It might sound strange for Anthony Tan to say that being pinged for cocaine was the best thing that ever happened to Tom Boonen, but it appears to be true.
7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:37 PM

For those fortunate few who possess a preternatural talent at anything, they often do not realise what they have until they've lost it, sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently.

Boonen was caught using the white stuff three times, in a period lasting from April 2007 to February 2009. Before his first bust, aged 26 at the time, he had won the world road championship, Gent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders (twice), Paris-Roubaix and four stages of the Tour de France, among a smorgasbord of other races.

Relative to his rivals everything had come easily to him. So much so, winning had virtually become meaningless. It got to the point where he didn't seem to care whether he won or lost, which on occasion had the effect of making him even more dangerous, both on and off the bike.

Between his first and second busts, he would win another two stages at the Tour as well as his first green jersey, along with another Paris-Roubaix in 2008. He still thought he was invincible – the results showed he could party and win, he probably rationalised to himself – and so he continued his carefree, bon vivant lifestyle in Monaco, the tax-free haven he called home from 2005 to early this year, when he decided to return to Belgium.

Between his second and third busts, he took two stages at the Vuelta a España, notched up a second overall title at the Tour of Qatar, and a third Roubaix rock. Wins were still coming easily though not quite as free-flowing as 2005-06, and so he continued to live the good life till, a fortnight after his 2009 Roubaix victory, Boonen tested positive in an out-of-competition test for a third occasion.

After that, his image was seriously sullied, almost irrevocably.

In the eyes of many, he was considered little better than the guys who doped themselves to the eyeballs just to hang on in races he would win with apparent ease. And, as the victories began to dry, from six in 2009 to two apiece in 2010 and 2011, one got the impression that aged 31, Boonen was washed up and very much on track to looking like a has been that once was.

However, between the end of last season and the start of the 2012 calendar year, something inside of him told him to stop wasting his life, appreciate his God-given gift, and before the years pass him by, make the most of it.

The Boonen we have seen this season is a man reborn.

He begun racing as early as January 23 at the Tour de San Luis and would win the final stage. He would move onto the Tour of Qatar and take two stages and his fourth crown in the Middle Eastern race (including the points classification). He would win the second stage in Paris-Nice.

Then yesterday, he would turn what was already an unprecedented cobblestone triptyque – E3 Harelbeke, Gent–Wevelgem, Ronde van Vlaanderen – into a unprecedented cobblestone quartet by virtue of his gobsmacking solo victory in Paris-Roubaix, thereby equalling Roger De Vlaeminck's 35-year-old record.

While he may say he cares not for records, Boonen said after his win Sunday: "I realise now I am may be the best guy to ever ride on these cobblestones."

He was lucky though. He made it through the other side. Others, like beleaguered former AFL star Ben Cousins, did not.

The cycling world is in love with Tommeke again and Boonen is back in love with life, including his life in cycling. As things now stand, I cannot see him repeating his past transgressions again.

He has learned his lesson, albeit the hard way.

Twitter: @anthony_tan