A fond farewell to Tom Boonen

Yesterday was Tom Boonen‘s last professional cycling race. For me, it’s the end of an era. Tom won the first race I ever watched and I’m going to have to come clean that my first thought was “Now there’s a guy that looks good in lycra!” My beloved blames him for my obsession with cycling but it’s not entirely Tom’s fault as, even though he’s now retired, the obsession continues.

So let’s have a dawdle down memory lane and look at some of the many highlights of his career, starting with a video including that  win on stage 6 in 2004’s Tour de France.

The following year, 2005 was Tom’s annus mirabilis, when he won Flemish hearts and minds with victories in the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and the UCI Road World Championships in Madrid, among others. Tom had arrived, he was the biggest thing in cycling and most certainly the biggest star in Belgium.

After this magical season, many in Belgium worried that Tom would go the way of former Belgian cycling colossi such as Freddie Maertens or Frank Vandenbroucke. Tom did have career lows on and off the road, but let’s not dwell on those. They’re well-documented and safely in the past. Instead lets focus on the affection he engendered among the fans, the press, the peloton and especially his team-mates. He’s been a one-team rider his entire career, after an early, ill-fated flirtation with Lance Armstrong’s United Postal Service, where he’s been cannily managed by General Manager Patrick Lefevere who here talks about Tom’s career.

Now we turn to those who have had the pleasure of riding with Tom, as current and former team-mates talk fondly about him in these series of videos.

One of the riders who probably knows Tom best is Kevin Hulsmans. They rode together for over 10 years. Here’s what Kevin had to say.

But Tom doesn’t just inspire respect among his team-mates, he’s also held in high regard by his peers. As reported by Velonews, less than 48 hours before the start of the “Hell of the North,” there was universal agreement in the peloton. If they couldn’t win Roubaix, they wouldn’t mind seeing Boonen take the history-making fifth cobble. Two-time world champion Peter Sagan told Het Niewwsblad he would like to see Boonen win his final race if he’s not in winning position himself because:

Boonen was my role model and idol. When I first raced Roubaix, I had no idea how to race the pave. I watched him and learned. If I cannot win, I will be very happy if he could. It would be a great end to his career.

Specialized made Tom a special bike with a fitting tribute for his final race, but sadly he didn’t get his fairytale ending. Someone else won.

In a pre-race interview Tom said he was sure to be sad today largely as a result of a hangover! But whatever the future brings, I wish him health, happiness and more successes.

Now where did I put that box of paper tissues?

Header image: Trophy from the friends of Arenberg from Nord Eclair

Unknown soldiers

I’m writing this on the train trip back from a marvellous week end in Roubaix with truly magnificent weather for the spectators of 109th
running of Paris-Roubaix, one of the oldest events on the cycling calendar. But allow me to rewind. We arrived on Friday evening and settled into our charming, bijou B&B, much lauded (and rightly so) on the internet. I had made the booking back in January and had elected to stay close to the race finish in anticipation of the usual adverse weather conditions.

Friday evening we strolled into Roubaix in search of dinner. The Town Hall, churches and numerous grand Art Deco houses told a tale of more
prosperous times. Indeed, at the start of the Industrial Revolution, the axis of Lille-Roubaix-Tourcoing represented the world’s second most important place for wool production. Occupied twice by the Germans and blighted by the slump in the 1930s and competition from the Far East for cheaper textiles in the 1950s and 60s, Roubaix had fallen on hard times.

It’s now a town in transition. The Neptune inspired municipal baths have been reborn as an art gallery. Inward investment through far-sighted political partnership with local businesses has increased employment opportunities for the largely immigrant population in call centres and shopping outlets. Attracted by the grand housing stock, families have moved out of Lille and embarked on massive renovation projects. However, the terraced houses and semi-commercial properties leading to the Roubaix velodrome still speak of poverty, despair and decay.

Back to dinner, which we ate in a restaurant in the town square, where the food was surprisingly excellent. I wouldn’t call Roubaix a one-restaurant town but we weren’t exactly spoiled for choice. Saturday, we hopped onto the tram to Lille and renewed our acquaintance with that town. This had been a regular overnight stop on our many skiing trips to Switzerland and Austria. We would stay in the Hotel Carlton and eat in the restaurant opposite. Both were still there but Lille too has been the subject of significant renovation and pedestrianisation.

