but Boonen's accomplishment was no joke.
"It's amazing. It's only now that it's starting to get into my head that I've won the Tour of Flanders three times," said Boonen. "By the start of the season, I had said that if I could have a good winter with no injures, there would be a lot of races where I could get a record. I already have two records now, shared with the other guys. It's an important year. Winning this race three times puts the races I won before in the spotlight again. It shows that I've already had a nice career."
Although Boonen's win Flanders was the 103rd victory of his career, crossing the line first in Flanders on Sunday was as satisfying as other major accomplishments. At the post-race press conference Boonen couldn't explain how he felt because it hadn't yet sunk in. However, winning on the modified course pleased him. That new course had drawn a lot of attention, and in most opinions, the new route was expected to be harder with the three trips up and over the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg featuring in the finale.
"I'm happy I could win the first edition of the new Flanders course," said Boonen. "Everybody talked about how hard the course had become, but it didn't change it so much. Maybe next year, they will race more aggressively in the end. Everybody waited on the Kwaremont and the first time they pushed it - it wasn't really fast - everybody was already dropped."
"It's a demanding course. Without even knowing it, you're getting tired. It's like the old Tour of Flanders but with more hills in the finale." With 50km to go, Boonen was spotted far back in the peloton and much later in the race he struggled to keep up with Ballan and Pozzato on the final ascent of the Paterberg.
Boonen revealed afterward that he had a mechanical problem that hindered him from going faster on the climbs. "I had a problem with my gears by the first time on the Paterberg. First, we wanted to change my bike because I was not sure what the problem was. I think it was something with the chain that got stuck. Every rotation it clicked. On the Koppenberg, it was better. Then afterwards I went to the car to put oil on it and it went better. But especially on the 25 and 23 (tooth cogs), it was still not working perfectly. It was better to survive it like that than to change the bike because that's very hard on this course. That's why I was riding the 21. It's a little bit more difficult that way."
Like Boonen said, there are more potential records for him to break. The now 31-year-old Belgian is on a mission. "The next one is Roubaix," Boonen said. A win there would put him level with Monsieur Paris-Roubaix, Roger De Vlaeminck.
To get a win in Roubaix, he'll have to gamble on his sprint once again. "With a few wins in the pocket, it's easier to do so, but it's a weapon and I have to use it. To me it's not so important to try to impress on the climbs and drop everyone. I have to await my moment and count on my sprint."
Shortly after that, he added that he didn't want to look too far ahead and he will take the days as they come. His rival Fabian Cancellara's crash showed how quickly the tide can turn. "It's a pity for Fabian. I know how it feels if you did a lot of work and you lose all your chances like this. It's life and it's bike riding. For sure, he would have been in the finale if he had not crashed. What it would have meant for the race is not useful to talk about because it was not like that. I'm sure he will come back stronger."
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