Is Boonen Past His Prime?

2010 Paris-Roubaix - Tom Boonen Before the Race

Fotoreporter Sirotti

The 2011 Spring Classics season is well underway and all news from the Tom Boonen camp is, “No, seriously, things are under control.” It’s starting to sound like desperate attempts to reassure his faithful fans and the rest of Flanders that despite only managing to win a sprint-dominant but otherwise unimpressive Ghent-Wevelgem, Boonen is still the classics star and a favorite at this weekend’s Paris-Roubaix. You can count on a race favorite to describe any failure as part of the plan. Sure, he wasn’t great in the Ronde – his peak is a week later, at Paris-Roubaix. Boonen is strong.

But what if he’s not? Is Tom Boonen past his prime?

First let’s take a look at the results – this year, he opted to race Ghent-Wevelgem instead of the E3 Prijs in order to: a) avoid going kop aan kop with Fabian Cancellara, b) cherry pick an easier win, c) accrue valuable World Tour points for Quick Step, or d) all of the above. Last year, Boonen ran into a slew of close but no cigars with 2nd at Milan-San Remo, E3, and the Ronde, and 5th at Paris-Roubaix. This should come as a bit of a surprise following a dominant previous five years that saw Boonen reel in a World Championship, three Paris-Roubaix wins, two Rondes, three E3 Prijs wins, and two Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne wins – with a Belgian National Championship thrown in for good measure.

So what happened? Is there something to which we can ascribe Boonen’s lackluster (comparatively speaking) performance of the past two years? There are myriad reasons this could be. Quick Step may be losing its ability to control a race on the pavé. Another reason – or, perhaps the same reason from a different angle – may be a new swarm of potential classics and one-day specialists creating a deep and rich pool of talent. The list of potential challengers has grown long in recent years – even races with outcomes that seem almost predetermined due to the dominance of a pre-race favorite turn into exciting and chaotic in the closing kilometers. Furthermore, Tom Boonen shoulders the weight of a country’s media scrutiny. If this sign at the Cyclocross World Championships (“We don’t need a government – we need a World Champion!”) speaks to Belgium’s need for cyclocross success, then the pressure is even greater for its road racing superstars going into the races in the weeks bookending the Ronde. Some naughty times with cocaine, a few knee and back injuries, and speculative articles like this – except, written in Flemish – can really work wonders on Belgium’s golden boy.

There could be a physiological reason behind Boonen’s difficulty displaying his dominance the way he’s done in years past – after Milan-San Remo, Garmin-Cérvelo head Jonathan Vaughters attributed Heinrich Haussler’s difficulty to lacking a 2010 Grand Tour in his legs. Boonen is in a similar boat. Vaughters knows what he’s talking about. Winning major spring races without the deep base provided from riding a few thousand miles in three weeks the prior year might be prohibitively difficult.

Regardless of the reasons, Boonen’s performance suggests that he can’t own a race the way he has in the past. If so, beating a dead horse by constantly thrusting him at Classics success, and beating him with the stick of Classics expectations, might be taking a tool on poor little Tomekke. Maybe he should gracefully be a roadcaptain for QS and work with them to develop new spring talent rather than try to be the centerpiece. Or be confined to leadout duty – a couple seasons with less pressure could even get him back into the shape and confidence to win another Ronde or Paris-Roubaix.

Or maybe we’re speaking too soon and he’ll surprise us all on Sunday. What do you think?

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15 Responses to Is Boonen Past His Prime?

  1. Russ R says:

    Oh man, I hope you're wrong, Mattio- but this is the same sinking feeling I've had for awhile now. I'm a huge fan of Tommeke and I really want him to do well and return to his former glory… but can't help thinking that glory is in the past.

  2. sam says:

    ive said for some time that boonen still thinks its 2006…his best days are over. you do mention a good point…his tactics just dont seem to work in today's modern cycling world. sprinters need a lead out and thats not his style. he's not a breakaway specialist like chavanel or voeckler. and he's not the attacking type a la gilbert.

  3. lieutenantmudd says:

    I wouldn't put him out to pasture yet. He may be as strong as he once was, but he's still better in the classics than all but 2 or 3 riders.

    But he definitely needs a co-captain – and not just a strong lieutenant – to shoulder some of the pressure for wins. And QuickStep needs to stop its all-Boonen-all-the-time strategy. Luckily, they have signed some promising young Belgians.

  4. Beeline says:

    He'll surprise us all on Sunday.

    Anyway, if he'd had one more teammate in Flanders or if Flecha'd had just a tiny bit more gas, he would certainly have won. Just a hair's breadth separates victory/glory/adulation from talk of decline. He'll win Flanders again.

