What To Talk About When We Talk About Tom


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[Don't worry, it's not that kind of post.]

A terrible argument is roiling the cycling community today. Nobody can agree on anything. Some people say Tom Boonen is the greatest cobbled classics rider of his generation. Others say he's the best all time. Others say he's the greatest classics rider. Still more look at his 2012 season and see that as an unprecedented accomplishment. Until we figure out exactly how to discuss the awesomeness of Tommeke, de Bom van Balen, we will never know peace.

Boonen himself got the conversation started today: "I realize now that I’ll probably be one of the best, maybe the best, guy on the cobblestones that ever rode on these roads," he told a presumably nodding audience of journalists. That's a start. We can do better.

What Is His Nature?

Let's start by examining what Boonen does and why he's so special. In sum, he wasn't so much born as he was lovingly crafted by the Gods of the Tour of Flanders, a perfect machine for short power bursts of a km or so, at any level, big enough to take the pounding administered by the cobblestones, and strong enough to call on that same maximum power to finish off a sprint.

  • His sprinting is his calling card. He remains the fastest guy you're likely to encounter at the end of a cobbled classic, not having lost a straight dash since the 2009 E3 Prijs Harelbeke. He also lost a Scheldeprijs sprint to Mark Cavendish in 2008 and a stage of Driedaagse de Panne in 2004, and that's it. [Well, and he lost to Sep Vanmarcke in the Omloop this year, if we're including that winter race in this category.] For guys like Pozzato and Hushovd who spent the last week saying they had a chance against Boonen in a sprint at the end of a long cobbled classic, I hope they convinced themselves at least. It goes without saying that for a while he was the fastest sprinter, period. But he only makes special guest appearances in the bunch gallop world now... like when there's a rainbow jersey on the line, or a green one, or maybe a gold medal.
  • He controls his fate. His top power output propels him up almost every notable climb first. At times it seems like an act, and maybe some of his cagier rivals roll their eyes. But there is no doubting that he is consistently one of the fastest ascenders of the Koppenberg, Paterberg, Taaienberg and the Muur. Not as close-to-undefeated here as he is in the last 50 meters, but then he doesn't have to be. Oh, and it's the same in Paris-Roubaix: how many times is he in the top three of the peloton coming out of Arenberg? Everyone wants to be in the front, for obvious strategic reasons. Boonen gets there. Year in and year out he gets results by reducing the overwhelming randomness of the cobbled roads.
  • He fights. Today was extraordinary, but historically he has been either the first or second to make a major selection. Winning de Ronde alone in 2005; jumping on Hoste on the Valkenberg in 2006; dropping Hushovd and Haussler on the Carrefour de l'Arbe in 2009; taking off with Cancellara from the Molenberg in 2010. This isn't exactly unique, but too many guys play the waiting game in the classics, and they almost always lose.
  • Before today his solo attacks were more of the 15-20km variety, and this led to the inevitable conclusion that if he's undroppable (and might drop you) in the last 40 minutes of the race, and you can't take him in the finale, then you have to go from further than he is willing to. In 2010 he finally met his match in Fabian Cancellara, a rider whose skills test Boonen's to perfection: the long-range time trialling, the bruising accelerations, the skill and fearlessness. When Cancellara dropped Boonen with over 50km to go in the 2010 Paris-Roubaix, it was as if to say "I've found something you can't stop." Well, too bad Cancellara wasn't there today, because his victory from over 50km was Boonen's way of saying "you sure about that?" We spent a couple years wondering just how strong in the mind Boonen was, but that subject is dead.

The Seasons

Today crowned for Boonen his best-ever spring campaign, which is saying something. But if you prefer to measure riders' greatness by looking at their peak outputs, what Boonen has accomplished in 2012 will bring your mind to a complete halt.

Boonen_vertical_mediumHe basically won every race he competed in. Dwars door Vlaanderen went to his teammate Terpstra, a wise investment in what turned out to be a very able lieutenant. The Scheldeprijs is a race Boonen got tired of winning years ago, being exactly the kind of bunch gallop that Boonen prefers to avoid, for health reasons. The four races he won -- E3, Gent-Wevelgem, de Ronde and Roubaix -- are arguably the most elite grouping of victories in classics history.

