How time flies. It only seems like a couple of weeks ago that Tom Boonen was in Argentina for the first race of his final season, saying how far away April was and how much lay in between. But the final eight days are already here and, ahead of the final bow at Paris-Roubaix next Sunday, it's time now for 'Tommeke' to bid farewell to Flanders, and Flanders to him.
Along with Roubaix, the Ronde van Vlaanderen, or Tour of Flanders, is the race that has defined Boonen's 16-year career, and his three victories have elevated him to demi-god status in this cycling-crazed region of Belgium. He is an out-and-out celebrity and media darling, and the nation is already in overdrive about his impending departure from the sport.
Not surprisingly, then, when the Quick-Step team gathered on a boat docked in Antwerp's harbour for a pre-Flanders press gathering, Boonen was peppered with questions about how he's dealing with the emotions of it all.
"It's special, but at this moment I'm still able to stay calm," he said matter-of-factly. "I'm not sure about Sunday, because the start [in Antwerp] is not far from my house. We'll see, I'm not sure.
"I don't really have the mentality to say 'I'm crying every time at the finish line because it was my last time here'," he added later. "This life stops at the end of Roubaix, and then another one starts."
You sense that the media would maybe like a bit more sentimentality from him – the sort shown by his old foe Fabian Cancellara ahead of his final springs classics 12 months ago – but since the start of the season, Boonen has refused to dwell – publicly at least – on the emotional side of things.
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"Of course I'm aware of everything going on, I read the newspapers every once in a while, but it's like it's happening all beside me, everything is there happening but sometimes you get a little peace that comes to you. I'm just trying to focus on last two important races. The entire cycling world is really busy trying to get all the details of the career I've had, but I'm not really aware of all the things going on. I'm just trying to focus on Paris-Roubaix. Maybe it will come after that, but at the moment I'm not emotional or anything."
Where it all began
Boonen is nevertheless happy to look back at the memories he has built up over the years at Flanders. So where did it all begin, Boone and De Ronde? Not as early as you might think. "I only started watching it in 1996. I was at the finish line when [Johan] Museeuw won, I was doing a race there as a 'nieuwelingen', and that was the first time I knew there was a race called the Tour of Flanders – I'd never heard of it," he explained. "As a kid I wasn't really into cycling, then I turned 'aspiranten' at 13, then I stared racing with friends and that's only when I started to get interested in cycling."
Boonen would be on the start line himself six years later, as a 21-year-old neo-pro. He claimed he didn't remember much about that day, but then proved himself wrong with an impressively detailed account of how the race unfolded.
"I remember really well the moment we went on the Koppenberg, and I was behind Ludo Dierckxsens, and that was the moment in Belgium when everyone was a big fan of Ludo, so the entire crowd just went 'Ludo! Ludo! Ludo! Ludo!' That was what I remember really well," said Boonen.
"The break went, we were chasing them with a big group, and in the end there was a group that came back after the Bosberg, with [Mario] Cippolini and Lombardi, then we went to the finish with 20-30 guys, I finished 24th – I only know that because I saw it in the paper today. I felt pretty good at the start but at that point I was 100 per cent a helper so I just had to make sure George [Hincapie] was in the right position at the climbs, and that's what I did. He was in the decisive move that day. In the end Tafi won, with [Peter] Van Petegem, Museeuw, George, and [Daniele] Nardello behind, and that was kind of it."
Boonen's recollection of the following two editions of De Ronde are slightly more hazy but, working for the more experienced men in the Quick-Step hierarchy, he finished 25th on both occasions. And then came the big breakthrough in 2005.
"I was the third guy on the ladder to start with, but the moment I got my first shot I won straight away," Boonen said with a grin, describing that day as his most treasured Tour of Flanders and one of the highlights of his career as a whole.
"That's the best one because the final was so nice. Everyone was pokering a little bit, I was only 24-years-old, and I had I think more guts than the others and went the right moment. If you can beat guys like that, Erik Zabel, Van Petegem, guys who had so much experience, against me still knocking at the door, I think that was one of the nicest victories of my career."
'I'm still waiting for the moment to really do something'
Boonen winning his final Flanders would be quite the fairytale – even if he would regard a record-breaking fifth Paris-Roubaix victory, in his very final act, as the dream scenario.
Yet he doesn't go into this one as he has done so many of the others – as the favourite. Nor indeed as the number one hope of his team. Philippe Gilbert has enjoyed a remarkable return to the cobbles since his move from BMC to Quick-Step, finishing runner-up at Dwars door Vlaanderen and at E3-Harelbeke – the former behind a teammate – and winning a stage and the overall at the Three Days of De Panne, all in the past ten days. For many, he's on a par with Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet as a five-star favourite.
"Philippe is the leader of our team," said Boonen unequivocally. "I'm someone who is always willing to work for the team. I feel a lot of emotion when a teammate wins. In that situation, if Philippe is the rider capable of winning I will ride for him – no problem."
That doesn't mean, however, that he can't put on a show.
"I'm still waiting for the moment to really do something," said Boonen, who has had a quiet spring so far. "In the last races it was always me waiting in the group behind for if it came back for the sprint."
That could well happen again, especially if Gilbert goes on the rampage, but, equally, Boonen spoke of the possibility of lighting up the race from an early stage.
"The different parcours changed the race a lot," he said, referring to the move of the finish from Meerbeke to Oudenaarde and the replacement of the Muur and Bosberg by the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg as the end game.
"More was possible on the old parcours – more styles of racing, more scenarios
"We'll see, maybe if you can go even earlier with two or three teammates… but the problem is always that once you do that you have the pressure of the entire race on your back and no one is helping you out anymore. So you have to decide the right things at the right moment. It would be stupid to lose the race because you go too early, but on the other hand sometimes you have to take chances to win."
The Flanders public doesn't need him to win, but boy would they love him to take a chance. Indeed, there would be a slight sense of shame if Boonen doesn't leave a mark on his final Ronde, and that's a feeling he shares.
"I would prefer to do something," he said. "It doesn't have to be win. If possible I would like to, but I'd prefer to do something than just stick in the pack and do nothing."