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?