• Boonen on Paris-Roubaix: "For me, it was the best race in the world." (Tim de Waele/Getty)Source: Tim de Waele/Getty
Paris-Roubaix ended not how he wanted it, but Tom Boonen nevertheless now walks - not rides - away from a career with far more highs than lows, and much to be proud of, writes Anthony Tan.
Cycling Central
10 Apr 2017 - 4:55 PM  UPDATED 10 Apr 2017 - 5:10 PM

Had the Scheldeprijs, the oldest still-existing cycling race in Flanders, been held the week after Paris-Roubaix like it had been till 2009, Tom Boonen might have chosen it instead of last Sunday as his swansong.

"I could have retired after Paris–Roubaix but I felt it important that my last race should be in Belgium. The Scheldeprijs is a great race and I especially love the start in Antwerp market place," said Johan Museeuw, nicknamed The Lion of Flanders, a three-time winner of Roubaix and De Ronde, who chose the 2004 edition of the Scheldeprijs as his final professional event.

Boonen-mania was no bigger than in April of 2006.

The season previous, aged just 24, he won the Tour of Flanders, Paris–Roubaix and the world road championship - the first, and still only, rider to do so in a single year. Dutchman Erik Dekker, so disheartened by Boonen's brawn in the 2005 edition of De Ronde, where, rather than wait for a sprint finish, he launched a surprise solo attack in the closing kilometres to hold off Andreas Klier and Peter van Petegem, said afterwards: "I'm happy that I am near the end of my career, since with a cyclist like Boonen the Spring Classics will be rather boring (in) the coming years." Unsurprisingly, the boy from Balen was bestowed the Vélo d'Or (Golden Bicycle), cycling's most prestigious award, as well as the Kristallen Fiets (Crystal Bicycle), Trofee voor Sportverdienste (Trophy For Sporting Merit), Belgian Sportsman of the Year, and Belgian Sports Personality of the Year.

"That's my major problem. I make it seem easy."

He successfully defended his title at Flanders but fell short in Roubaix, eventually promoted to second behind Fabian Cancellara after the three that preceded him were disqualified for riding through a closed train crossing. Refreshingly honest and forthright, he said of the outcome: "I'm not happy with it. (My second place) was not deserved; I was dropped. I wasn't as super as I was last week in the Ronde, but (was) good enough to win. I spent too much energy unnecessarily. I nearly crashed and felt cramp after that. I'm choked with dust. It was stressful the whole time.

"I'm not disappointed. It's good that everyone realises that I'm not a robot. Losing can be a better lesson than winning."

The headline on Cyclingnews after Roubaix gave an insight into the weight of expectation forever upon him: "Boonen finally beaten".

Living near Maastricht at the time and working for Cyclingnews, I decided it was important to see Boonen the following Wednesday at the Scheldprijs, his last race that spring. I asked my editor, he agreed, and that was that.

"These are my people, my friends, my neighbours - that's why this race has a special place in my heart, because I come from (the region of) Antwerp," said the current world champion, moments after ending his Classics campaign on a high with his thirteenth scalp of the season.

The way you raced today, you made it look easy, I said to him afterwards.

"People don't understand; it's hard for them to appreciate (that) it's difficult to win a bike race. That's my major problem. I make it seem easy," he said, correcting me.

"I think everybody saw me on the podium one-hundred kilometres before the finish line, so yeah, there was some pressure - I couldn't fail. Especially in the last 40K's when we started to control the final, there was no room for a mistake. But everybody suffered today, even the guys (in the break) who were sitting on all day; there was just enough wind to let everybody suffer enough, and that made it a little easier for us."

Boonen took great delight in races where everyone suffered. Indeed, in a race like Flanders and the Hell of the North, every man suffers. It's also worth noting the expectations on Boonen were not dissimilar to those lumped on the current world champion, Peter Sagan: before a pedal has turned, almost everyone expects him to win. Given the relentless nature of the Belgian press on their sporting superheroes, it was no surprise, therefore, that he decided to retreat to Monaco until late 2005 before returning to Belgium, albeit part-time.

Paradoxically, though, for someone riding his final race under similar weather conditions to those in 2006, one would've thought Quick Step Floors, the outfit he has been with for all bar his debut season in 2002, when, riding for the US Postal Service cycling team, he finished third at Paris-Roubaix, would not have made such a song and dance about him being the undisputed leader. The previous Sunday, team manager Patrick Lefevre's multiple-cards-to-play strategy worked a treat at De Ronde, which saw a triumphant Philippe Gilbert. Declaring they had only one option for Roubaix did nothing but place an even larger target on his back.

"I was really marked out massively by (John) Degenkolb. To me, he rode the most cowardly race of his life," he told reporters afterwards of the Trek-Segafredo leader and 2015 race winner. "It's a pity but I resigned myself to it."

So did their team tactics, it seems.

Boonen said in the 2006 race he spent too much energy unnecessarily. It appeared he did the same in his final race Sunday. When the winning trio went clear on the Carrefour de l'Arbre, the old Tommeke could have possibly bridged to the group containing Greg Van Avermaet; it would have then been two from Quick Step Floors against one from BMC Racing and Cannondale-Drapac (Sebastian Langeveld). "The gaps were never impossible to close down. We weren't blown away. It was always thirty, forty seconds," he said of the distance between his group and the one in front. "There was still the possibility in the final fifteen kilometres but behind the first group there wasn't a team who was capable of doing something." Boonen admitted, however, he "didn't feel super all day long. The sections where it was possible to make a move featured a headwind. It is what it is."

Van Avermaet conquers Paris-Roubaix, his first Monument
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) won a five-up sprint in the hallowed Roubaix velodrome after overcoming a mechanical and a crash earlier in the race.

Unlike Cancellara, who did his lap of honour in the Roubaix velodrome the same time last year (and crashed while doing so), the now-retired 36-year-old chose no such gesture. "I did enough laps of honour," he said, referring to the deluge of attention and sentiment he's received the past few months. "Laps of honour are for those who deserved it today. I just came here to take a shower. It's not necessary to make a show of it." Nonetheless, he once said of the Hell "I was made for this race". For the last time, watching him skip over the pavé, his longer than normal torso hunched over the bars, hips rock-solid but hands (sans gloves, as usual) loose as he let his Specialized machine work with, rather than fight, the centuries-old cobblestones, eyes never down but always ahead, scanning the right lines then taking them, it wasn't difficult to understand why.

Thirteenth place, in a group twelve seconds behind Van Avermaet, is where he would finish. He could've sprinted for sixth but didn't really bother. "A sixth place doesn't mean a lot." Not when you've won four times. "In the end, I'm satisfied with the result. I'm satisfied with my last race; I'm satisfied with all the people here."

Where he stands in the pantheon of champions, 'satisfied' isn't a word that comes to mind. For his was a career that was anything but satisfactory. It was extraordinary.

As the fans chanted outside his team bus at the start in Compiègne’s Avenue Royale, "Merci Tommeke! Merci Tommeke! Merci Tommeke!"