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Legendary Belgian champion Tom Boonen set his retirement date as April 9. But as soon as the 2017 season began the eulogies were coming in. Boonen ended years of speculation late last season when he announced that this year would be his last, and he planned to retire at the finish of Paris–Roubaix, a race he has won a record-tying four times, and a race that has no equivalent for the Belgian, surpassing even his native Tour of Flanders. But he also says, “Never say never.” He has been around long enough to know that there are no absolutes in sports or life. And maybe, just maybe, there is one thing that could change his mind—a fifth title in the Hell of the North.
Words and images by James Startt, European Associate to Peloton Magazine
To say that Tom Boonen has been a giant of his generation is nothing short of a classic understatement. On the cobbles, nobody, not even his legendary rival Fabian Cancellara, could match him. Twice he managed to score an elusive Tour of Flanders-Paris–Roubaix double in the same year, but he also equaled the record for victories in both of these cycling monuments, winning Flanders three times and Roubaix four times.
But Boonen is also revered around the world as a spokesman for the sport. And of all of Belgium’s many champions, he was the most outward looking. Fluent in many languages, Boonen was always eager to race in new parts of the world as the sport expanded over the years, earning a golden reputation with fans and competitors alike.
Peloton Magazine: You have been riding well all season. Are you really going to hang it up in just a couple of days now?
Tom Boonen: Yes, It’s a decision I made. You have to stop sometime and it is better to go out when you are still good. I could go on for a couple of more years. I even had offers to continue. But I think it is the right moment.
Peloton: If someone would have told you years ago when you were just a neo-pro that you would win all of these great races, would you have believed it?
Boonen: No! Never! When I turned professional my objective was to win maybe a classic. It turned out to be a bit more than that! I’m always very grateful that I was able to do so much on the bike. And I have never forgotten how fragile it all is. You have to be grateful for the good days, but I’ve learned to be grateful for the bad days too, because they can make you better.
Peloton: As a neo-pro you literally exploded on the scene when you finished third in your first Paris–Roubaix as a member of the U.S. Postal Service team in 2002. It proved to be a very telling result. What comes to mind when you think back on that day?
Boonen: I was disappointed that I didn’t win! I was frustrated that I didn’t follow Johan Museeuw when he attacked. I was riding with my teammate George Hincapie going into the cobblestone section and I told him we needed to move up. We were just a little too far back when Johan attacked. At the moment he attacked, I could have followed him still [physically]. But I wouldn’t have been able to follow him in the final. I was super-happy to finish on the podium, but at the moment, I also came away with the feeling that more could have been possible. But I already had a love for Roubaix from my amateur days, and after that day it was really there.
Peloton: What was your best day ever in your career?
Boonen: Roubaix 2012. I could have done anything that day! [Boonen raced the final 53 kilometers alone to win by 1:39.]
Peloton: Journalists have been asking you for years when you would retire. What made you finally decide to retire this year at Paris–Roubaix?
Boonen: It wasn’t a big decision. At first I wanted to ride another year and then see, but there were a lot of things on my mind with contract negotiations. Everybody was pulling on my sleeve and finally I just decided to stop at Paris–Roubaix. I could have continued until the end of the season. I was even talking to two teams about a two-year deal. But everybody has to stop some day and I only see myself quitting after Paris–Roubaix. I don’t see myself quitting after the Grand Prix de Fourmies or something. I really wanted to stop on the track in Roubaix. Even if the result is not there. Roubaix is where I was born as a rider. And Roubaix is where I am going to stop as a rider.
Peloton: And what if the result is there?
Boonen: Well, never say never! That is one thing I have learned as a rider.
Peloton: You mentioned the importance of Paris–Roubaix. But what about the Tour of Flanders?
Boonen: The Tour of Flanders is different. You have a lot of races…like the Grand Prix of Harelbeke…and many others. We race up the Kwaremont 20 times in a season. On paper Flanders might seem harder. But you know the thing about Paris-Roubaix, it that it can be deceiving. You can feel really good one minute and then just totally empty. The Tour of Flanders is a big race but it is not that special. There is only one Paris–Roubaix and I like the magic of Paris–Roubaix more than Flanders. I still like Flanders, but it is not like Roubaix!
Peloton: Wow, you are the biggest Belgian champion of your generation and yet you prefer the French classic. That might not go over too well back home!
Boonen: Well, they have to hear it. I love the Tour of Flanders, of course, but it is not special like Roubaix.
Peloton: What do you think is the most important thing people will take from your legacy?
Boonen: Well, I think that the most important thing is that you can inspire and motivate people, kids or anyone. If people can take anything away from my victories, from the way I raced or the way I came back after a setback, that would be most important. Athletes don’t change the world, but we can motivate people. If we can motivate people to improve their lives then we’ve been a success.
For full interview look to issue #65 of Peloton Magazine.