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News feature, July 10, 2006
Tom Boonen: you're only human
World champion Tom Boonen has worn the leader's jersey for four days during the first week in the Tour de France. He has thus accomplished what so many can only dream of at the young age of 25. Still, the congenial cycling god from Balen (Belgium) couldn't hide his disappointment after making what he called a "juvenile" mistake in yesterday's final sprint. But as Sabine Sunderland writes, it's because he is only human.
Is it true that Boonen has 'lost it', as he claimed himself right after the stage, or is it a temporary low he's going through?
On the plane to Bordeaux the boyish, cheeky smile was on Boonen's face again. He was filmed while teasing teammate Bram Tankink and waved to the camera as if to comfort those who were worrying after his depressed remarks earlier in the day. This while sprint rival McEwen was taking advantage of the transfer to get some much deserved sleep.
Boonen is known to be somewhat hyperactive and in interviews he has admitted that he's not one to sit still in his couch, feet up, after training. Boonen needs movement and action around him he says, but the hype surrounding him during the first week might have proven a tad too much of a good thing for the World Champion.
For the first time in his career, Tom Boonen might be forced to make a choice which he might not like: be less demanding on himself. His ambitions and goals have seemingly been easy to achieve so far. Boonen won Ronde Van Vlaanderen twice, won Paris-Roubaix and almost playfully took the rainbow jersey last season. He also has won four stages in the Tour de France in previous editions, and has worn the yellow jersey for four consecutive days in this year's Grand Boucle. What more can you ask of yourself?
Although he has reached a pop-star status in most of Europe, he's had to digest some heavy criticism from the press and cycling fans in his home country Belgium during the first week of the Tour. The lack of a sprint victory in this 2006 edition hasn't gone down well, and Boonen was the target of some cynical remarks; no mercy, whether he was wearing yellow jersey or not. A sad thing for a rider who has given fans such pleasure.
It prompted Quick.Step mananger Patrick Lefevere to declare a press boycott for a day. Although it might have seemed a bit childish to some, it gave the team the chance to catch breath by not having to answer questions about the how and why they didn't succeed in winning a stage over and over again.
Maybe it's a good thing that the Belgian press and cycling loving public in general have been brought back to earth, and have seen with their own eyes that the world champion is only human and that winning isn't as obvious for Boonen as what they wanted to believe.
Lore to the rescue
Tom's girlfriend Lore has flown to Bordeaux to spend most of the rest day in his company. The bright young lady writes a diary in one of the Belgian national newspapers HLN. In today's entry she talks about what happened yesterday.
"I'm so glad I didn't have to experience what happened (after the finish yesterday - ed.). Unbelievable; everyone thought. How 'mentally burned out' he must be. I talked to Tom on the phone when I had arrived in the hotel in Bordeaux. He said: 'I'm fine now. I'll tell you all about it later. When do I see you?' and added, 'It'll be all right love.'
"I believe him. I'd rather see Tom angry than disappointed. Because when he's disappointed it means that he's knackered. Which he probably was straight after the finish. He hasn't had to deal with such a big setback during races. He always wants to have everything perfect and I really believe that he couldn't handle another messed-up sprint. Not at the very moment that is. Right then he spits out whatever he thinks. He has to throw it all out. It must have been quite something! Actor Dirk Roodhooft phrased it well in the Tour 2006 program: Tom doesn't only win in a nice way, he loses nicely too.
"Tom will arrive in the hotel later and he'll be joking and upbeat as long as he's around his teammates, but after it will have to come out. Then we'll take a walk and he'll tell all to me. About the pressure and the need for it to fall off his shoulders. About the pressure, which he can handle, but not the fact that he can't win himself.
"I haven't read his horoscope. He doesn't really believe in it; well, only when it suits him. But he's goofing around a bit, saying that his stars aren't right and stuff. He said he'd go and hide in the peloton now for a few days? I don't believe it. After one day he'll be back in the front; and he'll want to show himself. He's allowed to do so, as he is able to do it."
Sport psychologist Jef Brouwers is convinced it's a healthy purification process which Tom is going through. "It's an extreme way of getting rid of his aggression," he is quoted in HLN as saying. "He says those things to be able to speak to the media in a normal tone later. It was a sign of strength for Tom to honestly say he's got doubts. And he's said this in his own way. If you deter from doing so, lots of things can go wrong.
"Tom has given some annoying newspaper articles too much attention. I want to add this: when Marc Wauters rode in yellow, the papers were printed on yellow paper. For Boonen, the expectations are unreasonably high."
André Boonen reacted surprised to his son's 'breakdown'. "Saturday I was with Tom, in Rennes for the TT. Then nothing was wrong, although the weight of the yellow jersey was heavy. Above all he wanted to take his responsibility. He thought he couldn't afford to sit there and play a bit for fifty km, like, for example, McEwen could.
"Two years ago I warned him that it was lethal to go for a jersey in the Tour. It means you're under pressure from the first day to the last. Look at how McEwen and Hushovd were battling for green back then. But it was Tom who won the stage in Paris. It's all about making choices. Tom does realise now he can't have it all. Because in this Tour he's had to work on two fronts the first week. To obtain yellow and having to sacrifice your team to keep it, and on top of that try to win stages. It was a bit too much. Tom will almost have to win the Tour overall to satisfy everyone. Just riding along isn't allowed any more."
Today, Boonen might be able to get some mental rest, reassess and change his goals. Because first of all, he has to realize and admit to himself that he is only human!