On the five-year anniversary of his last professional bike race — Paris-Roubaix on April 9, 2017— I find myself sitting at a large wooden table across from Classics legend Tom Boonen. I don’t think either of us were aware of this momentous coincidence at the time. The 2022 edition of Paris-Roubaix wouldn’t be happening till the following week after all.
We said hi, made small-talk and exchanged digits to meet up for a proper chat later on at the weekend. When that time came, we wandered the sandy and wind-swept venue in search of a modicum of quiet.
Along the way, we conversed easily. He in Flemish, me in Dutch. We chatted about recent bike races we’d both watched and shared our mutual fondness for handmade steel bikes and old motorcycles. He stopped to show me photos of his blonde twin 'princesses’ on his phone. I showed him the 1982 Honda Twinstar I converted into a cafe racer during the pandemic.
Not once did we get interrupted by a fan.
I’m sure that if this meeting had taken place in Belgium, things would have certainly gone differently. But Tom seemed to prefer it this way. Throughout the four expo days, he gave his time generously to everyone. Even to a group of amateur mountain bikers who’d been helping themselves liberally to the free beer on offer at the various booths, and belligerently shouted at Tom to come take their group photo. They had no idea who he was but Tom, de Bom van Balen, patiently performed the request. Ok, ready? smiiile!
No diva behavior here.
At 41, the Tom Boonen sitting in front of me with his stubble beard and eyes hidden behind dark aviators still looks fit as a fiddle and devilishly handsome. His second career as a race car driver suits him. Leaning on the table, Tom, as well as the smiley tattoo on his forearm, smiles back at me.
“Do you know New Beat?” he asks. “It was the beginning of all the electronic dance music in Belgium. New Beat had a smiley as its symbol and every 16-year-old put that smiley on their jean jacket.” It was also the symbol of XTC pills, but I decide to not veer into the drug talk.
Other ink on Tom’s body depicts his old Porsche Turbo, a heart shaped from two small hands to represent his twin daughters, and ‘Choose Life’, the iconic words of the 1996 film Trainspotting. The film opens with a monologue by its protagonist, heroin-addict Mark Renton, played by Ewan McGregor. “Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television,” Renton begins. The monologue finishes with the words, “Choose your future. Choose life. But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose something else.”
For Tom, this tattoo is his carpe diem.
“For me, it means that every morning when I wake up I can choose to be happy or choose to not be happy. So I choose life. Very simple. Very dry,” he says. “There’s no reason to walk around in a foul mood.”
From where I’m sitting I see ink references to cars, family, life but not one that’s cycling related. Where does cycling stand in his day-to-day life? Despite talks of a comeback in 2019, has that flame waned?
“My children come before anything, of course, but the bike? Well… cars rank much higher than the bike at the moment,” the four-time Paris-Roubaix winner says.
In fact, he hadn’t biked for some four months prior to coming to the Sea Otter Classic in April, where he was asked to partake in a publicity ride.
“I do still love the sport. And the bike itself especially. I had a very nice steel bike made when I quit, and I love it very much but, in a way, cycling has passed me by. The best of my cycling days are over. I never feel as good as I once felt,” he shares.
“You just feel that decline. Aging feels harshest on the bike. I no longer have the ambition to spend 20-25 hours on my bike every week. I know a lot of ex-pros do ride that much. And I get it but for me, at moment, no…Maybe it'll come back.”
The former world champion still likes to push his body, however. He runs three times a week, and was proud to break the 45-minute mark for a 10K. He also does high intensity circuit training to help him in the race car.
“The circuit training is a super good influence on my body, and the physical preparedness determines your mental freshness. [Car racing] takes so much mental readiness that you just have to be good physically,” Tom explains. “The more you struggle physically, the more it will take a mental toll.”
Tom Boonen, the professional race car driver
Tom has always loved cars, and his foray into motorsports was planned. He made his debut at the VW Fun Cup at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in July 2017, just three months after ending his cycling career. He made his full-season racing debut that next year in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series for Braxx Racing in the Elite 2 class. He has since gone on to race in the Belcar series, the Supercar Challenge and Carrera Cup. The dream? Le Mans.
“You know, when I raced my first race about five years ago now, I was genuinely scared. I hadn't been scared for years. I had palpitations, I…I really felt alive again. The start of a race is pure adrenaline,” he says, while flexing his arms in front of him in a short burst of energy.
