How to Succeed in Bike Racing Without Really Trying

Apr 4 2012

Tom Boonen signs in

Boonen didn't perform well in the national colors / Cindy Trossaert, cc-by-nc

In 2005, Tom Boonen’s ascendancy was nothing short of meteoric, and his failure to maintain that level of success since has prompted no shortage of discussion. While I was one of the first to suggest that the Belgian might just be the first of a new generation rather than the next Merckx, I’ve also been pretty stalwart in Tommeke’s defense. Few riders with his palmares have ever had to endure quite as much criticism, and fewer still have been able to bounce back with such aplomb.

There have been plenty pieces chronicling Boonen’s return this year, but few have really focused what I see as the key difference in his performances—the dude seems utterly relaxed. When Boonen broke loose with Vanmarcke and Flecha at this year’s Het Nieuwsblad, it echoed a tactic that’s been hauntingly unsuccessful for him over the past half-decade—a powerful move over a berg that slices off a select group, followed by a painful loss in a three-up final kilometer battle.

Off the top of my head, examples include E3 from 2009 (sprint loss to Pozzato), Paris-Tours 2009 (sprint loss to Gilbert) and E3 2010 (late escape/long sprint by Cancellara). When Sep Vanmarcke took the season opener after Boonen over-drove the escape and mistimed the sprint, it seemed like business as usual for the erstwhile world champion.

But since Nieuwsblad, Boonen has played it remarkably cool, and his record over the past two weeks speaks for itself. In a chaotic E3, Boonen made only one big effort—a shakeout move on the Taaienberg that everyone should have seen coming—and marked only the big-name attacks, leaving the hustle work of chasing down outside favorites to his most effective team in years. There’s an argument to be made that he opened his winning sprint too early, but with a curving finish a tired bunch, it seems likely Boonen’s early burst was spurred by confidence as much as nerves.

The story would repeat two days later at Gent-Wevelgem, where Boonen sat back in the bunch while an elite group including Peter Sagan and and Fabian Cancellara made a bid for freedom. Quick.Step certainly saw the danger in the move, briefly dispatching Gert Steegmans on a bridge attempt, but called him back halfway through the effort to pilot Boonen into the final kilometer.

The ensuing sprint had more elbows than the macaroni aisle, but Boonen, tucked just behind the leaders, was the very picture of serenity, avoiding the jostle and holding back until the door opened and he blew past Peter Sagan, accelerating all the way to the line in a tough headwind sprint.

But it was this past weekend at the Ronde where Boonen’s cool head really made the difference. The peloton took a conservative approach to a new, more rigorous, and far less photogenic course, letting a big group go up the road—without a rider from Quick.Step. But what might have been an nervous chase or bridging attempt in previous years was instead a lingering, calmly-answering-the-call-of-nature kind of ride.

On the race’s famous climbs, Boonen was relaxed, sitting well back over the first, non-decisive ascent of the Koppenburg, and about as calm as can be imagined cresting the Paterburg as the penultimate selection broke clear. The only time the Belgian elected to stick his nose into the wind rather than save matches was closing the gap to Ballan after the BMC rider’s initial surge, and final, unsuccessful attempts to escape in the closing meters.

You could fault Boonen a bit for launching the Flanders sprint a bit early—even he admitted it—but it’s tough to argue with a win. Indeed, the uncomplicated see-the-finish, win-the-race style with which he made his final charge harkens back to his heyday in 2005-06, when the wins came fast and and seemed effortless. It’s got to be disheartening for his rivals to see the old Boonen return right at the heart of the spring campaign.

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