All of Belgium can heave a collective sigh of relief. Tom Boonen has finally won a stage! After watching his chief rivalsand even a teammatebeat him to the line, it was looking like Groundhog Day for Belgium's most popular rider. In 2006, Boonen was wearing the rainbow jersey of World Champion and while he rode well in the spring classics, winning the Tour of Flanders for a second time, he just couldn't not find his high gear in France. It was a huge disappointment made even
more so by the rainbow jersey on his shoulders.
I first met Tom in 2002 when he was a virtually unknown 21-year-old, first-year pro racing for Lance Armstrong's U.S. Postal Squad. I was in the San Francisco airport heading over to the spring classics and looked up to see a rider adorned in USPS team sweats waiting in line next to me for a flight to Belgium. Boonen was the only guy on the squad I didn't know so it was pretty easy to get the name right. We spent 14 hours together making our way to his home country--unfortunately, there are no direct flights from San Francisco to Belgium.
Just at the start of his professional cycling career, Tom had so much energy and excitement like a kid at his first Christmas. He was a refreshing change from the battle-hardened veterans and I could see that there was definitely a fire down below. I was so convinced that Tom would do well in that year's classics that I phoned my editors at Cycle Sport magazine in London and pleaded with them to let me do an article on Tom. They, and everybody else, had never heard of him so they politely refused.
After three phone calls in three days, they finally relented and I was given the assignment to do a 1-page intro piece. Tom and I hooked up the day before Paris-Roubaix. That same excitement was still there so much so that Tom told me he had awoken that day and started putting on his racing kit only to be told by his roommate that the race was tomorrow.
Of course, the rest is history. Tom went on to finish third in the race and a superstar was born. My piece never made the magazine. Once my editors realized what they had, they assigned a Belgian journalist to do a full feature reasoning that a fellow countryman could get the best out of this up and coming rider. So it goes!