Tom Boonen: Tornado or Strong Breeze?

Apr 15 2006

Now that Tom Boonen has completed a second incredible spring season, and is off the bike, kicking it at home in Monaco (search “holiday”), I’d like to take a moment to examine his achievements a little more closely. Currently, Tom Boonen is everything you could possibly want a World Road Race champion to be: an outgoing, friendly ambassador for the sport, a dedicated teammate, a devoted boyfriend (despite the fact that some think he’s too good (search “gurus”) for her), a respectful son to two sets (?) of parents, and just an all-around thoughtful dude. He is not, however, that great a bike racer.

There. I said it. Please don’t kill me.

Before you begin with rattling off his wins with all the self rightous fury of Dick Pound in an opium den, stop. I know how good Tom’s been. I pay lots of attention to bike racing. When I say he’s not that great, I mean just that – he’s nasty, he’s had two incredible springs, he’s one of the most dominant sprinters in the pro peloton, and right now he is best classics rider around, bar none – but he has not achieved the level of greatness many people are currently ascribing to him. From a historical standpoint, I feel like his career is lacking a certain cromulence; as 1975 Tour de France winner Bernard Thevenet once said, “Tell me who was second to you and I will tell you the value of your victory”.

So who was second to Boonen at his most recent win? Steven De Jongh, a solid spring rider, with a KBK to his name, but also Boonen’s teammate – probably not a threat to his boss’s victory. Moving down the results list, we see Gert Steegmans, a promising young rider, but lacking a big win. Then Nico Eeckhout, a middling veteran who’s won Dwars door Vlaanderen and a Stage at the Tour of Denmark; after him, Graeme Brown, better known for his riding on the boards than the cobbles. From there, we move on to Enrico Gasparotto, not a big name, although he’s the reigning Italian road champ, and by the time we get to Jens Renders, I’ve really lost interest.

For comparison, check out the minor placings from Barry Hoban’s 1974 Gent-Wevelgem win: Second – Eddy Merckx. Third – Roger DeVlaeminck (4 P-R wins). Beyond the podium, Alain Santy, a former top 10 finisher at Le Tour, took fourth. Fifth was Eric Leman, (3 Flanders wins, 2 of them back-to-back) and sixth was Freddy Maertens (2 World Titles and CycleSport’s “#1 Greatest Sprinter of All Time”). Quite a difference indeed.

Fact is, of Boonen’s currently active opponents, only one (Peter Van Petegem) has more than a single true classics victory to his name. If you include Gent-Wevelgem as a classic (which you should, I think, given its ProTour status), you can add Tom Steels to the list, despite the fact that his most recent win came when Boonen was only 19. And if you’re really reaching, you could add Mario Cipollini, Andrei Tchmil, and Johan Musseuw, since they technically raced against Tom in the spring classics. But given that Cipollini’s last Wevelgem start and Tchmil’s retirement each predate Boonen’s first classics win, and that Musseuw and Boonen were teammates, I’m hesitant to include them as classics rivals.

Of course, a common rebuttal to this is to say “Well, Lance only beat two Tour winners (Marco Pantani and Jan Ullrich). Does that mean he’s not that great, too?” Absolutely not. If Boonen wins 7 consecutive Tours of Flanders, I will retract any claim made against his greatness here. But, more to the point, I’m not just questioning Boonen’s opponents’ records at a single event; I’m questioning about their palmares at all of the cobbled classics. Examining the performance of Armstrong’s opponents in the three Grand Tours as I did the performance Boonen’s current opponents in Flanders, Wevelgem and Roubaix, you’ll find that Pantani, Ullrich, Roberto Heras (only a Lance teammate from ’01-’02), Alex Zulle, Paoli Savoldelli (didn’t become Lance’s teammate until ’05) and Gilberto Simoni each have multiple titles to their names, though each was beaten easily by Armstrong at least once at Le Tour.

Now, before I finish up, I should add that I think Boonen would show nearly the same level of dominance against a historically stronger field as he does today, and that, by the time he retires, Boonen’s tally of wins should easily put him among cycling’s all-time greats. But as things stand right now, with the current level of rider specialization, and with so many potential challengers (Pozzatto, Bettini, De Jongh, Nuyens, etc.) neutralized as teammates, the claims that Boonen is the new Merckx are entirely unfounded. Let’s not forget that a few years back, people were saying the same thing about Frank Vandenbroucke; let’s just hope things work out a little better for Tornado Tom than they did for VDB.

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