Tom Boonen: Tornado or Strong Breeze?

Apr 15 2006

Now that Tom Boonen has completed a second incredible spring season, and is off the bike, kicking it at home in Monaco (search “holiday”), I’d like to take a moment to examine his achievements a little more closely. Currently, Tom Boonen is everything you could possibly want a World Road Race champion to be: an outgoing, friendly ambassador for the sport, a dedicated teammate, a devoted boyfriend (despite the fact that some think he’s too good (search “gurus”) for her), a respectful son to two sets (?) of parents, and just an all-around thoughtful dude. He is not, however, that great a bike racer.

There. I said it. Please don’t kill me.

Before you begin with rattling off his wins with all the self rightous fury of Dick Pound in an opium den, stop. I know how good Tom’s been. I pay lots of attention to bike racing. When I say he’s not that great, I mean just that – he’s nasty, he’s had two incredible springs, he’s one of the most dominant sprinters in the pro peloton, and right now he is best classics rider around, bar none – but he has not achieved the level of greatness many people are currently ascribing to him. From a historical standpoint, I feel like his career is lacking a certain cromulence; as 1975 Tour de France winner Bernard Thevenet once said, “Tell me who was second to you and I will tell you the value of your victory”.

So who was second to Boonen at his most recent win? Steven De Jongh, a solid spring rider, with a KBK to his name, but also Boonen’s teammate – probably not a threat to his boss’s victory. Moving down the results list, we see Gert Steegmans, a promising young rider, but lacking a big win. Then Nico Eeckhout, a middling veteran who’s won Dwars door Vlaanderen and a Stage at the Tour of Denmark; after him, Graeme Brown, better known for his riding on the boards than the cobbles. From there, we move on to Enrico Gasparotto, not a big name, although he’s the reigning Italian road champ, and by the time we get to Jens Renders, I’ve really lost interest.

For comparison, check out the minor placings from Barry Hoban’s 1974 Gent-Wevelgem win: Second – Eddy Merckx. Third – Roger DeVlaeminck (4 P-R wins). Beyond the podium, Alain Santy, a former top 10 finisher at Le Tour, took fourth. Fifth was Eric Leman, (3 Flanders wins, 2 of them back-to-back) and sixth was Freddy Maertens (2 World Titles and CycleSport’s “#1 Greatest Sprinter of All Time”). Quite a difference indeed.

Fact is, of Boonen’s currently active opponents, only one (Peter Van Petegem) has more than a single true classics victory to his name. If you include Gent-Wevelgem as a classic (which you should, I think, given its ProTour status), you can add Tom Steels to the list, despite the fact that his most recent win came when Boonen was only 19. And if you’re really reaching, you could add Mario Cipollini, Andrei Tchmil, and Johan Musseuw, since they technically raced against Tom in the spring classics. But given that Cipollini’s last Wevelgem start and Tchmil’s retirement each predate Boonen’s first classics win, and that Musseuw and Boonen were teammates, I’m hesitant to include them as classics rivals.

Of course, a common rebuttal to this is to say “Well, Lance only beat two Tour winners (Marco Pantani and Jan Ullrich). Does that mean he’s not that great, too?” Absolutely not. If Boonen wins 7 consecutive Tours of Flanders, I will retract any claim made against his greatness here. But, more to the point, I’m not just questioning Boonen’s opponents’ records at a single event; I’m questioning about their palmares at all of the cobbled classics. Examining the performance of Armstrong’s opponents in the three Grand Tours as I did the performance Boonen’s current opponents in Flanders, Wevelgem and Roubaix, you’ll find that Pantani, Ullrich, Roberto Heras (only a Lance teammate from ’01-’02), Alex Zulle, Paoli Savoldelli (didn’t become Lance’s teammate until ’05) and Gilberto Simoni each have multiple titles to their names, though each was beaten easily by Armstrong at least once at Le Tour.

Now, before I finish up, I should add that I think Boonen would show nearly the same level of dominance against a historically stronger field as he does today, and that, by the time he retires, Boonen’s tally of wins should easily put him among cycling’s all-time greats. But as things stand right now, with the current level of rider specialization, and with so many potential challengers (Pozzatto, Bettini, De Jongh, Nuyens, etc.) neutralized as teammates, the claims that Boonen is the new Merckx are entirely unfounded. Let’s not forget that a few years back, people were saying the same thing about Frank Vandenbroucke; let’s just hope things work out a little better for Tornado Tom than they did for VDB.

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9 Responses to “Tom Boonen: Tornado or Strong Breeze?”

  1. Ryan 16 April 2006 at 1:35 am #

    It’s not quite fair to say that Boonen isn’t great because his opponents are small beer: he’s crushing competitors at a rate not seen since Merckx, and we don’t know what his current competitors’ careers will look like, either.

    Boonen is defeating the best Classics riders out there, and is torching strong riders, and sometimes only losing out to teammates. As for the relative records of the other riders he’s beating, he hasn’t left enough race victories off his palmares this season for any other rider to demonstrate, as Lance’s opponents could, success in other races. This is known as the “Merckx conundrum” :).

    Basically, Boonen has done all one would hope for. Thevenet notwithstanding, Boo-boo has beaten the world’s best, repeatedly.

    One thing your post doesn’t have is a link to the kinds of Boonen-overpraising you tilt at here: could it be that this windmill is a straw man?

    (I’ve thought about that mangled metaphor in the previous para, and I’ve decided I like it.)

  2. Hincapieista 16 April 2006 at 2:18 pm #

    If you want to say that Boonen is no Merckx, that’s fine, but if you’re trying to defy the result of the last two spring seasons with a convultued analysis of past and present, its seems a bit force to say the least.

