KING OF THE COBBLES

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A day later I am still impressed by the display of physical and mental toughness that Tom Boonen treated us to at Paris-Roubaix.

Going into the race as the clear favourite we knew we’d see the Belgian make a bid for victory but never imagined the winning move would be made alone, nearly 60km from the finish.

Boonen’s form was widely recognized. Seven days earlier he won a 3-up sprint to take the Tour of Flanders and earlier in the month won the sprint to take E3 Harelbeke. A cobbled triple was forseeable but nobody knew just how perfectly Boonen has timed his form on Easter morning when the peleton rolled out of Compiegne.

Up until the start Boonen had made no secret of his confidence and even sounded like he was talking smack. Come the cobbled sector at Orchies, Tornado Tom let his legs do the talking.

Paris-Roubaix 2012 started out in typical fashion with the early “suicide break” forming at 70km. The group of twelve didn’t contain any true contenders but Canada’s David Veilleux (Europcar) was riding strong at the front so as a Canadian, I had something to keep me interested until the real racing began.

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As always the Arenberg Trench played it’s role in the race and the early break of 12 was whittled down when a particularly nasty crash sent riders to the ground and one to hospital.

A minute and a half or so after the breakaway left Arenberg, Boonen first displayed the form he’d brought to Paris-Roubaix by leading the peleton through the forest with an incredible head of steam. It was in the Arenberg that Boonen asserted himself as the strongman in the peleton and that if you were going to beat him on the day you’d better start attacking.

So they did. Soon after exiting the trench a 6 man group that included Ballan, Flecha and a very scrappy Turgot who would be attacking until the final meters on the day. Boonen’s Omega-Pharma Quikstep team chased down the break and countered with French national Champion Sylvain Chavanel taking along Turbot (again) in an ill fated attempt cursed with mechanicals and a lack of converted effort.

After the race Boonen had expressed frustration noting that nobody really wanted to work so at Orchies and with team mate Nicki Terpstra to help, Boonen decided to make his move with nearly 60km to go to the Roubaix velodrome.

Flecha and Ballan didn’t take up the chase because well, who attacks with 60km to go when there are still horrible sectors of cobbles like Carrefour de lArbre to traverse?

Boonen gave his answer as soon as he attacked. Terpstra, riding with Boonen to help him grow a gap before letting him loose couldn’t hold Tornado Tom’s wheel less than 2kms into their attack so exiting Orchies it was going to have to be all Boonen.

Following the race live in several languages and on Twitter as well I heard professional cycling commentators and weekend warrior cyclists alike cast doubt on this bold move. “Too soon” they all said and I have to admit, I thought 60km alone was a long way to go.

The next 60km was an incredible display of physical and mental stamina. Boonen chraged across each sector of cobbles with a face as hardened as the granite he rode across. Boonen’s stone faced expression did give away how suffering an escape like this causing. We knew this was a supreme effort but Boonen’s expression did not change until he rode into Roubaix knowing he’d conquered the cobbles and tied fellow Belgian Roger DeVlamminck as the only person to win Paris-Roubaix 4 times.

How strong was Boonen on the cobbles? At each sector of the stones and despite a concerted effort by Team Sky to reel him in, he would gain 5 to 10 seconds on his chasers every time he crossed the pave. At 20km to go with a gap of a minute it started to become apparent. If Tom Boonen did not meet the Man with the Hammer, this bold move was going to pay off.

The chasers never really organised and Boonen continued his march toward Roubaix and history. Finally after crossing the 2km to go banner Boonen turned to the moto camera, cracked a smile and pointed at the lens, later waving 4 fingers at the camera to acknowledge that he was about to win the Queen of the Classics for a record tieing 4th time.

His solo victory yesterday was one for the record books and one for the history of the race. It takes a hard man to win alone from so far out and Boonen left no doubt who the hard man of the day was. It was a simply awe-inspiring performance.

After the race Boonen commented that he may be perhaps the best ever on the cobbles. I’m sure some former Belgian champions may have something to say about that but he has rebounded from a nightmare 2011 season to take the cobbled triple and enter into the Paris Roubaix record books.

And guess what? I think he may have one more Paris-Roubaix victory in him before he retires.

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