Sunday morning, dawned fair and unseasonably warm. After an excellent breakfast, we walked to the velodrome and found a spot within sight of the big screen, giving us a clear view of the track with easy access to toilets and refreshments: perfect. Television coverage started just before 13h, and, as expected, there was a group of escapees. The pace was high largely, one assumes, because of the fine weather. It was reminiscent of 2007, when Stuart O’Grady won, with clouds of dust billowing around the riders.

Our first taste of live racing was the arrival, just over an hour later, of junior Paris-Roubaix raced on a similar, albeit shorter, terrain. It was won by a local French boy (Florian Sénéchal) who, having attacked in the Carrefour de l’Arbre, arrived on his own into the velodrome to finish arms aloft across the line. A second French boy (Alexis Gougeard) won the sprint out of the chasing group to finish 2nd ahead of a Dutch boy. All the finishers were covered in dust and many bore the scars of skirmishes with the pave.

A collective groan echoed around the stadium as over on the big screen Tom Boonen (QuickStep) was seen stranded at the roadside with a puncture seemingly waiting forever for his team car to reach him. Finally, he got going again only to be felled moments later. He was down and out. Meanwhile, further up the road three of the favourites were making their move. Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek), Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervelo) and Alessandro Ballan (BMC) were within 25 secs of those still up the road: Manuel Quinziato (BMC), Baden Cooke (SaxoBank), Juergen Roelands Omega Pharma-Lotto), Lars Bak(HTC-High Road) and Johan Vansummeren (Garmin-Cervelo). However, neither Ballan nor Hushovd, with team mates up the road, were willing to share the workload.

In the Carrefour de l’Arbre, Vansummeren made the decisive move, leaving behind his companions, time-trialling to the finish and entering

The winner Paris-Roubaix 2011

the velodrome ahead of the pursuing pack which by now included Cancellara, who sprinted to finish 2nd. Martin Tjalingii (Rabobank), one of the original escapees, completed the podium. The winner celebrated by asking his long-term girlfriend to marry him. Over half the peloton finished, everyone was covered in a thick layer of dirt and, like the youngsters, many bore the scars of their encounters with the terrain.

So far the major Spring Classics have sprung a few surprises with the so-called favourites losing out to less fancied team mates but who have nonetheless clearly merited their wins on the basis of “he who dares”. Fabian has been undeniably the most consistent but his team needs to be reinforced; he cannot be expected to win on his own. Quickstep was beset with a whole season’s bad luck on Sunday with an excessive number of punctures, falls and broken bikes. Not exactly the best advertisement for Eddie’s bikes. Sun burned, but happy, we made our way back to the B&B to freshen up before heading into Lille for dinner.

Gripping stuff

My beloved left for yesterday’s pointage in the early morning fog. I rolled over for another hour’s sleep. Eschewing the ride up Ste Agnes to see one of my favourite one day races, the Tour of Flanders, where Belgian television coverage was starting at midday. I settled for a run along the sea front, followed by a quick coffee and collected the Sunday newspapers. Back home I prepared lunch before settling in for a marathon viewing session.

No where and no one is more passionate about cycling than Belgium and the Belgians. And this is their race,  their day in the sun. They line every kilometer of the course, standing over 10 deep on the bergs, quaffing beer and consuming their beloved frites with mayo. The sun was indeed shining, it wasn’t overly windy, near perfect riding conditions.

Rabid fans (picture courtesy of Getty Images)

The parcours starts in the beautiful city of Bruges and zigzags 258km to Meerbeke over 18 steep, sharp climbs and 26 sections of cobbles. The climbs come thick and fast after 70km of flat. If one can refer to cobbles as flat. The cobbles are smaller and more regular than those in Paris-Roubaix but, as the riders traverse them, their upper arms judder as if they’re undergoing some form of electric shock therapy.

The race is largely held on dirty, narrow farm roads which wind through the villages en route. To be in contention you need to remain vigilant and towards the front of the peloton. The slightly-built Spaniards from Euskaltel-Euskadi and Moviestar who would, no doubt, prefer to be riding in the Basque country, but they got the short straw, cling to the back of the peloton, grateful for assistance on the climbs from the beefier Belgian spectators, wondering when they’ll be able to climb off their bikes.

