Monday, April 13, 2009


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.

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Grote Scheldeprijs sounds like a type of male reproductive disorder one gets from riding on Belgian cobblestones in cold, wet weather. I agree with you about the Museeuw comparison, BTW. Boonen brings more to the table, younger. Caveat: like Tiger Woods/Jack Nicklaus, Boonen will need to keep putting out over the next 4-5 years if he wants to truly exceed Museeuw. Woods is running into that situation - fastest to 14, now he's got maybe another 10 years to pick up 5 more majors to pass the Golden Bear. As Nicklaus put it about being a pro golfer with a wife and multiple kids, and then trying to win the majors, "it's hard." /squeaky voice

I'm hoping he does it and stays out of off-the-bike trouble. Cycling needs a few giants.
I agree that Boonen has pulled even with Museeuw. And the detail that sticks-out most in indeed his age. One can only imagine what Boonen will do if he can keep his nose clean and his car below the speed limit.

Another great recap from Sunday's race. I agree that next year--with hopefully all of the favorites healthy--will provide another stunning battle.

Keep up the great work, Ryan!
Knaven is 40. And at the protour level they use actual age, not racing age, right? Go, Old Guy, Go!
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