Virtually every photo taken of Roger De Vlaeminck riding the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix shows him with his hands on the drops, his dark eyes totally focused on the road ahead and his mouth slightly open to suck in the oxygen he’s expending to turn his slim, greyhound-like legs. His team manager once said that because De Vlaeminck glided so smoothly over the pavé, avoiding the potholes and protruding stones, that his wheels were perfectly true at the end of the race, unlike those of his teammates, which had to be trashed.
De Vlaeminck, the elegant Belgian who raced for most of his career in the stars-and-stripes-style colors of Italian sponsor Brooklyn chewing gum, was a world champion in cyclo-cross before he started his first Paris-Roubaix in 1969. The skills he acquired riding ’cross in the winter was one factor in his unparalleled Roubaix record: 14 consecutive starts, one abandon, two seventh places, one sixth, one fifth, one third, four seconds and four victories. It was no wonder that when he took his fourth win in 1977 the headline across the front page of L’Équipe was: “C’est Monsieur Paris-Roubaix.”
De Vlaeminck thoroughly earned that title, his four victories giving him sole possession of the Roubaix win record ahead of six riders who won three times: Frenchman Octave Lapize, Italian Francesco Moser, and the Belgians Rik Van Looy, Eddy Merckx, Johan Museeuw and Tom Boonen. Now, 35 years after De Vlaeminck took his fourth Roubaix, the on-form Boonen is a hot favorite to become the second Monsieur Paris-Roubaix this coming Sunday.
Strangely, besides both being Belgian, there is little in common between Boonen and De Vlaeminck. Whereas De Vlaeminck, at 5-foot-11 and 165 pounds, was something of an all-rounder (he won the Tour of Switzerland and six editions of Tirreno-Adriatico besides all five of the monuments), Boonen, at 6-4 and 180 pounds, is a flat-classics specialist who relies on his sprinting speed to win races. De Vlaeminck won three of his Roubaix victories in solo breakaways, while two of Boonen’s three wins came in sprint finishes.
The first win, in 2005, came in Boonen’s fourth start at Paris-Roubaix, when he arrived at the finish in the hallowed concrete bowl of the Roubaix velodrome with just two riders, American George Hincapie and Spaniard Juan-Antonio Flecha. Boonen won the sprint easily, with Hincapie taking second—the American’s best finish in 16 attempts.
Boonen again had two others to contend with in 2008, after he’d helped Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara and Italy’s Alessandro Ballan carve out a more-than-three-minutes advantage on the rest. Again, Boonen had no trouble winning the sprint on the outdoor velodrome in front of a packed stadium mostly made up of his Belgian fans.
The circumstances of his third Roubaix victory, in 2009, were somewhat different. Coming into the last difficult section of pavé, the Carrefour de l’Arbre, Boonen was on the wheel of Norway’s Thor Hushovd when Flecha crashed right behind them and blocked or delayed three other chasers, including Italy’s Filippo Pozzato. Moments later, with Boonen at the front, Hushovd fell, leaving the Belgian to ride the final 25 kilometers alone and to victory by 47 seconds over Pozzato.
Since that third win, Boonen has had two chances to match De Vlaeminck’s record. In 2010, he went into the race as a co-favorite with Cancellara. The Belgian looked strong when he made several surges in the middle of the race, but when he momentarily dropped to the back of the lead group Cancellara took the opportunity to accelerate from the head—and rode the final 50 kilometers alone to win by two minutes. A dispirited Boonen finished more than three minutes back in fifth place. Not quite what he was looking for.
Last year, bad luck was Boonen’s enemy rather than his own lack of focus. In the often-decisive cobbled sector through the Forest of Arenberg, 85 kilometers from the finish, Boonen stopped with a jammed chain and had to wait two minutes for his replacement bike. After a bike change he was chasing back to the Cancellara group when he crashed on a new section of pavé at Millonfosse. That was the end of Boonen’s race, the only time in 10 starts that he’s abandoned Paris-Roubaix.
So what can we expect from Boonen in this year’s Hell of the North, or “L’Enfer du Nord,” as Paris-Roubaix is often called in reference to its 27 sectors and 51.5 kilometers of jarring cobblestones and the Nord region through which it passes?
This year there will be no Cancellara on the start line in Compiègne because of his unfortunate crash at last Sunday’s Tour of Flanders that ended the big Swiss’s spring classics season with a broken clavicle. The two-time Roubaix winner’s absence will put a lot more pressure on Boonen and his Omega Pharma-Quick Step teammates, who will have to control the whole race rather than sharing duties with Cancellara’s RadioShack-Nissan-Trek team.
Omega’s best tactic could be placing a rider or two in an early breakaway, and then getting its French champion Sylvain Chavanel or Dutch teammate Niki Terpstra into any counterattack. That would allow Boonen to focus on marking the other contenders, which include Ballan, Hincapie and Hushovd of BMC Racing, Italians Pozzato of Farnese Vini and Luca Paolini of Katusha, Dutch hopes Lars Boom and Maarten Tjallingii of Rabobank, Flecha and Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen of Team Sky, Vacansoleil’s Belgian Stijn Devolder, and Garmin-Barracuda’s Belgians Sep Vanmarcke and defending champion Johan Vansummeren.
The slight chance of rain on Sunday should settle the dust but it’s unlikely to change the 110th edition of Paris-Roubaix from a tactical battle to one of attrition. The chances are that Boonen won’t win. Two things are working against him: the absence of Cancellara and the difficulty of retaining top form for one more race after his victories at the E3 Harelbeke (March 23), Ghent-Wevelgem (March 25) and the Tour of Flanders (April 1).
There’s also the matter of history. Roger De Vlaeminck might well have won six or seven editions of Paris-Roubaix, because after his fourth win he was runner-up three times. In 1978, he rode for his then teammate Francesco Moser, who won, with De Vlaeminck in second. In 1979, De Vlaeminck flatted on the Gruson section of cobbles with 15 kilometers to go, along with two others, while Moser escaped and again won the race. And then, in 1981, De Vlaeminck came second in a six-man sprint to a formidable Bernard Hinault, with Moser in third.
To date, besides his three wins, Boonen has had two podium spots: second in 2006 and third in his 2002 debut. The chances are that he’ll collect another podium place on Sunday, but with so many contenders Boonen will have a hard time winning. If he does then even De Vlaeminck will be happy to name him the second Monsieur Paris-Roubaix.