Tom Boonen was the greatest cobbled classics rider of his generation, equaling the record for victories in both the Tour of Flanders and Paris–Roubaix. But even before he retired after completing his final classic in the Roubaix velodrome in 2016, Boonen was preparing other objectives in another sport of passion, automobile racing. And while the learning curve may have been steep, Boonen was soon back to doing what he does best—winning races. The winner of the Supercar Challenge this past year in a Norma 20FC racecar, Boonen plans on suiting up for the 24 Hours of Le Mans one day. And when he describes the marathon event it sounds just like one of the many cycling monuments he won. We spent a day with “Tomeke” on the Dutch racetrack at Assen in October and got an inside look at his newfound passion.
Tom, it was always great to see you at bike races and now we are seeing you on the auto-racing tracks. How did you get into motorsports?
Racing is just in my blood. Even before I started bike racing I went to my home racetrack in Zolder just to watch the [car] races. My granddad even used to sell ice cream at the racetrack. One of my first memories with my granddad was at the track. I just love everything about the track. I love the smell. I love the environment and everything that goes on at a racetrack. I love the tension that just hangs in the air. It is a completely different sport than cycling. But in 2005 or 2006 I started racing on the track a bit every once in a while in the off-season. But the more seriously I got involved, the more I though about really doing it after my cycling career. And two months after I retired I was already behind the wheel at my first race in Spa. So far, so good. I am [now] one of the fastest guys in the Supercar Challenge….
What is it that attracts you so much?
Well, one of the things I really like about motorsports is that you don’t get a lot of second chances. When the time comes you really have to perform. During qualifications for example you just have to be spot on and really nail it. You have to be fully focused and go out and perform right away. There were a couple of moments this past year where I was leading the race and just felt glued to my seat. It is really fulfilling and, after cycling, I really needed something like that. I was on a bike for 23 years, 16 as a pro. And if I had nothing that thrilled me after my career, well, I would just have been unhappy.
A lot of bike riders get into running or triathlons, but how do you even get started in motorsports. I mean, it just seems so expensive and just breaking the surface into this world seems daunting?
Well, the thing is that I was already going to a lot of the races when I was still a cyclist, so a lot of the guys were friends of mine. They would come to the bike races and I would go to the car races, so there was a crossover. And really a lot of the drivers love cycling and do it for training, and a lot of cyclists love cars. Niki Terpstra for example races with his dad in his spare time. Anyway I was pretty involved in motorsports before I stopped cycling and I had some opportunities to get started. I got some chances because I was friends with a lot of guys. This is the first year that I am really on my own, with my own sponsors….
So you actually have to go out and get your own sponsors?
Yes, but that is the fairest thing really. I’ve done things in the past where the teams have sponsors and they contact you, but in the end there is always a little disappointment. This way, I make my own choices. I am with the team that I want to race with and our goal is to go to the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the future and I hope to be part of that.
That is your dream, to do Le Mans?
A dream, hmm? That is my objective. My dream is to be healthy and happy with my kids. But it is a big objective. Le Mans is just special. It is the biggest auto-sport event in the world. It is just something that has always triggered my imagination. There is just so much going on in a 24-hour race. There is so much tension and you really have to rely on your teammates and the mechanics, so a lot of things are out of your control. There is so much drama.
How many times have you watched Steve McQueen’s “Le Mans” movie?
Only once, really. But I am eager to watch the new “Ford v Ferrari” movie! I know my auto-racing history pretty well, but I am not the guy who watches all of the movies.
It has been really interesting spending the day with you and watching you prepare for a race. It is very different from the days when you were racing bikes. There is a lot more waiting around and a lot more prep time it seems. The actual driving time is relatively short. You are not out there training for six hours and you are certainly not out there racing for six hours, as you were in cycling. It is a very different game, right?
Yeah, it is a completely different approach and in the first few months, the first year and a half, I would say I really had to adapt to this environment. There is a lot of preparation going on before—getting the car ready, preparing myself physically and mentally. You are not actually in the car that much. I have a simulator at home, but actual time in the car is comparatively little to cycling. If I end up being in the car for one hour today, that is a lot. And it is a new track for me. In addition there is rain mixed with sun today, so the conditions are really tricky.
