Cobbled Comparisons

What’s left to write about Tom Boonen (Quick.Step) winning cobbled classics? I don’t know, really. He has the power, the skills, and the head, and he puts them together with remarkable consistently, rendering him very hard to beat. And, as we saw on Sunday, when it comes down to the sort of blunt, teamless, rider vs. rider fistfight that Paris-Roubaix tends to be, he’s very, very hard to beat.

Boonen has long since won all three of the biggest cobbled classics – 1 Gent-Wevelgem, 2 Rondes van Vlaanderen, and 3 Paris-Roubaixs – and he’s won most of the smaller races over the pavé, too. It must be those palmares, combined with his riding style and his allegiance to the teams of Patrick Lefevere, that gives people the irresistible urge to constantly compare him to Johan Museeuw. It’s a fair comparison, of course – they’re very similar riders. But when, as of yesterday, people were still posing questions like “is Boonen the next Johan Museeuw?” I just have to shake my head. It was a valid question three years ago, but now?

Let’s have a look at how they stack up win-wise in the races that are best suited to the basic characteristics that both men share. (The selection of races shown is purely at my discretion – feel free to argue about it.)

To my eye, though the numbers break out a little differently, Boonen has already at least drawn even with the retired Museeuw, though you could probably score it either way if you tried hard enough.

There’s no denying that Boonen lacks wins in some of the races Museeuw conquered, like those “classic” victories in the Zuri-Metzgete and HEW Cyclassics that Museeuw gained while chasing the old World Cup title (which he won in 1995 and 1996). But those races are far less important now, and not worth focusing on like Museeuw did in the World Cup years. In the big cobbled classics, Museeuw is still one Tour of Flanders win up on Boonen, though he lacks a Gent-Wevelgem title. The older Lion can boast an Amstel Gold win, which doesn’t seem to be on Boonen’s wish list and may be outside his abilities with the changes to the course since Museeuw's win in 1994. Museeuw also owns one Paris-Tours, which should be well within Boonen’s skill set. Museeuw and Boonen both have one World Championship title to their credit, but Museeuw also owns two Belgian national champion’s jerseys, and you have to believe that Boonen would like at least one of those. Finally, Boonen has somehow failed to yield a Het Volk/Het Niewsblad title yet, while Museeuw collected two.

So considering the above, how can I score them equal in stature? Well, two reasons. The first is that classics riders have to find something to do all summer, and that’s usually trying to bag stage wins. In that capacity, Boonen has far, far exceeded Museeuw. On the biggest stage, the Tour, he’s won six stages to Museeuw’s two, and bagged a green jersey as well. While Museeuw’s other stage wins were mostly in smaller Spanish stage races (e.g., Ruta del Sol, Tour of Valencia), the Four Days of Dunkirk, and a couple stages of the Tour de Suisse, to be fair, many of Boonen’s have been captured in ProTour stage races, including the Vuelta a Espana, Paris-Nice, the Eneco Tour, and the Tour of Belgium. And, particularly if you exclude criteriums, Boonen's overall palmares are just much longer and of higher quality.

My second reason is simpler, and involves less fuzzy math and conjecture. Museeuw retired at the age of 38, with many of his biggest victories coming after his 30th year. Boonen, on the other hand, is 28 and very much an active rider. So, in short, Boonen has reached this level of success in a far shorter time. Will Boonen's palmares soon definitively exceed those of his mentor? Almost certainly. A Milan-San Remo, Paris-Tours, and additional cobbled classics are still available if the cards fall right. The question now is how long Boonen will continue to ride – after his amazing 2005 season, he floated the idea of stopping at 30, saying he didn’t want to linger into old age. As someone over 30, I’m trying not to take offense to that, but we’ll have to see if the ensuing four years have changed his mind. After all, the job pays well, and the kid has some expensive habits…

So why, after each of Boonen’s big cobbled victories, do people continue to reflexively ask whether he “stacks up” to the legendary Museeuw? For me, the answer is simple – weather. Boonen’s Flanders and Roubaix wins have all come in pretty fair weather, and Boonen crosses the line bathed in late afternoon sunshine, teeth and jersey glowing white, maybe a little dusty. Museeuw, on the other hand, was a rain and mud magnet – just Google for pictures of his 2002 Roubaix win, and you’ll see a textbook on how to forge your legend.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not calling Boonen a fair weather rider, and I think that when the rains do return to Flanders and Roubaix, Boonen will still be there at the kill. Like Museeuw, Boonen wins hard races against hard competition and whatever nature provides. It’s just that Boonen needs to make it look harder, and for that, he needs a little cooperation from mother nature. One or two mud-encrusted Boonen wins, and the comparisons should take care of themselves. And if not, time will do it for him – everything looks harder when us older folks are doing it.