One innovation this year was cameras in four of the team cars (Quickstep, Omega Pharma-Lotto, Garmin Cervelo and SaxoBank Sungard). From time to time, you  could hear the instructions being barked to the riders, although you might not have understood what was being said in every instance, unless you understood Flemish.

Given the opportunity, I could happily watch every minute of this race from start to finish.  As television coverage commenced, there was a group of 5 riders out in front who were being gradually hauled back in. The second group of 18 riders on the road contained a lot of team leaders’ wingmen sparing their teams the effort of chasing them down. Although the pace was pretty frenetic with teams trying to keep their protected riders at the front of the pack, and out of harm’s way.

The main peloton splintered with a number of riders losing contact and there were plenty of spills but, thankfully, none looked to be serious. The group of 18 was hauled back in and the chasing pack now consisted entirely of favourites with their key riders. With 86km to go Sylvain Chavanel (Quickstep) takes off on the Ould Kwaremont, hotly pursued by Simon Clarke of Astana. With 79km remaining they bridge up to the lead group, initially giving it fresh impetus, but ultimately leaving it behind.

Meanwhile, behind them on the Taaienberg, Boonen (Quickstep), Flecha (Sky) and Van Avermaert (BMC) are forcing the pace. Others, such as Edvald Boassen Hagen (Sky) and Lars Boom (Rabobank) have pinged off the front, followed by Van Avermaert, Guesdon (FDJ), Hayman (Sky) and Leezer (Rabobank). Among the favourites, everyone seems to be waiting for Cancellara to make his move.

Up front on the Molenberg, Chavanel is now on his lonesome at the head of affairs with 44km to the finish, the gap back to the peloton is 55 seconds. Finally, unable to wait any longer Thor Hushovd (Garmin Cervelo), resplendent in his rainbow jersey, heads to the front of the bunch quickly followed and then overtaken by Tom Boonen (Quickstep) and his  shadow aka Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) and  Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek).

Fabian goes into TT mode and rides away, the others start looking at one another waiting to see who’ll chase. Too late, he’s gone and swiftly heading for Chavanel. Wilfred Peeters tells Chavanel to stick on Fabian’s wheel as he goes past and to do no work. He does as he’s told. The bunch don’t seem to be making much of an inroad into the gap back to Chavanel and Cancellara, they need to get themselves organised. Back to the team cars, Peeters is telling Leopard Trek’s DS that Chavanel is unfortunately too tired to contribute.  Over at Garmin Cervelo, Jonathan Vaughters is telling his troops to do no work at all, just sit in and sprint for 3rd.

Finally, the bunch gets themselves organised and they catch  Chavanel and Cancellara on the iconic Muur, just 15km to the finish and the favourites are all back together again.  Phil Gil (Omega Pharma-Lotto) makes his trade mark attack on the last climb, the Bosberg, but is soon caught by Cancellara, Ballan (BMC), Leukemans (Vacansoleil), Chavanel and Schierlinckx (Veranda Willems).  Flecha (Sky), Nuyens (Saxobank Sungard), Hincapie (BMC), Boonen, Langeveld (Rabobank) and Thomas (Sky) join them. Ballan puts in a dig, Phil Gil follows. The attacks are coming thick and fast as riders chase one another down. With 4km left, Langeveld attacks,  a 3-man group of Cancellara, Chavanel and Nuyens follows and stays clear to contest the sprint finish which is won by the fresher man. The Belgians have a Belgian winner, Nick Nuyens, who rode a very intelligent race. Cancellara didn’t get back-to-back victories, but Bjarne Riis did.

The winners (photo courtesy of Getty images)

Vuelta Ciclista al Pays Vasco Postscript: There is something enormously satisfying in watching the professional peloton suffer on roads on which you too have suffered. The finishing line for today’s 151.2km stage around Zumarraga was just 3km from the top of the rather brutal Alto de la Antigua. Some of those boys got off and walked up. I knew just how they felt. Purito held off Sammy’s (too?) late charge for the line to take the leader’s jersey.