“I'm now at a level where this is finally starting to get a little more comfortable. You get to know yourself anew. You race against yourself. You don't race against the rest. I am the weak link in the car. That car can do what it can, and I am the one making the mistakes and I like that [challenge] so very much.”
We’ve now broached the topic of car racing, and Tom’s face has completely lit up. The youthful exuberance, the joy, the energy radiating off him…it belies his age and he looks like a kid in love. Here’s a four-time winner of Paris-Roubaix, three-time Tour of Flanders victor, a former rainbow jersey wearer with six stages of the Tour de France to his name and a green jersey still hangs in the hallway of his home. He’s arguably the greatest one-day rider of his generation, yet somehow that seems like a past lifetime now. This man in front of me looks like he’s living his absolute best life. I don’t think I’ve seen him happier and more fulfilled.
When I point this out to him, his smile gets even bigger. “I drove on Friday before flying out, so I’m happy,” he shrugs.
Perhaps this love for his second sporting career comes from the fact that it’s still new to him, and doesn’t make him feel his age the way cycling does.
“The nice thing about motorsport, as I have noticed in myself, is that you can get better at it for a long time. It's really technical and I'm only now just getting a little good at it,” Tom explains. “It’s about learning to get the most out of the car, to respect the tires, optimizing the settings, and it’s really a feel sport. People always think of the extreme speeds and danger of it, but it’s actually more like balancing on a tightrope. Even the smallest input can make all the difference. The smarter and calmer you become, the better you get. And as I get older I only get calmer.”
Tom is still a keen cycling fan and can frequently be found on the sidelines of big races. He was there, for example, to witness Tadej Pogačar’s incredible ascents on the Oude Kwaremont in the last edition of Flanders. “That second time up…I’ve never seen anything like it,” Tom says.
“Modern cycling is such a joy to watch. Tour winners who come to ride in the Classics, all-rounders who will race anywhere and are good everywhere. I used to think that the hyper-specialization [in the sport] was only going to get worse, but that's not the case at all. Those guys are showing us that we were doing it all wrong. I really like it, and I wish I was racing now.”
Could he keep up? Say he had the fitness from that fruitful Classic season of 2012, could he give Mathieu van der Poel or Wout van Aert some competition?
“Don’t know. I want to say yes. I should say yes. Maybe?” he questions. “I think a lot has changed. I would have loved to do it all in the past, but it was always met with a 'no, that's not possible. We need to be even more specialized.’ I think we ended up racing too many races where we couldn't really do anything because we were tired, and we were there against our will. We should have just raced a lot less and target races with full enthusiasm. We didn't know any better then. It was just another time.”
Tom points out that nowadays, riders train more but race less. As a result they arrive fresher and better prepared, both physically and mentally. Equipment and technology also play a big part in elevating the sport to the high level it is today.
“Bikes, helmets, apparel — everything is getting faster and faster. Everyone is expertly prepared when they get to the start, and the whole peloton is doing it so the whole level of the sport goes up. And then you’ve got these super talents,” Tom says.
Superhuman talents or just young, ambitious and well-equipped?
“I really do think that 99.99 per cent of these riders deliberately do not take doping,” Tom says without shying away from my blatant innuendo. “I think there was a very big switch in doping between 2000 and 2010. Yes, it took a long time before everyone was on board and before it was really out of the peloton, but I don't believe that there is still massive false play or that teams are still consciously doing shady things. Definitely not.”
Tom reveals to me that he’s a big MvdP fan, and instead of fearing that his impressive Classics tally may be belittled, he looks forward to welcoming the multitalented Dutch superstar to his ranks.
“I’ll be there cheering,” he says. “I love watching him do his thing. I think Wout is a great rider also but with him everything is more measured, balanced and planned. More robotic. With Mathieu, you can just see how much fun he's having. I like that. And he also has other things in his life outside of racing. That should serve as an example for the youth: Do what you have to do to be good at what you love to do, but don’t make it your all. There should be room to breathe as well.”
So will Van der Poel meet or even best his Classics tally?
“If you enter a race, you can win,” Tom states plainly. “Mathieu has yet to start winning Paris-Roubaix, but he has now won Tour of Flanders twice. He could win it five or six times, absolutely, but it is also possible that he will never win again. I do think that Mathieu is in a different situation than I was. He is the only leader in a very good team, while with us we always started with two or three candidates. It’s not always about a rider’s ability or capability so much as it has to do with team structure, I think. Could he do it? Absolutely. Will he? We'll see. Anything can happen; it's still cycling.”
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