It is interesting because the actual event may not be as physically demanding as a cycling race, but you obviously need to be in really good shape. I know you are working out a lot, but just how important is your physical condition behind the wheel?
Well, it depends which car. The car we are driving here is a pretty physical car and it can really break you.
How is one car more physical then another?
Well, this car is really open and pulls a lot of G-Force. The car is only 620 kilograms when it is full of fuel, so it is a super-light car. You are pulling like 3.3 Gs and there is no power steering, so all of the force is in your hands and wrists and arms. In a race like today that is only an hour long it is not a real problem, but in a 24-hour race where you are on a team with three guys, well you finish pretty destroyed.
As destroyed as after Paris–Roubaix?
Actually, yeah. It is completely different. In the driver’s seat, you may have a harness on, but you are always completely full of tension. Everything comes out of the stomach, abs, back, shoulders and neck. And with all of the force and vibration and of the concentration needed, well, you are pretty wasted the day after a race. You feel it.
How do you actually train physically for racecar driving?
Well, when I stopped cycling I was really lean, especially my upper body, like any professional rider. And the first time you get into a racecar, your neck, your arms, your shoulders are just destroyed after an hour. So I did a lot of work on that. But really, today, I train everything—legs, upper body, neck, chest, lower back, arms, you name it. I spend a lot of the time in the gym but then I go running or ride my bike for fitness. I ride a lot with my brother. I also really love mountain biking and I am planning on doing the Cape Epic in 2021. It would be a great physical achievement to get into that kind of shape again!
What did your cycling career give you as a racecar driver?
Firstly, the resistance and the physical stamina you need…and then adapting to misfortune. When you race 80 to 90 races a year there is always going to be some bad luck. And in car racing there is a lot. I won a few races [in 2019] but also had a lot of bad luck. Like when I was leading in a 24-hour race and then just losing a four-lap lead in the final four hours of the race when my car caught on fire. It was, well, terrifying! The engine broke down, some oil leaked and then the turbo just lit it on fire in like three seconds. And then there is the concentration level that you need, because in bike racing or in car racing nothing ever goes exactly as planned. You have to deal with mishaps all of the time. At the start of the 24-hour race we had an electrical problem and were like 10 laps behind after three hours. But then after 20 hours we were four laps ahead. All through the night it was just Sam Dejonghe, my teammate, and I getting in and out of the car. I can’t remember anything from that night. I was just so into the zone the whole night. And then at noon the car just died on us. The world just collapsed under our feet.
What is the hardest thing about racecar driving?
Being in a super-light car with your head free with no protection or anything and going through a corner at 250 kilometers an hour just hoping that down-force really exists!
How far do you think you can go in your new sport?
You know, it’s not really about success or defeat. It is about the shit you get through together and the stories you can tell. That’s probably the biggest comparison I can make with this sport to cycling. It’s the stories you can tell at night after a hard race, when you are sitting there with your teammates and everybody has their own story. Everybody has hard times and sharing those stories with one another, it’s humanity at its purest. It’s just something I love!
Looking back on one of the most amazing careers in modern cycling what is it that stands out the most today. Is it the victories? Is it the defeats? Or is it the stories or something else?
Well, there is a lot. My defeat with Mathew Hayman in [the 2016] Paris–Roubaix I will never forget. That said, it was not something that really bothered me. Of course I was disappointed but I had come back from a skull fracture only six months before and what I really remember was how much fun it was. Everybody in that front group was just laying it on the table that day. There was no waiting around. I didn’t win it but it was one of the funnest races I ever did. But the wins were nice too. That 2012 Roubaix when I went away from so far out was just insane. I was just in this tunnel vision [for 53 kilometers] and didn’t make any mistakes. And then there was my last world championships [in 2016], when I finished on the podium in Doha. Okay, I didn’t win but I was at the level where, under the right circumstances, I could win. And to be at that level at the end of my career was really great. And then there was my last Tour of Flanders. I had really great legs all day and I was in really perfect position because we had Philippe Gilbert up the road and all I had to do was follow wheels. We were in the last 25 kilometers and I just felt great. But then my chain got stuck and it was all over. But I still had a lot of fun that day!