Heavenly feeling

The weather the past few days has been gloriously sunny, albeit cold. I’ve been out every day, generally around lunchtime, diligently following the training plan. I’ll shortly  have been trained by my coach for twelve whole months. I’m going to continue as I feel it’s been money well spent. My technique has improved, I’m feeling more confident on the bike, I’m riding faster and further, climbing better and I’ve lost more weight. I’m definitely heading in the right direction.

Yesterday, I had another puncture. My second in four days but only my fourth in four year’s of cycling.  You may recall I had both the tyre and inner tube replaced on Saturday. I hit a pothole (unfortunately) while riding (fortunately) with some clubmates. I hit the hole heavily with my front tyre, but it was the rear one which rapidly deflated. Quick as a flash my team mates dismounted and within a couple of minutes, they had rectified the problem. Thanks boys!

I spent last week putting the final touches to the brochure for our annual cycling event, La Laurentine Andrei Kivilev, this week I’m translating it into a number of other languages, ready to disseminate far and wide. I’m also finalising plans for my 2011 Cycling Trips.

I may well be making an appearance at all three Grand Tours this year, although the trip to the Giro, because of its timing, just before the Kivilev, is always the one most likely to be cancelled. I booked our trip to watch the Tour in the Alps the same day ASO announced the route, but the others have been coming together more slowly.

For instance, as soon as I learned, a week or so ago, that the Vuelta would be visiting Bilbao, I immediately located and booked a  bijou hotel. Getting to Bilbao by plane involves a change in Barcelona, so I may well go either by car or train which will make taking the bike much easier.  It’ll also mean I can bring back plenty of Basque goodies: edibles, not riders clad in orange jerseys. There’s a thought. How many Euskatel riders could you cram into a Smart?

It was only when I received, somewhat belatedly, my Xmas card from Bert that I realised, if he could get to the next World Championships in Copenhagen from Auckland, I really needed to be there too. At his age, he’s unlikely to be around for too many more. He’s currently two short of seventy-five. I’m sure he’ll make it. Hotel and flight have now been booked. I have finally arranged the much-vaunted trip to go and watch Paris-Roubaix. I can easily get to Lille on the train and have found a delightful, quirky hotel in Roubaix. Not wishing to risk either of my beloved BMCs on the cobbles, I may travel “sans velo”.

There’s less urgency over planning and booking trips to watch either the Dauphine or the Tour of Switzerland. I’ve never had any problem sourcing last-minute accommodation for either of them. Of course, I’ll also be watching those races close to home such as Tour of the Med and Paris-Nice. Sadly, events beyond my control have interfered with me viewing the Tour of Haut Var (younger sister’s wedding) and Milan-San Remo (club sponsor’s daytime 60th birthday party). I’m also planning  to support our club’s junior and espoir teams when they start racing at the end of next month.

I shall of course be making my annual pilgrimage to Mont Ventoux, this time in early June. I plan to cycle around the Italian lakes in early April when attending the Grand Opening of my Swiss friend’s new bike shop. I foresee heavily discounted  bike bling heading my way.

Differing fortunes

On the one hand, it’s been a disappointing week end. I’ll start with the football. My beloved boys in claret and blue lost 3-0 to Chelsea at Wembley in the FA Cup semi-final. Having played well in the first half, they were unfortunate not to be awarded a penalty and Chelsea were fortunate that the referee only gave Terry a yellow card for his tackle on Milner. Sadly, the higher you are up the league, the more often decisions go in your favour, or are bottled by the referee. Having lost, we were hoping that Spurs would beat Portsmouth in the other semi-final. The runners-up (or the winners, if they beat Chelsea) in the FA Cup will get a place in the Europa Cup. Spurs are ahead of us in the League, therefore, if we were to finish 7th (worst case, and sadly, most likely scenario), Spurs having already secured a cup spot, we too would get a place in the Europa Cup. Now, that too may be out of our reach.

As expected, OGCN lost 4-1 away at Marseille who are currently leading the French championship. Nice have nothing to play for having already secured enough points to avoid relegation.

