As the curtain came down on Tom Boonen’s glittering career yesterday, Belgium found another Monument winner, in the shape of Greg van Avermaet. The BMC Racing rider is in the form of his life, dominating the cobbles in the same way Boonen did in 2012.
The build-up to Paris-Roubaix may have all been about Boonen – the 36-year-old said months ago it would be his last race – but the race followed form, not sentiment as van Avermaet, five years his junior, won.
Boonen has a joint-record four victories in the race, the last of those in 2012, the same year van Avermaet emerged as a Classics contender, with a string of top-five finishes.
In truth, that year was Boonen’s last big season, with the Paris-Roubaix and Tour of Flanders double, plus wins at E3-Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem and a second place at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
Five years on, and it’s van Avermaet who has dominated the spring campaign over the cobbles, with four wins and one runner’s-up spot in those same five races – and but for his crash at Flanders, it could have been a clean sweep.
That followed a 2016 season in which he won his first Classic – the Omloop Het Niuwsblad – and also took Olympic gold in the road race at Rio.
But reflecting on his victory at Roubaix yesterday, he said: "This is the maybe the race I would say I was not able to win.
> Greg van Avermaet wins the fastest ever Paris-Roubaix
“When I first came here I was so tired at the finish line, and it was not really what I was expected but I am so happy that I did it.
“I think everything went perfectly. For me the Olympics will always be my greatest win but now it's really nice to have a Monument too."
For a long time, van Avermaet had a reputation of being a ‘nearly man’ – in the mix at big races but never quite able to get onto the top step of the podium. Those days, clearly, are in the past now.
"For sure I'm happy that I am now in this position,” he said. “I tried for so many years to sit in this spot at these kind of races.
“I always believed that I could do it but you also need the results. When you win, you get more confident and the team gets more confident.”
Boonen’s season had been built around trying to secure a record fifth victory in the race, but once distanced from the van Avermaet group he was never able to bridge back across and would finish in 13th place.
"The last few weeks have been a roller coaster of emotions, but I'm telling you that I wouldn't have imagined such incredible moments this morning,” said the Quick Step Floors rider following his final race.
“These fans are fantastic and I want to thank them for being by my side in the past 15 years. To be honest, I wasn't thinking of my retirement today, I was all in for the victory.
“It was only at the 5km-to-go mark that I began thinking these are the last kilometres of my career."
The significance of the occasion wasn’t lost on van Avermaet, who confessed: “I was looking last night at Wikipedia at Tom's results and his career is so impressive.”
A young cyclist looking at the BMC Racing rider’s own Wikipedia page could say the same thing now.
Yep I was joking, but like you say better safe than sorry.
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