  5. Aguirre says:

    I sense that Tom's best days are passed. Although I think he looked very strong last spring, much more so than he has this year. Hard to call his 2010 even comparatively speaking lackluster, he didn't win but Cancellara was virtually unbeatable in 3 of those 4 races. I like Tom, I like that he parties (would certainly be tough not to when you are the handsome golden boy of a cycling crazy nation) and I think a podium in PR would be a great result for him. Hope Chavanel gets the shots he deserves in PR.

  6. Pappy says:

    It's true – Boonen's best days are behind him. That's life – he's only human and the relentless pressure for Merckx-like domination have taken a toll. He's been honest enough to publicly admit in the past that his motivation just isn't the same for races he's won multiple times, and why should it be? Also the back troubles.

    The point is well made that QS should diversify and focus on wins for other riders – Chavanel could have won the Ronde on Sunday if they had. Oh well.

  7. grolby says:

    Would we even be asking if most riders were past their prime after they had just come fourth in Flanders? That's the curse of cycling stardom.

    It may well be true that he is past his prime, but I think there are lots of other explanations to go to first. Boonen was clearly on top form last spring. His problem was that, at the same time, Cancellara was on the form of his life. And then things went pear-shaped when he crashed in California, and that was it for his season. An iffy spring season after that is hardly shocking, though maybe more should be expected of Boonen? I don't know.

    I just think its too early to tell. If his season goes smoothly, with no incidents or injuries or scandals, and he then has another lackluster spring in 2012, then it might be time to start saying that he's past his prime (a shame if so, at 30 he should be in his prime years as a Classics rider). Until then, I say wait and see.

  8. Mattio says:

    grolby! glad you're commenting here. don't be a stranger.

    curse of cycling stardom indeed. nevertheless, Boonen's struggling where he was once dominant. I suppose the question is if and when he'll return to his top level.

    Thanks, all, for weighing in.

  9. JustJoshinYa says:

    Q. Is Tom Boonen past his prime?
    A. No

  10. aahmadhu says:

    when other riders crack up top 5 finishes in major classics, they're having a good season.

    when tommeke cracks up top 5 finishes in the same major classics, he's past it.

    so, yeah, the curse of stardom.

    personally i don't think a rider who consistently fight all the way to the line with top 5 finishes in major classics for 2 consecutive years is a rider who's past his best.

  11. cthulhu says:

    I don't think he is past his time.
    The last years I agree he was full after his huge success, too full of himself and not hungry enough for the success anymore. Throw in his injuries and other distractions and there we go. But now it looks like his original fire is back and he is on a good way. Surely some people have caught up and he has lost a bit through these lackluster years but writing him off, that is too early in my eyes.
    Maybe the media and public opinion load a bit too much weight onto his shoulders, see the stupid attack as Chavanel was up front on his own, but being forth in the Ronde and first of the chase group after a three men breakaway with a team mate in it is hardly a failure. And Roubaix suits him better, though I guess it suits Cancellara better too.

  12. adam says:

    I cringe when I hear people ask questions like this.
    First, Boonen has a greater resume than most entire teams currently riding – including the ever hyped Garmin. Even if he’s not won in the last 12 months, I can think of only a handful of riders in the last generation – Kelly, Bettini, Museeuw, Cancellara – with an equally impressive one day racing resume. If those riders have proved anything it’s that they can never be counted out. This isn’t even considering the argument that he may have had four RVV wins had Devolder not been his teammate.
    Secondly, the timing of Cancellara’s attach at last year’s PR was when he knew Boonen was at the back. Clearly Spartacus saw Tommeke as his biggest rival and after he got away I’d say that Boonen was the only man not racing for second.
    If anything could be learned from Cancellara last Sunday, it’s that it’s a whole lot harder to win races when everyone else is watching your every move; something Boonen’s been facing for the last five Aprils.

  13. Mattio says:

    I love the range of opinions here. Personally, I feel that Boonen has got dominant wins left in his legs, but he'll need a few things – a grand tour in his legs, for sure, and maybe a team willing to shift its focus to take the pressure off. "Past his prime" is a bit of a red herring – I think there are plenty of external factors to his success and more recent lack thereof, and the question is, whether he and QS can get it all right. Racing bikes is a strange alchemy.

  14. grolby says:

    I'm flattered to be recognized, Mattio – assuming that it's a good thing… Pave is a great operation, I'll be around.

    WRT Boonen, it's a good point that there's more to success than physical power. Boonen's difficulties could be rooted in just-not-having-it, rather than bad luck. I guess we'll see if either he's got his head back where he needs it or if he's turned the bad luck around. Personally, I'm delighted by the depth of spring talent in the peloton, which gives me a lot more riders to potentially root for, but is there anyone who wouldn't like to see Boonen equal or surpass De Vlaeminck's record in Roubaix? It would be sad if he lost the chance.

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