    You have to acknowledge that Boonen is doing something unusal not only in winning (dominating) the Classics, but also doing so at such a young age. And as you point out, in an era of specialization.

    There may well have been a changing of the guard when Boonen began his exploits, lowering the bar, so to speak. But if Boonen is not emerging as a dominating force of his generation — just as Merckx was — then why didn’t someone else calim the two Flanders, one Roubaix, and one World Championship title over the past 18 months?

    Boonen may pull a VDB, but it’s just as wrong to deny him his props as it is to already hail him as the next Messaiah.

  3. Cosmo 17 April 2006 at 10:49 pm #

    I’ve never been one to be swayed by the “Merckx Connundrum” – too many other riders with great careers overlap him. Luis Ocana, DeVlaeminck, Leman, just to name a few.

    And if anything, the specialization of riders makes Boonen less impressive: Francesco Moser took 3 Paris-Roubaix races in a row while competing year-round. When exactly does Boonen plan to make a run at the Giro?

    I agree that Boonen has had a very impressive past 18 months, but I’m saying he may have a little easier time of it vis-a-vis a lower level of competition. Boonen has beaten the world’s best and I’ll give him credit for that; it’s just right now, the world’s best doesn’t seem nearly good enough.

  4. Hincapieista 18 April 2006 at 12:39 pm #

    I guess its a tomayto tomahto thing with specialization. I would argue that with specialization, you’re pretty sure a significant chunk of the peloton is peaking for that race, whereas in the Merckx era, most of the bunch was competing the whole season long, so it was more of a crap shoot who was actually peaking on that day.

    Same thing for the Grand Tours — that Basso is looking to win L-B-L is a pretty significant change in departure for the orthodox practice these days, where riders set the Giro or Tour as their sole goal for the season.

    This seems to be the crux of your beef, really, that the big riders don’t compete the whole season long like they did in the Golden Era when Anquetil and Merckx ruled. Given those parameters — that is that you’re only zeroing in on a limited number of races — the palmares of even the champions will seemingly pale in comparison.

    Standing out in this context — and not being unfairly matched against earlier eras — the exploits of Zabel, Tchmil and yes, even Boonen and possibly Basso — seem more remarkable in that they were successful during multiple parts of the season.

    Looking at your updated post, it seems a bit odd that Lance gets a pass on this issue, while Boonen does not. Yes, Lance did take on the Tour — cycling’s Holy Grail. But to rephrase your challenge to Boonen, during his Tour-winning years, where was his effort at Flanders? Or Liege? Merckx never rode such a truncated season…

  5. Mark Adam 19 June 2007 at 12:20 pm #

    My friend. I believe it is safe to say that regardless of who we are talking about…Rebillin, Bettini, McEwen, Boonen…whomever-it is much harder to be an Eddy Merckx level rider nowadays. Doping and illegal drugs have an everpresent place in cycling today. It’s not a case of “who done it?” More so a case of “who’s gettin’ away with it!”

    It’s a shame. But one must take this undeniable variable into consideration nowadays, when one talks about the “best” rider on the Tour.

  6. courtenay 6 July 2008 at 2:43 pm #

    I just think hes sexy.

  7. lol 13 July 2010 at 8:38 pm #

    Boonen has won 3 Paris Roubaix’s now, against the likes of Cancellara, Flecha, Thor Hushovd, etc

    He also won the green jersey in the Tour the France and 6 stages in total. And he has bad luck in the Tour(not being allowed, stupid crash thanks to Cavendish, disease), but still managed to get 6 stages and green jersey. He could’ve had far more green jerseys already if he hadn’t so much bad luck in the Tour(of 2005 for example)

    Boonen is good, no matter what you think of him.

  8. Osteo 11 July 2011 at 5:31 am #

    I could watch Boonen ride a bike all day. Majestic; but not as much as Spartacus! He’s a legend.

  9. cyclingsky 6 September 2011 at 8:22 pm #

    Boonen has done all one would hope for. Thevenet notwithstanding, Boo-boo has beaten the world’s best, repeatedly.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

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    […] What a fantastic week to be a native Anglophone! First O’Grady takes Roubaix, then Mark Cavendish clips a whole bunch of big names to take the Scheldeprijs. I am officially putting Chris Horner on the top of my Amstel favorites list. Of course, T-Mobile hasn’t been doing poorly, either. Cavendish’s win marks their second in the past seven days as well. Maybe I should tip Patrick Sinkewitz for Amstel instead, though if I apply the formula perfectly, I’m stuck with the unlikely candidate of Michael Barry. It hasn’t, however, been a particularly good week, or even year, to be Patrick Lefevere. But, classy guy that he is, Tyrannosaurus Pat stood tall and placed the blame solely on his riders. Not Boonen, of course, who bailed on the Scheldeprijs with gimpy digestive tract, but recent acquisitions (from arch-rival Predictor-Lotto) Gert Steegmans and Peter Van Petegem, implying that recent Quick.Step departures (to non-arch rival teams) were far superior riders. Maybe he’d have better luck asking Nuyens and Pozzato to sue Het Laatste Nieuws for him, to. Returning to Tom Boonen, though, the Quick.Step captain certainly didn’t live up to his ‘05′/06 standard this spring – which is really saying something, considering he still managed to win KBK, Dwars door Vlaanderen and the E3 Prijs. But on the big days, Flanders, Roubaix, and to a lesser extent, San Remo, he never had the breakaway power of old – and I wasn’t the only one to notice it. While this brief interregnum has allowed for some younger riders to come to the fore (Burghardt, Ballan) what’s interesting is that no one rider stepped up into the power vacuum. For all his back problems, intestinal issues and back luck, Boonen was still the winningest rider over the pave this year, and in the long run, that end up hurt his legacy. […]

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