  • Until 2010 Gent-Wevelgem occupied Holy Week Wednesday, between Flanders and Roubaix, making for a clear trinity of targets for the cobbled hardmen. Only Rik Van Looy in 1962 managed to win all three in the same year. Few riders actually tried to win all three, usually guarding their form in Gent-Wevelgem since, by mortal standards, attempting the three-wins-in-eight-days thing is a recipe for disaster. The Scheldeprijs now lies between the two monuments, and is not treated as a target by the top guys. So Boonen didn't have a chance this year to equal Van Looy's accomplishment, technically speaking at least.
  • Since 2010 E3 and Gent-Wevelgem have taken place the weekend prior to de Ronde. Three wins in three weekends is easier, theoretically, and both Boonen and Cancellara have now scored such a trio. Cancellara won E3 in 2010, making it three huge wins over a sixteen-day period. Boonen went one better by taking Gent-Wevelgem two Sundays ago, making three wins in fifteen days.
  • But Boonen won E3 too, making four wins in seventeen days. Still like Van Looy's 1962 campaign better? Well, there won't be an apples-to-apples comparison to make, but I'll go with Boonen's performance. One thing about the old setup: it may have been hard to win Gent-Wevelgem on Wednesday, but a lot of your competitors were holding back too. If Van Looy won while guarding his form for Sunday, well, he beat a bunch of guys doing the same. Boonen, meanwhile, won three times when the cream of the classics field went all in, and a fourth time on one day's rest. In terms of degree of difficulty, take your pick. Mine's 2012.
  • Switching to the other classics, there will always be an argument for what Philippe Gilbert did last season, winning Brabantse Pijl and the three Ardennes races in a period of 12 days. The races play out very differently than the cobbled classics, with fewer (saner?) variables, but Gilbert's run was historic on every level. [I know about Davide Rebellin, and he can keep his wins, but I refuse to hold a place in history for him. Also, Phil did him one better. Case closed.] it's simply too different from the cobbled classics to make an apt comparison. Gilbert's autumn run in 2009 was historic as well, winning Paris-Tours and Lombardia in a week despite the two races being so vastly different, but the fall classics are not on the same prestige level.

Bottom line: there is definitely at least one other place to look for the best classics campaign ever, so far, but that's about it.

The Career

This part is easy. There is no credible argument to make that Boonen is the greatest classics rider ever. Looking at monuments, there are three riders who won all five: Van Looy, De Vlaeminck and Merckx. Raw totals, Merckx won 19 monuments. Boonen is at 7, with no hope of winning either Liege-Bastogne Liege or Il Lombardia, and minimal appetite for Milano-Sanremo.

Similarly, there is no credible argument (based on palmares at least) that Boonen is anything less than the best cobbled classics rider ever. He owns the record for wins E3 and has tied the record for most wins in Gent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders, and Paris-Roubaix. That there is the whole shootin match. The nature of his victories makes it clear there are few if any flukes. Maybe there is a completely subjective argument out there in favor of another rider, based on the circumstances in another era, but for every claim that "they were tougher back then" I would probably counter with "they are better policed now."

This makes Boonen the Lance Armstrong of the cobblestones, at least if you have no concerns about Armstrong's career (remember, it's not that post!). By this I mean, in an era of greater specialization, Boonen has done things beyond what has ever been accomplished before. The lack of diversity to his program, at least compared to what they did back before, oh, the mid-80s, means there will always be an apples-to-oranges nature to the comparisons. But this doesn't detract from Boonen's accomplishments one bit. Look at his competition: Cancellara, Sagan, Hoste, Hincapie, Pozzato, Ballan, Gilbert, Leukemans, Flecha, Boom, Vanmarcke, O'Grady, Nuyens, Freire, Van Summeren, Hushovd, Devolder and so on. Who among these guys treated the Cobbled Classics as anything less than the focus of their winter and spring? Boonen may operate under some sort of psychological advantage of being Flemish and knowing that any strong run in April means his bills are paid for the year, but I doubt that is worth much.

This has been an extraordinary spring by any measure. Except competitiveness? Even there, just because one guy won doesn't downgrade the level of competition. Only the Tour of Flanders had a tentative nature to it, owing to the revamped course, and hopefully that was a one-time occurrence. It was a great and memorable run of races, culminating in a celebration of one of the strongest, fastest and nicest people to grace our sport in my lifetime. Chapeau!

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Photos by Patrick Verhoest for the Podium Cafe, except the middle one, which is by Fotoreporter Sirotti

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