PIC BY TDWSPORT.COM
He's young, he's good looking, he's charming, presents himself well in the media, has a formidable ability to deliver one liners - AND - he's a cycling superstar. To a Belgian you can't get much higher in the sporting pantheon, writes Susanne Horsdal.
Subsequently, Tom Boonen has been named everything from 'king' to 'emperor' to 'God' following his fantastic double in the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, and if he showed up in a sari tomorrow it would probably just be considered a strong fashion statement from a gutsy young man.
For the past week the media attention on the 24 year old has been extensive to say the least. Practically every stone in his life has been turned and everyone even remotely acquainted to him has been interviewed. Yet he's managed to keep both feet on the ground, dismissing his stardom as media-hype.
"I'm not God, I'm not the new Eddy Merckx, I'm not the new Museeuw. Please, just let me be myself," as he put it in a press conference on Tuesday in which he also found the hysteria surrounding him a bit ridiculous. Asked if it bothered him he answered: "Nobody deserves four pages about themselves in a paper. Haven't you guys got something better to do?"
But like it or not, in Belgium the youngster from the town of Balen, about 40 kilometres outside Antwerp, is a hero, and on Wednesday his local fans finally got a chance to meet him at the Scheldeprijs raced in and around Antwerp - or rather, to get a glimpse of him. When you've reached Boonen's popularity level you need protection, and at the Scheldeprijs start the whole Quick Step team - bus, team cars and riders included - was sealed off by barriers in Lance Armstrong style.
Just a year ago, it was his Boonen's 'teacher', Johan Museeuw, then about to ride the last race of his career, who everyone was waiting for in Antwerp's Grote Markt. This year, hardly anyone bothered to ask for Museeuw's autograph despite him being around the team. All eyes were on Tom Boonen.
At the finish in the Antwerp surburb of Schoten, the picture was the same as at the start: Boonen on T-shirts, Boonen on banners, Boonen on posters. When the winner Thorwald Veneberg crossed the finish line he received polite applause, when Boonen crossed in fourth place it was accompanied by a roar from thousands of fans who had endured the rain and the cool winds for hours.
As usual, the Quick Step star was immediately swamped by the media, but this time they only got a few words: "After 50 kilometres I felt Paris-Roubaix in the legs. My whole body began to ache," admitted Boonen, who had finally run out of steam. Superstar or not, it's a fact that you don't become the David Beckham of Belgium without working for it.
For Boonen it's finally time for a break -not just from racing, but also from the centre of attention in this cycling-crazy country.