Fabian Cancellara has been sandbagging this week, and we all fell for it. Today, in Paris-Roubaix, he waited for the right moment to catch Boonen unawares, opened the throttle and cruised away from the other favourites. Game over, again. He is a truly magnificent rider and we’re all left wondering what else he’ll achieve this year, next and in the coming years: anything’s possible. The Belgian cobbled classics and semi-classics have all been won this year by riders hailing from outside Belgium. Prediction: a collective weeping and a wailing in Flanders.

That man in orange, Sammy Sanchez won the Klasica Primavera, ahead of team mate Igor Anton and Frank Schleck. He’s obviously coming into form for the forthcoming Ardennes Classics.

Depart fictif grand parcours

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. I bettered my time in La Charly Berard and really felt that I went as fast as I could. Mind you, I nearly had a disastrous start when another rider fell against me in the first 100 metres and knocked me off the bike. Of course, he wasn’t one of the 60kg wet Frenchman but a great hulking brute who easily weighted over 100kg.

I started feeling somewhat winded, understandably, and as anticipated the field rode away from me leaving me on my lonesome, as usual. Apart from the Broom Wagon, which was obviously keen to drum up some custom and persisted in trying to knock me off my bike. I managed to evade it, but only just. The course differed slightly from last year, so it’s not easy to make direct comparisons. Other than to say my time to Contes was 17 minutes quicker than last year, despite the howling headwind. This was particularly tough on the final 10km back to Nice.

I rode back with a couple of other guys who were impressed that I could keep up with them in the wind. I took my turn on the front and then sprinted past them to the finish line where I was greeted by the chap who was 2nd on the longer parcours. He’s been riding a similar length of time to me and is a very talented (much younger) local rider.

However, there was no time to lose. I wanted to get back home before it started to rain and before I’d missed too much of Paris-Roubaix. So eschewing the roses (female competitors only) and the meal (pasta salad), we headed back home where I had a hot date with the fleecy track suit, and the sofa.

I see from the results listed in today’s paper that I was first in my age group. I wonder if someone from the club picked up my trophy? Far fewer women took part this year. Indeed, there were just 5 who undertook the short parcours. The quickest (and youngest) was 40 minutes faster than me, so there’s plenty of room for improvement.

Piling on the pressure

Left behind.............

Patrick Lefevre, boss of the Quick Step Team, is clearly not a happy bunny. How do we know this? Well, he’s been lambasting the team in the press for their lack of results. Yes, thus far in the cobbled classics and semi-classics, Quick Step have pulled an Omega Pharma Lotto – no wins. To be fair, Lefevre has not mentioned names, thereby giving the press plenty of scope to speculate as to which riders his ire is directed.

Frankly, I’m not sure of the wisdom of this strategy. In my view if you’re annoyed with someone. Talk to them one-on-one and try to get to the bottom of the issue. Be firm, fair and supportive. Cycling’s a team sport and everyone needs to understand what’s expected of them and what they need to do to achieve success for themselves, and the team. Never forget, riders are individuals and need to be treated as such. What motivates one, may have the opposite effect on another. Good managers can indeed turn what we think are sows’ ears into silk purses. But generally, they’re only sows’ ears because former managers haven’t determined how to get the best out of them.

Recognise that management has both responsibility and accountability for the team’s results. Take a holistic approach. Try and identify what isn’t working and why. Keep trying to find those areas where you can make marginal gains, or limit marginal losses. At the same time, don’t forget to reassure both sponsors and supporters that you’re doing everything you can. At the end of the day, all you can ask is that someone gives of their best. If they’ve done that, but still haven’t won, you can’t criticise them, especially not in the press.

Furthermore, when talking to the press put a positive spin on things. Say the team’s focus has shifted to performing throughout the season, not just for a couple of weeks of the year. I appreciate that winning is what counts but draw comfort from the overall results. Boonen’s riding well but he’s been up against a rider on fire at the moment, Fabian Cancellara. Maybe that fire’s been extinguished by his win in Flanders. Even if it has, there are plenty of others vying for a win this Sunday.

Tom’s going to be up against it and heaping further pressure on him may not help you, him or the team. But it might just help his opponents. As Tom himself said, he is the most consistent rider at the moment; with three 2nd places in as many weeks. Well, if things do go in “three’s”, let’s hope he makes it three in a row this Sunday.

