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An Ode to the Champion

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The Rainbow Jersey has covered the shoulders of some unlikely figures in recent years, nobodies like Romans Vainsteins or enigmatic figures like Oscar Freire, Igor Astarloa. By the time Freire won a third time, only to recede again into the background with nasty boils on his ass, the wags were talking about the "curse of the rainbow jersey."

Tom Boonen has laid all that to rest.

Since his reign is all but likely to officially end on Sunday, fans like us should take note -- or if you care to, pay tribute -- to a true world champion.

He's been a charter member of the U27 project since well before it or this site existed, breaking out quietly in 2004 and loudly in 2005 before putting on the jersey. As a 23-year-old in his second season with Quick Step, he won the E3 Prijs, Gent-Wevelgem, Scheldeprijs, two Tour stages, and 19 other events. Last year, his win total dropped to a mere 20, but the quality was through the roof, including the magical Ronde van Vlaanderen - Paris-Roubaix double, stages of the Belgian, German and French tours... and the world title.

Once he put on his new wardrobe, he couldn't lose... for a while. He won his first race in Curacao, then almost every day in Qatar to start 2006. He exulted over a teammate's win in Milan-San Remo, then won the E3 Prijs (again) and essentially owned the Ronde, accomplishing a Flandrian's dream of winning the ultimate race in a champion's cloak. Up to then, he seemed to win just about every race he tried to win.

From there things became more... complicated. The railroad crossing gate didn't defeat Boonen at Paris-Roubaix (Cancellara had already done that), but it did function as a symbol of his fortunes, as the exhaustion of fame and non-stop greatness caught up to him. He disappeared for a while, and when he returned for the summer tours, he never really got back on top. All eyes were on him at the Tour, but the stage sprints didn't really suit him the way a classic event did. Some said it was the lower speed, where smaller men could beat him with short bursts that aren't possible at the end of a Belgian hammerfest. Others claimed he was off-balance, or mistiming/misreading his jumps. Personally, I think he's been tired for a long time. He is human, and at age 26 he's really just gotten started.

On his website he recently wrote "It will really hurt when I have to pass on that jersey to someone else in Salzburg, which is why I will fight for what I'm worth. And that's a lot. I'll see to it that I'm at the height of my powers and will be distracted by no one." Not a bad epitaph on his championship year, one in which he rode with the class of a true world champion.