Lance Armstrong's confession has completely overshadowed the beginning of the 2013 cycling season. The revelation that he not only doped but lied and threatened his teammates and detractors for years has permanently damaged cycling’s reputation.
IOC member Richard Pound even brought up the possibility that cycling could be dropped from the Olympics.
Clearly, the reputation of cycling wasn’t much to brag about in the first place. After all, organizers in cycling operate with secret lists of suspected dopers, and positive doping tests have become an annual Tour de France tradition. However, the Lance Armstrong scandal dropped cycling to a new low.
Cycling is in need of a feel-good story, and that’s where Tom Boonen comes in.
While this has been the darkest month in cycling history, Tom Boonen might lighten up the cycling world by doing something no cyclist has ever done before.
He’s going to become the all-time cobbled classics champion.
What are the cobbled classics?
The cobbled classics included in the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) Pro Tour schedule are four races organized from late March to early April. Three of them—the Gent-Wevelgem, E3 Harelbeke and Tour of Flanders—are held in Belgium, while the Paris-Roubaix is held in France.
The Tour of Flanders and the Paris-Roubaix are part of the five Monuments of Cycling, which are the oldest and most important one-day races in the sport. These two are generally considered to be the Wimbledon and Roland Garros of cycling.
These races are significantly different from the Tour de France, which is arguably more famous than the classics because of a certain admitted cheater.
Unlike the Tour, the classics only take place over the course of one day. While the Tour allows for a small screwup here and there, there is no room for error in the classics.
The cobbled classics have earned their reputation because of the long, grueling distances—often around 150 miles. Additionally, there are long stretches of cobblestones, which only the most daring and experienced riders are able to navigate.
Tom Boonen is a master of this particular art.
Tom Boonen's historic run
Last year, Boonen won all four cobbled classics and was near the top of the UCI WorldTour Rankings. He was the first rider to win all the races, an almost impossible feat considering that the races were held within a two-week span.
Tom Boonen has four wins in the Paris-Roubaix (2005, 2008, 2009 and 2012), which tie him with his countryman Roger de Vlaeminck for most all time. He is also tied for most wins in the Tour of Flanders with three (2005, 2006 and 2012.)
The fact that Belgium is so well represented on the list of winners is not a coincidence. The small European country has a long-standing tradition of producing great classics riders from Eddy Merckx to Peter van Petegem.
All that Boonen needs to do is to continue where he left off last year, and he will be ahead of them all, standing alone as the greatest cobbled classics rider of all time.
He is in the best shape of his life, and it certainly helps that many of his rivals are too old (like Thor Hushovd) or recovering from surgery (like Fabian Cancellara.)
Philippe Gilbert, his fellow Belgian and current world champion, will be a formidable opponent. However, Boonen has held the upper hand throughout their careers, and there’s no reason why it should end now.
Whether Boonen will be able to repeat all four wins from last year is uncertain, as this year’s schedule leaves no breathing room between E3 Harelbeke and the Gent-Wevelgem.
It might be best if Boonen opted to race only one of these two and focus his energy on the Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders. Trying to win the E3 Harelbeke is no reason to risk running out of steam during the Paris-Roubaix, which is the Holy Grail of one-day classics. Few people remember the past winners of the E3 Harelbeke.