Crazy Train

There’s plenty of blathering online today about an extremely disturbing turn in Belgian classics star Tom Boonen’s career. That’s right: the 27-year-old Quick.Step standout has been caught holding contract negotiations with the French Bouygues Telecom squad.

He also apparently tested positive for cocaine, but as you can see, that’s the least of his problems. Sure, developing a taste for the Bolivian marching powder could potentially send his cobbled career off the rails, but signing for Bouygues is like hiring the Grateful Dead to drive your locomotive. I suspect there might be some sort of causal relationship between these two transgressions, but I’m not yet sure which way it goes: does the possibility of riding for Jean-Rene Bernaudeau’s band of loveable losers make you turn to drugs, or does bumping a few lines in the disco toilet make leaving the world’s most powerful classics squad for the basement of the ProTour suddenly seem like a good idea?

It seems that, like the cocaine issue, Boonen is not rushing to deny these vicious Bouygues negotiation charges. And that’s disappointing, because in the world of professional cycling, not issuing some sort of denial is just plain lazy. By now, some 24 hours after the news broke, any self-respecting American pro would have set up a web site that takes PayPal donations, completed a chart-filled PowerPoint presentation, started an online petition for something, and established a charity benefiting French gout victims. Where’s the work ethic?

But we can’t hold Boonen to our standards, cultural differences being what they are and all, so for now, we’ll just have to assume that he’s actually considering riding for the Tour de France’s charity of choice. That leaves us to ponder the question of why.

Money is the simplest explanation, and as some guy theorized, in so many words, the simplest explanation is usually the right one. But how much money does Bouygues have? I’d imagine that Bouygues would have to bring in additional sponsors to cover bringing Boonen over, which they might be able to do if they searched out the right (read: Belgian) ones. But then they’d also have to come up with the scratch to sign the 3-5 guys he’d likely want to bring along to secure some decent help up north in the springtime, and those guys can cost a bit more coin than, say, Erki Putsep. Sure, current Bouygues boys Stef Clement (a recent acquisition from Dutch Skil-Shimano) and even team poster-boy Thomas Voeckler can ride decently in the classics, and the team has a lot of promising young talent in that department. But they also benefit from shouldering none of the responsibility for making these races. When you sign Boonen, that all changes, and they’d need some significant, seasoned reinforcement to not be portrayed as the team that costs him victories.

Aside from money, there really doesn’t seem to be another compelling reason for Boonen to go to Bouygues Telecom. Some will probably speculate that he’s looking to foreign teams in order to escape the glare of the Belgian press, whose persistent attentions he’s had problems with ever since he came third in his first Paris-Roubaix. But that’s a hollow argument. Boonen’s big targeted races (e.g., Flanders, Roubaix, the Tour) will be the same, whether he’s riding for Bouygues or a Belgian squad, or an Italian one, for that matter. With Bouygues, he might spend more time riding French Cup races at the expense of the E3-Harelbeke or the Scheldeprijs, but it’s not going to save him much scrutiny at this point. And the pressure to perform at the Tour and Roubaix will only be higher, as both the French and Belgian fans look to him to supply results. Basically, Tom Boonen is Tom Boonen, and the media will continue to follow him around no matter what jersey he’s wearing, how bizarre he decides to make his personal life, or how distant he becomes from the talent that made him famous. Kind of like Michael Jackson.

The only other thing I can think of is that the French and Belgian governments have forced the teams enter into some sort of circuitous, NFL/MLB/NBA-style player trading scheme (you know – “we’ve traded so-and-so for these two guys, a second-round draft pick in 2011, and a box of Cheez-Its”). The signs of this system, which redistributes the wealth of Belgian classics riders, started appearing late last year, when Quick-Step (Belgian) traded Nick Nuyens to Cofidis (French). In exchange, Francaise de Jeux (French) is sending Walloon Philippe Gilbert back up north to Silence-Lotto (Belgian) next year. But Gilbert would have to be worth a hell of a lot if his return to the homeland cost Belgium Boonen’s services. That makes me suspect that Belgium has offered Boonen up to France in exchange for keeping a player to be named later -- longshot Tour de France hope Stijn Devolder (Quick.Step) -- riding for a home team. After all, Belgium’s on a bit of a dry spell in that department since Eddy retired.

Kidding aside, I have to wonder how serious these negotiations between Boonen and Bouygues might have been. After all, Bernaudeau’s teams (Bonjour and Brioches La Boulangere before Bouygues) have long had a stated mission of developing young, French talent. Though they have signed a few foreigners of late, bringing in big, seasoned, Belgian talent is pretty drastic departure their usual M.O., and that’s the M.O. that will guarantee them a Tour de France slot long after the imminent demise of the ProTour system. Time will tell, of course, and again, all kidding aside, here’s hoping that Boonen gets his personal act together and comes back stronger for it. It looks like he’ll have the time to do so – as I write this, ASO has announced that he is no longer welcome at the Tour de France.