Race Radio

  • Silence-Lotto finally made it into the move that mattered, putting both Leif Hoste and Johan Vansummeren into the royal breakaway that also contained Boonen, Filippo Pozzato (Katusha), Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank), and Thor Hushovd (Cervelo). Man, I’ve been waiting weeks to type that. Unfortunately, they got caught out a bit when Flecha elected to auger himself into the ground, but what can you do? Next step: win something. I think the Grote Scheldeprijs this week is calling their name.

  • Pozzato may not have brought home any trophies this week, but he’s inserted himself into the list of cobbled contenders in a way that he hadn’t before. Maybe it’s his fashion choices, his manner, or his palmares, but he’s never really shouted “nails” the way a Boonen, a Van Petegem, or even any number of Flemish kermis specialists do. And though he’ll probably continue to have a better off-bike wardrobe than his competition, nobody will take him for a harmless pretty boy in the cobbled classics from here on out. Even better, the Flemish fans gave him a hell of a hard time in the finale, giving him a coating of spit and beer and closing the road down on him, and he gracefully brushed it off in the post-race interviews.

  • Those cobble-level TV shots they like to get at Roubaix are good at showing a peloton shape that’s pretty unique to the race: the trident, formed by one line of riders coming up the crown, and one line in each gutter.

  • Is it just me, or did the Garmin car seem to wait for George Hincapie (Columbia) to get on the bumper after his flat and awkward tire change?

  • Speaking of George, I like him, I really do. And I know that Versus is aimed at the American audience, many of whom are familiar with Hincapie from his support of Armstrong at the Tour de France all those years. But could Versus please dial back the Hincapie love a notch or two? Call the race, make note of the local favorite and get a quote, but don’t be the cheering section.

  • Speaking of Versus, remember last year when Phil and Paul were crowing and clucking and harumphing at every opportunity about Astana being excluded from some ASO races based on events that transpired the year before? Not so much vocalization now that Fuji-Servetto (formerly Saunier Duval) is the team getting the door slammed on them for the same sorts of issues, eh? I mean, sure, it’s not All-American Leipheimer and Horner getting screwed this year, but Ivan Dominguez is an American now. Can’t a former Cuban get a little jingo love from the home broadcaster?

  • It wasn’t a big attack, but 2001 Roubaix winner Servais Knaven gave it a dig, anyhow. Always a team man, Knaven led Domo’s (another Lefevere team) sweep of the podium that year, getting away while everyone kept an eye on Museeuw. Romans Vainsteins (Remember him? And his rat-tail?) was third. Knaven may not be a star, but his move was the first time I remember Milram doing anything notable, or even visible, this classics season.

  • With his third Roubaix win, Boonen enters some pretty elite company, including late model legends like Museeuw, Eddy Merckx, Francesco Moser, and Rik Van Looy, as well as old-timey heroes Octave Lapize and Gaston Rebry. Again, with time left on the clock, equaling four win record of Roger "Mr. Paris-Roubaix" DeVlaeminck doesn't seem to far out of reach, does it?

  • My longshot predictions from Friday proved to be just that -- longshots. Manuel Quinziato (Liquigas) was able to follow the early splits, but fell out of contention come crunch time. Still a career week for him. Kevyn Ista (Agritubel) did arrive in Roubaix eventually, but at more than 17 minutes behind, he finished hors delay. At least you still get the famous shower at the end.

  • Seeing some new contenders emerge this week has me looking forward to next year. With Alessandro Ballan (Lampre) and Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) hopefully back from injury and illness, Pozzato possibly supported by a strengthened second-year Katusha, Thor Hushovd and Heinrich Haussler (Cervelo) improving and back for another crack, Sylvain Chavanel (Quick.Step) making things interesting for the French again, and Boonen, Stijn Devolder, and Hoste still flying the Belgian flag, it should be a vintage year.