Hounded by a glory-starved media in his native Belgium, cycling star Tom Boonen delivered in style in Paris-Roubaix on Sunday by claiming what is arguably sport's most celebrated chunk of granite.
The cobblestone trophy given to winners of the world's toughest one-day bike race might not be much to look at. But for cycling fans and Belgians in particular, the prize for winning the 259.5km classic riddled with 28 treacherous cobblestone sectors has a value all of its own.
Boonen has not won one of cycling's big one-dayers since the last of his two Tour of Flanders victories in 2006, leaving many wondering whether the golden boy of Belgian cycling had lost his hunger to win. On Sunday, Boonen produced a ride of monumental proportions to show that those fears were unfounded.
"I'm always motivated for the big classics, especially for the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix - my two favourites," said Boonen, who left Fabian Cancellara and Alessandro Ballan trailing after launching a stunning late sprint on the Roubaix velodrome.
"When I don't win, people always say I'm losing my form. But I've done everything I can to try and win the big classics this season, Milan-Sanremo, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix."
For Boonen a significant weight has been removed - especially given the tons of ink used by the Belgian press speculating on both his personal and professional life.
A highly-publicised split from long-time girlfriend Lore, coupled with a back injury which he said drained his motivation to train, left him in limbo late last season despite having won the Tour de France's points competition, whose prize is the coveted green jersey. For Belgium, his lack of victories in the one-day classics since 2006 was simply more worrying, especially when he was upstaged by Quick Step teammate Stijn Devolder in the Tour of Flanders last Sunday.
Boonen has since rekindled his relationship with his long-time love. And although some suggest that could be his real motor this season, Boonen said his focus has always been intact.
"The pressure surrounding me lately hasn't really been extra motivation for me, even though it's nice to win when the pressure is on you," he added. "More than anything, victory here comes down to a lot of hard work and training. For the past three months I've thought of nothing else but this race, how I can ride it, what the scenarios could be.
"Now, I can sit back and let everything that's built up in my head over the past while just disappear. And that makes me happy."
Boonen's first victory here in 2005, only a week after the first of two victories at the Tour of Flanders, preceded his 2005 world title win in Madrid.
In 2006 he only missed out on a second consecutive Roubaix win after Cancellara proved too strong in a late attack. Cancellara did well to finish second this time after finding himself in the unenviable position of having to outsprint Boonen.
Boonen knows that every victory has its own significance, but ending a two-year wait to quieten his detractors is perhaps the win he will savour most.
"The reason why I exploded with even more joy than I did in 2005 is probably because I haven't won a race as big as this since 2006."
© AFP 2008