Thursday, January 17, 2013

Belgian Succession

It is hard to believe, but Tom Boonen is aging. The Belgian boy wonder from east and north of Antwerp is already 32 years old, he may be at the peak of his prowess but he's ridden for 11 seasons. Just like his former mentor and teammate Johan Museeuw - whose career overlapped with Boonen's in near-perfect synchronous sequence - Boonen has become a much more focused rider than he was in his younger days. The overlap between the aging Museeuw and then-surging Boonen spoiled us fans in more ways than we realized then. We never had to look for a Belgian hero of the cobbled classics, for a new Lion of Flanders.

Tom Boonen in 2012, from Creative Commons under license CC BY-SA 2.0,
photo taken by Angelo Giangregorio.

This natural succession also benefited Patrick Lefevere's QuickStep team, who always had a popular icon to stand behind. Even in Boonen's leanest years of 2010 and 2011, when he merely won  Gent-Wevelgem and merely reached the podium in both editions of de Ronde. As we know, cycling is a team sport, therefore having such icons as Museeuw and Boonen helped the team secure sponsorship which in turn enabled the retainment of a royal retinue, a merry band of Belgians and Italians whose job security and raison d'etre revolved around those few sacred weeks in April.

Who shall succeed Tom Boonen as the Belgian kaseinfretter?

Could Phillip Gilbert be the next Belgian King of Cobbles? He has had past success in the Omloop, and credible finishes in de Ronde van Vlaanderen, and his strength is hard to argue against. However, realistically Gilbert is no longer a youngster, despite his ascendancy being more recent than Boonen's; more realistically he is a competitor to Boonen, as their peak years overlap significantly.

Could the crown prince be Sep Vanmarcke, who beat Boonen in last year's Omloop? It was indeed a credible win in last year's Omloop, but Boonen was trapped in the same situation he was in Paris-Tours in 2010 when he was punked by Gilbert. The break of two was followed by a rather large group, so what was Boonen going to do, sit up and let the break be caught? We note however that Vanmarcke's ride in the E3-Harelbeke made a credible top-ten showing. With him immediately abandoning Garmin-Barracuda for greener pastures, we fear his biggest challenge will be himself.

Could we have overlooked Greg Van Avermaet? Always there, but rarely a big winner, we like Avermaet's fighting spirit, but as long as he's in BMC he will have to answer to other cobbled contenders, something he must be keenly aware of.

How about Guillaume van Keursbulcks, a 21-year old youngster in OmegaPharma-QuickStep. Won U23 Paris-Roubaix in 2009, good start in 2010 but 2011 was a bit down due to death in his family. In 2012 won GP Briek Schotte, a repeat of his win the previous year. What we like about Keursbulcks is that he has a good program and he is used to winning, not merely following. It is too bad he crashed out of the last edition of Paris-Roubaix, after being in the leading breakaway group; we were eager to see how he'd have performed in the dust left by his teammate and eventual winner Tom Boonen.

Keursbulck's build and riding style is so similar to Boonen's that he is often called Boonen's body double. Given Keursbulck's steady diet of riding on cobbles - after all he is from Roeselere and his house is probably passed by a dozen semi-classics - it's not surprising that he seems to glide over them.

Julien Vermote is another promising youngster, only 23 years old and from Kortrijk not far from the Flemish Ardennes where many cobbled races run. In 2012 he won the GC of Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen along with the young rider classification. He also finished his first grand tour the Giro d'Italia and finished 5th in a hotly contested Belgian national championship in Geel, right near Boonen's hometown won by Boonen.

Did we miss anybody? Who do you think will be Belgium's next King of Cobbles and who will shine in the upcoming Spring Classics Season?

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