The Long Shadow of Tom Boonen

Apr 6 2009

image of tom boonen in anti-doping, bram souffreau, cc-by-sa licenseHow many more riders will build their careers on Tom Boonen’s back? Sure, Stijn Devolder is a fine cyclist in his own right, but based on his performances with Discovery Channel, I can’t imagine he’d have a pair of Flanders wins stuffed into his jersey pockets, if not for the utter unwillingness of the rest of the field to haul Tom Boonen back to the front. One might also look the suddenly increased relevance of Sylvain Chavanel, or decreased production from former Quick.Step riders Nick Nuyens and Gert Steegmans since their departures from Boonen’s squad.

One wonders how Boonen, a former World Champion, feels about this. On the one hand, the thought of all the races he might have won might sting the Belgian just a bit. On the other, a teammate up the road can often prove a convenient excuse.

Certainly after losing to Pozzato at last week’s E3, Boonen was talking like he wanted a second shot at the on-form Italian. Well, he got on on Sunday, and frankly, didn’t look like he was going to win it. With Chavanel up the road, the team car launched Devolder and dared Pozzato to mark him. The Katusha rider declined, Quick.Step took the win, and Boonen may have been spared another upsetting defeat.

Cycling’s never been a sport aimed at finding the strongest or most on-form rider in a given day, and I don’t feel much sympathy for Pozzato—he knew a win against Quick-Step’s numbers would require a bolder stance this past weekend. But the Belgian squad’s overwhelming show of force thus far this spring almost makes one want to ponder rolling out some sort system for a more balanced distribution of talent in the pro cycling world.

Sylvain Chavanel in a Katusha kit, or Pozzato riding for Silence-Lotto, could have made all the difference this past weekend, just as Roberto Heras, Manual Beltran, Tyler Hamilton, or Floyd Landis, might have done riding at the side of Jan Ullrich. I doubt cyclists are paid enough to put an effective salary cap in place, but is there any system (UCI points limitation, free agent draft) that might spread the talent out more evenly across 20-some-odd teams?

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