Truly fabulous

44km to go and Cancellara launches a dig on the Limburg, Tommeke goes too and they distance the leading pack. Millar tries to bridge, but doesn’t, and is joined by Gilbert and Leukemans, who subsequently drop Millar. Cancellara looks to be riding more smoothly and more easily than Tom and is definitely doing longer turns on the front.

As correctly (for once) predicted by the commentators, Fabulous Fabian pedals away from Tom on the Muur – better gear selection, better legs. In next to no time, he’s 300 metres ahead and time-trialling to victory. Tom’s gritting his teeth but he knows, it’s game over. He’s going to be second again, not a place he enjoys but today there is no shame is losing to Spartacus. Maybe, he’ll get his revenge next week end at Paris-Roubaix. Gilbert, completes the podium. What a thrilling race!

Flanders podium

The weather in Belgium was better than anticipated. Here too the forecast storm never materialised. However, having already completed my week’s programmed road miles, and having overslept this morning, I settled for some one-legged intervals on the home trainer. My legs are tired, not exactly a build up of lactic acid, more generally muscle fatigue. But I’ll be raring to go tomorrow.

Moral victory

Just look who turned up to take part in Sunday’s Gentleman and show us all exactly how it’s done. Afterwards, she kindly handed out the cups to the winners, signed autographs and posed for endless photographs. Despite the urging of my clubmates, I wisely declined to have my photograph taken with a woman who weights 43kg – maybe, next year.

Tough competition

My girlfriend and I were the fastest (and only) all female team. While, the organisers are quite happy to have all male single category teams, this generosity is not extended to the fairer sex. Discrimination? Absolutely! Accordingly, we were lumped in with the mixed pairs where we were a very respectable 2nd (not last) in the over 40s.

In hot pursuit

Not content with riding the short course with my girlfriend, I also decided to ride the longer course with my beloved. I had a pretty quick turn around; with just enough time to change my numbers between races. Sadly, I finished (like last year) with the wooden spoon. However, I had closed the gap quite considerably on my nearest rivals (a couple of very spritely over 65s) but was still some way down on Jeannie and her husband. After the inevitable apero, it was back home to relax on the sofa and watch some real racing.

This week end there’s been a veritable smorgasbord of cycling on the TV. Indeed, it’s been difficult choosing what to watch, such has been the choice. In the end I plumped for the “Clash of the Titans” (ie Bert v Lance) in the Criterium International (aka Jens Voigt Invitational) and the World Track Cycling Championships.

The Press had speculated that Bert had changed his programme to gain some sort of psychological advantage over Lance ahead of the Tour. However, I’m wondering whether it wasn’t a case of ASO flexing its muscles and demanding the presence of two riders guaranteed to generate sufficient revenues from the Criterium’s inaugural television coverage. Just call me a cynic.

While neither Contador nor Lance won, both of their teams demonstrated their respective strengths. Individual stages were won respectively by Pierrick Fedrigo of Bbox Bouygues Telecom (who held on to win overall), Russell Downing of Sky and David Millar of Garmin Transitions. However, the question I’m left pondering is this. Now that Vinokourov has ridden in an ASO event is it more likely that he’ll be allowed to ride the Tour in support of Contador? I for one certainly hope so.

Meanwhile, Australia bossed GB on the track. There were excellent performances by some of the younger riders: most notably, Cameron Meyer and Taylor Phinney. However, Sir Chris Hoy and Queen Victoria Pendleton still picked up gold medals.

Over in Belgium, Saxo Bank continued their recent good vein of form yesterday with Spartacus peddling away from Tommeke in the final kilometer of E3 Prijs Vlaanderen-Harelbeke. Today, in Gent Wevelgem, Bernard Eisel, Mark Cavendish’s fairy god-mother, won the sprint finish from a break away group. I can hardly wait for next week’s Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Finally, Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) justified his move away from Caisse d’Epargne by picking up the overall at Volta a Catalunya. He was joined on the podium by Xavier Tondo (Cervelo) and Rein Taaramae (local boy, local to me that is) of Cofidis. So that means HTC-Columbia and Cofidis are still on level pegging, with 12 wins apiece.